Exotic Familiarity - Celebrating Ethiopian Sigd

By: Jay Rosen, Guest Blogger, Hyphenat.ed

I've been trying to understand my affinity, if not addiction, to all things Ethiopian. It started when my parents took me to my first Ethiopian restaurant as a kid growing up in Washington, DC, home to the largest community outside of Ethiopia itself. Years later it would be supplemented by voraciously reading historical and anthropological accounts of millennia-old Ethiopian culture, its own form of Christianity, and its closeness in ritual to Judaism; and eventually the music, whose melodies sound faintly Middle Eastern and whose beat, in the words of a music critic, is like rhythm derived from throwing a chair down a flight of stairs.

 Photo: Hannah Morrow

Photo: Hannah Morrow

Perhaps, my affinity stems from the fact that Ethiopian culture is at once familiar and completely different, unique enough for discovery yet still connecting to something not entirely foreign in origin.

Last Friday, The Habima National Theater in Tel Aviv played host to a day-long celebration of Ethiopian Jewish identity, in honor of the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd -- a huge boon in public relations for a community that continues to face challenges in socio-economic integration. Thousands of participants, Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian alike, crowded in line for a taste of indigenous cuisine; danced along to dance troupes, musicians, and DJ's; and took part in a celebration that blurred differences in color from its onset. The major musical performances were an exercise in creating an Israeli society melting pot: Renowned saxophonist Abate Berihun, along with his Ashkenazi colleagues signing along in Hebrew and Amharic, brought the audience to their feet with the jazz-fusion Shabate; and emerging pop musician Ester Rada played to a packed audience of Israelis of all backgrounds, crooning everything from Nina Simone covers to her own Ethio-jazz hit single "Life Happens." 

True, I derive pleasure from watching newbies of European background eat their shiro with injera, or try to clap along (if not dance) to Ethiopian music. That being said, connecting with Ethiopian Jewry on Sigd reminds me that to be a Jew both encapsulates so many different descriptors (religion, culture, history, etc.) and yet transcends them all, connecting us all despite/because of our differences in skin color and language and cooking spices. 

Hope to see you at next year's Sigd!

 Photo: Hannah Morrow

Photo: Hannah Morrow