Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd gets a boost in the US with picture books and new resources

Israeli women from the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday during a celebration in Jerusalem, Nov. 27, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images)

by Philissa Cramer

(JTA) — Synagogues and Hebrew schools in the United States looking to help their communities celebrate Sigd, an Ethiopian Jewish holiday, have gotten a helping hand this year, thanks to Sigal Kanotopsky.

Kanotopsky is the first Ethiopian Jew to hold a regional leadership position at the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nonprofit agency associated with the Israeli government that promotes immigration to Israel. Now overseeing the agency’s operations in the northeastern United States, she was 7 when her family arrived in Israel in 1983, part of a wave of Ethiopian immigrants who had made their wave largely by foot, through Sudan and countless hardships.

The wave of Ethiopian immigration brought — Sigd, which takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur and celebrates yearning for Israel — to the Jewish state. (This year, the one day festival begins Tuesday night.) Advocacy from within the community led to Israel adopting Sigd as a national holiday in 2008. But it remained largely under the radar in other countries — and even to many in Israel — until the last few years, amid a growing appreciation for Jewish diversity.

“In a year that saw renewed and widespread understanding of the importance of the Movement for Black Lives, celebrating Sigd provides American Jews with a unique opportunity to activate our sense of the racial diversity of the Jewish community,” Ruth Abusch-Magder and Beza Abebe wrote in 2020 on Kveller. “By celebrating Sigd here in the U.S., we send a powerful message that we are all part of the global Jewish peoplehood.”

Last year, PJ Library sent “Pumpkin Pie for Sigd,” a picture book about an American in Israel finding comfort during Thanksgiving by joining her friend’s Sigd celebration, to thousands of American Jewish families. And now, under Kanotopsky’s leadership, the Jewish Agency has released what it is calling “Sigd in a Box,” a collection of digital resources that communities can use to teach about Ethiopian Jewish music, food and customs.

“By accessing Sigd-in-a-Box, Jewish communities across the globe can grow closer — first learning about one another’s unique customs and cultures, and then even serving as de facto ambassadors for Sigd,” Kanotopsky, who has been based outside Philadelphia since last year, said in a statement. She is visiting a handful of communities in person to share Sigd traditions.

The growing recognition of Sigd among non-Ethiopian Jews has generated complicated reactions for some. “It is a strange feeling to see all the many invitations and publications about Sigd celebrations on social media,” wrote Shula Mola, an Ethiopian-Israeli scholar spending the year in the United States, in a Jewish Telegraphic Agency op-ed last year. She recounted how she had been ambivalent about Sigd’s embrace in Israel, remembering the pressure she felt to be an ambassador of a culture that many Israelis long seemed unwilling to learn about and knowing that many Ethiopian Jews there continue to feel marginalized.

This year, Israel’s population of Ethiopian immigrants has grown. In the latest development in a painful and protracted immigration saga, hundreds of Falash Mura — descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity about 200 years ago and who are relatives of the Beta Israel Jews who were airlifted to Israel in 1991 — were permitted to move to Israel over the summer. But an estimated 10,000 remain in Ethiopia, and the Jewish Agency has been working with the Israeli government to bring more of them to Israel.

“Sigd is a wonderful opportunity for our global Jewish community to become closer as we celebrate this moving day of communal reflection,” said the agency’s chairman, Doron Almog, in a statement about the new Sigd resources. “It’s a time for us to learn more about the rich Ethiopian Jewish culture and also honor the difficult journey many made — and many who are still waiting to make – to Jerusalem.”

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