Sigd is a festival of the Ethiopian Jewish Community, known as Beta Israel (House of Israel).  It occurs around this time and is considered an official religious holiday in Israel, where some 125,000 Ethiopian Jews now reside.  I went with some family to a commemoration of Sigd in a theater in Beer Sheva.

The word Sigd comes from the Ge’ez language spoken by Ethiopian Jews from the Gondar region of Ethiopia, but is also used in Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia (both these languages are Semitic languages and share common origins to Hebrew and Arabic).  It means “worship” or “prostration’ and is related to the Hebrew word for a mosque (masjid).

At the commemoration there were speeches in Hebrew and Amharic, then music, songs and dancing.  The Ethiopian women’s dancing was very impressive, They had almost unnatural energy and performed jerky movements that must have been excruciating, yet they continued this for a long time.

The festival itself derives from the Jewish commitment to the renewal of Judaism that took place when the leaders Nehemiah and Ezra returned from the Babylonian exile in 348 bce, and resurrected Judaism in the Holy Land and in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is the theme of the holiday and its name was mentioned many times in speech and song.

This community is very ancient, the Queen of Sheba mentioned in the Bible is supposed to have come from Ethiopia.  It was known that there was a Jewish Kingdom in Ethiopia, but it was eventually destroyed by the Christians there, and the Jews were both massacred and enslaved.  Many retreated to the mountains in remote regions, such as Gondar, and retained their Jewish religious practices there.

They were cut off from all contact with other Jews for many hundreds of years, and believed that they were the only surviving Jews.  They were rediscovered in the 19th century by Christian and Jewish travellers, and subsequently transferred to Israel in the 1950’s in an operation dubbed “magic carpet.” They came from a very impoverished culture, mostly subsistence farming, and most had never seen an airplane before.  To share this experience with them was a tremendous privilege.