On Mount Herzl is a memorial to the more than 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who died attempting to reach Israel. (photo by Deborah Rubin Fields)
The 29th of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan – this year, it fell on Nov. 30 – is a day of celebration for the Israeli Ethiopian community and a national Israeli holiday. Late in the afternoon, thousands of people gather in Talpiot (southern Jerusalem) on the Haas Promenade for Sigd, the day marking the acceptance of the Torah, and celebrating their history and culture.
Despite the enormous loss of life and the discrimination faced by Israelis of Ethiopian descent, Sigd still is, in part, a prayer to make it possible to reach Israel. The Knesset legislated the Sigd Law in 2008, which made 29 Cheshvan a national holiday. The Knesset also legislated 28 Iyar (the Hebrew month that falls roughly in May) as the memorial day for community members who died making the journey to Israel. And, the year prior, in 2007, the Israeli Ministry of Immigration and Absorption in cooperation with the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli Defence Ministry unveiled a memorial to the more than 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who died attempting to reach Israel. Located on Mount Herzl, this stirring monument gives official recognition to the community’s largely unknown suffering. Until it was commemorated, the only existing monument stood in southern Jerusalem, at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel.
Starting at the end of 1979 and continuing for some four years, the Ethiopian Jewish community uprooted itself en masse to fulfil its dream of coming to Israel. It was both a physically exhausting and mentally terrifying journey. In Ethiopia’s forests and Sudan’s deserts, thousands were robbed, beaten, raped and even murdered. If there are graves for the fallen, they are far away from Eretz Yisrael.
The Mount Herzl memorial reminds visitors not just of the Ethiopian villages, but of an entire life left behind. Explanations are mounted in Amharic, Hebrew and English. In Hebrew, eight panels dramatically narrate 1) the exodus from Ethiopia from a boy’s perspective, 2) the events along the way, as explained by the group’s head, 3) life in Sudanese refugee camps, from a mother’s recollections, and 4) the actual departure for Israel, as related by the kes, or religious head of the community.
To learn more about Ethiopian Jews’ journey to reach Israel, Baruch’s Odyssey: An Ethiopian Jew’s Struggle to Save His People by Baruch Tegegne, as told to Phyllis Schwartzman Pinchuk, and the children’s book The Storyteller’s Beads by Jane Kurtz are recommended reads. As for movies, there are Mekonen: The Journey of an African Jew, directed by Rivka Shore; Live and Become, directed by Radu Mihaileanu; Zrubavel, directed by Shmuel Beru; and Yiftach’s Daughter, directed by Einat Kapach.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.