Today, over 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. As a community, Beta Israel (House of Israel) has been often overlooked and misunderstood. The Jews (and non-Jews) living in the Diaspora know extraordinarily little about the dynamic traditions and history of these Jews. This lack of awareness is slowly changing, arguably due to the greater exposure of the unique Ethiopian Jewish holiday called Sigd.
In 2008, the Knesset declared Sigd a national holiday in Israel. Over the years, many Israelis have started to embrace and join in its celebration; a holiday observed exclusively by the Ethiopian Jewish community for thousands of years. Deputy Public Security Minister Gadi Yevarkan recently encouraged all Jews to celebrate Sigd. “The chief rabbis and anyone who deals with the issue of Israeli and historical Jewish identity should understand that this holiday is a holiday of the people of Israel,” he said.
Derived from the Hebrew word for prostration, “sigda,” the holiday takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur, which is the 29th of the Jewish month of Cheshvan. The holiday recognizes the Jewish covenant with G-d created on receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai and the Torah’s reacceptance upon returning to Judah from exile in 538 B.C.E led by Ezra the Scribe before the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Ethiopian Jewry’s origins are somewhat obscure. Historians speculate that a community of Jews forcibly emigrated from ancient Israel between the 1st and 6th centuries and settled in what is known today as Ethiopia. For thousands of years, Ethiopian Jews prayed to return to the Land of Israel, with especial focus during the holiday of Sigd. During the 19th and 20th centuries, while many Ethiopian Jews forcibly converted to Christianity, many of them secretly continued to observe Jewish traditions and holidays and adhere to their Jewish faith.
The importance of educating people about the rich history of the Ethiopian Jewish community cannot be overstated, especially in the context of diversity among Jews and the definite need for greater societal unity. Naftali Aklum, an Ethiopian Jew, made Aliyah on his mother’s back when he was six months old. His family was one of the first to escape Ethiopia via Sudan in 1984. He uses his voice and compelling story to educate people about the Ethiopian Jewish community.
During a November 13, 2020 webinar co-sponsored by the Atlanta Israel Coalition and Herut North America, Aklum gave a brief history of Ethiopia’s Jews. Central to his story was Aklum’s rivetting description of his family’s – and thousands of others harrowing journey by foot to flee a famine ridden and politically dangerous Ethiopia through Sudan to Israel.
Many of these stories are depicted in the 2019 action movie “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” for which Aklum was a consultant. The film recounts the origins of “Operation Moses,” the mission to rescue Ethiopian Jews.
“Operation Moses” was a seven-week clandestine mission that began on November 21, 1984, where the Israeli Special Forces, the CIA, and the United States Embassy in Khartoum worked together with Sudanese State officials to bring more than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Tragically, more than 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died from dehydration, starvation, or brutal attacks from militia during the arduous and risky journey from Ethiopia to Sudan. Aklum’s grandfather was among them.
For this reason and others, Operation Moses was personal to Aklum: His older brother, Ferede Yazezow Aklum z”l, one of the first people to make the journey, went back and forth dozens of times, risking his life on rescue missions. “The Red Sea Diving Resort” can be found on Netflix.
Aklum then described some of the fascinating traditions that Ethiopian Jews observed during Sigd when they lived in Ethiopia. Dressed in white, the community followed their spiritual leaders, called kesim, carrying the Torah up a high mountain where they faced Jerusalem, beseeching God to bring them back to Zion. In Ethiopia, the day was not joyous or happy but was commemorated by fasting and studying Torah.
Their prayers answered, Sigd is now a joyous holiday. Aklum waxes poetic in describing the celebrations and what they mean to Ethiopian Jews.
“If you are a spiritual person, you will feel you are close to heaven,” he says.
The kesim stand on the stage with their multi-colored umbrellas and sing the songs-of-old in their ancient liturgical language Ge-ez, which, he says, is very similar to the language Jews spoke during the First Temple era. Only the kesim use that language. Their songs and prayers are accompanied by drums’ beating, with the magnificent Jerusalem hills as background. All the children, men, and women are dressed in white while holding colorful umbrellas.
Traditionally, umbrellas heralded the arrival of people of import, such as the kesim.
Aklum credits their spiritual leaders for their community’s continuous adherence to their Jewish traditions. “They are why we kept Judaism for 2500 years in the Diaspora. The kesim conducted the brit milahs, funerals, taught Torah. When Christianity came to Ethiopia, we didn’t convert because of them.” Interestingly, the Beta Yisroel adhere strictly to the written Torah; traditionally, they never accepted the oral law, a compilation of the Mishnah and Talmud.
The holiday is not only an expression of gratitude to God for fulfilling their 2500-year dream of returning to Zion but one of prayer to bring peace to a fractured Israeli society.
“Within Israel, we have many societal problems. New immigrants against old immigrants, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Black, and White. We ask G-d to bring peace to its people. There is strength in unity. Surrounded by enemies, if we can’t unite, how can we be strong?”
He believes that what hinders unity from being achieved is ignorance of one another’s customs and traditions, which each group brings to the Jewish State. Ignorance, he says, breeds prejudice. “We just don’t know one another well enough.”
Yaklum admits that Ethiopian Jewry’s integration into Israeli society was extremely challenging, coming as they did from a third world country. The government did what it could to help. Still, despite providing a house in which to live, many remained unemployed. Furthermore, their neighbourhoods and schools were exclusively Ethiopian. Separated from the general population, racism loomed large. “It’s not easy being a black man in a country where most people are white,” he says.
Subsequently, many Beta Yisroel succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction, as well as violence and crime.
Yaklum experienced a personal epiphany when he returned to the Ethiopian village where his family lived a few years back.
“I saw a beautiful country and community. I experienced the conditions in which my parents and family lived and maintained their Jewish way of life. I returned a proud black man.”
He found this new-found pride empowering. “I’m Jewish, I’m Israeli, and I’m a black man. When you take all those identities within you and create a strong identity, you know you’re worth something, and then people will see you the way you see yourself.”
Today, conditions are different. Even though racism, discrimination, and police brutality exist and must be addressed, these issues are not systemic. The government of Israel does everything it can to support the Ethiopian community and help them advance. It provides them with a free university education, which has enabled many Beta Yisroel to pull themselves out of poverty and integrate more fully into Israeli society, especially women.
“Young people in our community need hope. Now they know that if they are prepared to work hard to educate themselves, there will be people along the way to help them succeed.”
(Lisa Koenig is the East Coast Director of Herut North America’s U.S. division. Herut’s website is herutna.org/)