Ethiopian Jews Celebrate Sigd in NYC

Bizu Riki Mullu sets up a table covered with jewelry in a corner of the social hall of the Town & Village Synagogue in on East 14th street in Manhattan. In the opposite corner coffee is roasting over an open flame. Behind the podium at the front of the room is a line of colorful, patterned umbrellas ringed with gold tassels.
Mullu and her organization, Chassida Shmella, are celebrating the Ethiopian-Jewish holiday of Sigd today for the sixth time in New York City. A small community of Ethiopian Jews, or Beta Israel, lives in New York and is trying to find its place in the city. The group struggles with funding and has a weak connection with the larger Jewish community in New York, but Sigd is an opportunity for them to celebrate and promote their unique African-Jewish culture.
The name of the organization highlights the community’s historical connection to Israel. Chassida and shmella are the words for stork in Hebrew and Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. The Jewish community used to see storks migrating over their villages in Northern Ethiopia, Mullu says.
“The Jewish community knew this bird came from Jerusalem and would sing “stork, stork, how is our beloved Jerusalem?” she said.
Jews have lived in Ethiopia for about 3,000 years. Their origins are unclear, but there is evidence of their long-standing presence in the country in Ethiopian society today, says Ephraim Isaac, an Ethiopian Jewish scholar and the director of the Institute of Semitic Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, a research institution that studies Semitic languages and cultures.“It’s not just a matter of references in Biblical texts,” Isaac said. “Ethiopian language, culture and tradition is imbued with a spirit of Judaism.” There is evidence of this ancient connection in the Amharic language, Isaac said.
“You’d be amazed how many Ethiopian words are from Hebrew,” he said. “They are part of the same family, like Spanish and Portuguese.” The Ethiopian Jewish community suffered persecution in Ethiopia and mostly lived in villages in the country’s mountainous north. The Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel recognized them as Jewish in 1973, allowing their immigration to Israel. Most were airlifted to Israel in a series of operations in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Immigration has continued until today by Ethiopian Jews and Ethiopians with Jewish ancestry who converted to Christianity, known as Falash Mura. Critics in the Israeli government opposed their immigration, saying they were not truly Jewish, but the government approved the immigration of 9,000 Falash Mura to Israel November 15th. They may be the last group of Ethiopians to immigrate to Israel.
There are now about 135,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. They have had some trouble assimilating into Israeli society, with studies showing they lag behind the general Jewish population in education, income and employment. Protests erupted this year after Israeli police were caught on camera beating an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier still in uniform.The community still strongly identifies with Israel, though. Shosh Pikado, who was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Israel, said Chassida Shmella’s Sigd celebration made her miss her home there.
“My home is in Israel, not here,” she said. Mullu was one of the first Ethiopians to reach Israel. She arrived as a child in 1978, leaving her family behind. She moved to New York in the early 1990s and established Chassida Shmella in 2004 to help promote the Ethiopian Jewish community in the city and build ties with the larger Jewish community. There are no official numbers, but Mullu estimates there are around 500 Ethiopian Jews in New York and between 1,000 and 1,500 in North America.
“It’s few in number but strong in spirit and commitment,” Isaac said. “What’s important is strength.”
Sigd is the community’s most important yearly event. The holiday takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur and signifies the Jewish community’s acceptance of the Torah. Sigd means “prostration,” and the day was recognized as a national holiday in Israel in 2008. The New York celebration included Ethiopian food, music and dance. Coffee was served from a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot called a jebena with a side of roasted barley and peanuts. It was Chassida Shmella’s sixth Sigd celebration in the city.
“It gets the community together. We don’t have time to meet and be with each other,” said Pikado, who now lives in Manhattan. “It was my first time, I came with the kids. I actually learned a lot,” said Tigist Naveh, who was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Israel. “And all the culture, Americans don’t know it so much.” Gail Brewer, the borough president of Manhattan, also came to the event.
“What we should work on for years to come is to get more
people educated about this holiday,” Brewer said. One of Chassida Shmella’s goals is building ties with the larger Jewish community in New York. The two groups are not well connected to each other, said Jonathan David, a member of the Town & Village Synagogue. “Not a lot of cultural exchange is going on,” David said. He was first introduced to Ethiopian Jewish culture at an event about seven years ago, he said. The conservative congregation is working to welcome minority Jewish groups in the city, including gay and lesbian Jews and converts to Judaism. “I didn’t know what to expect. I signed up to show support,” David said. “Everybody should have a place they’re welcome.” The ceremonies on Nov. 22 ended with a video sent to the New York community from Jerusalem by a kes, an Ethiopian Jewish religious leader. Usually, Chassida Shmella hosts officials from Israel for their Sigd celebration. “This year the community [itself is leading] the service due to budget problems,” Mullu said. “It’s tough for us as a small organization.” Mullu makes and sells jewelry inspired by her Ethiopian and Israeli background. She has also worked in the Jewish community throughout her life, and says the Jewish community in New York does not give enough funding or support to Ethiopian Jewish projects in the city. “They always have a reason not to fund us. I’m getting tired,” she said. “I used to think we’re all one family. Maybe we’re not.” Still, she considered the Sigd celebration a success and hopes to continue to host similar events. Next year marks the 25th anniversary of Operation Solomon, during which Israel airlifted 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the last major evacuation. Mullu is leading an 11 day trip to Northern Ethiopia in May to explore the area’s Jewish roots. “Everybody should come, enjoy. Everybody has beautiful customs so we should share and enjoy,” she said .

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Posted by on Dec 15 2015. Filed under Community News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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