Umbrellas in the Jerusalem sun for the Ethiopian festival of Sigd

Our correspondent joined a South Semitic festival based on a yearning for Jerusalem — now held in that very city


There are umbrellas everywhere, and not even a drop of drizzle. It can only mean one thing: it’s end-of-the-rainbow day.

It comes one a year, 50 days after Yom Kippur, and its real name is Sigd, or “prostration” in Ge’ez, the ancient South Semitic language.

This is the day when Israel’s Ethiopian minority, often pushed to the sidelines, takes centre stage. Thousands descend on the Haas Promenade, a scenic walkway overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, to watch their leaders perform a service that moves many to tears.

This service, mostly in Ge’ez with translation into Amharic, has been taking place for generations. Ethiopian Jews would go to a high mountain near Gonder in the north of the country, and pray that their religious commitment would merit them to return to Jerusalem.

And now here they are, thousand upon thousand, old and young, conducing the same ceremony in Jerusalem. They reached the end of their rainbow.

There is a festive atmosphere at the central Jerusalem celebration, despite the long drawn-out nature of the event. People gather in the morning, some fasting if they are strict about Sigd rules, but wait until long past lunchtime until the religious leaders — kesim — take the stage for the readings, and then break bread signalling that the fast is over.

The event requires patience, but nothing like the patience it took in Ethiopia. There, people would have walked for up to five days to reach the ceremony. The coloured umbrellas which dominate the scene — today ornamental — used to be a key source of shade.

The kesim — elderly men — read prayers and special texts that get to the heart of what Sigd is all about. It is a recommitment of religious faith. The central text is a rendering of an episode from the Biblical Book of Nehemiah. The Israelites recommitted themselves to the Torah in the fifth century BCE, upon their return to Jerusalem after the First Exile.

The identity of Ethiopian Jews and their descendants in Israel today is far from simple. In July there were nationwide protests after a young Ethiopian man, 18-year-old Solomon Teka, was shot dead by police. Protesters claimed that Ethiopians are subject to aggressive over-policing, and many now say they feel vindicated following recent media reports saying that the policeman who shot will be charged with negligent homicide.

There are disproportionally high poverty rates in the Ethiopian community — known as Beta Israel — and lots of claims of discrimination.

The attention that the community receives on Sigd, with many politicians heading to the celebration and coverage across the domestic press, does not solve any of these issues. But is is welcomed as a sign that Ethiopian culture is becoming more part of the national conversation.

A decade ago, the Knesset passed a law making Sigd a national holiday, which means that people who mark the day can insist in a day off work or school — and then-President Shimon Peres honoured the new legislation by hosting a big reception for community leaders.

Ever since, politicians have followed Mr Peres’ lead by showing up in larger numbers, and discussing the day in statements and social media posts.

“I welcome the transformation of the Sigd holiday into a state holiday that marks the strong and long-standing relationship of the Beta Israel community to the God of Israel and Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people,” Culture Minister Miri Regev said just before this year’s celebration.

“We have been privileged to receive from the Ethiopian community a glorious tradition and heritage, which we embrace for all Israel.”

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