Sigd: A Unique Ethiopian Jewish Celebration

Musician Avi Wogderas Wassa

This week the Ethiopian Jewish community will begin its celebration of Sigd, an ancient holiday which is formally observed 50 days after Yom Kippur. Since 2008, Sigd has been recognized in Israel as a national holiday. Ethiopian Israelis today use the holiday to celebrate the history and culture of the Beta Yisrael. Shai Firdu is an Ethiopian Israeli who came up with an initiative called Sigdiyada. He explains that he seeks to educate non-Ethiopian Israelis about Sigd, the history of Ethiopian Israelis, and their beautiful culture as a counter to the racism that comes from ignorance. Musician Avi Wogderas Wassa will be headlining the festival and we caught up with him to learn more.

Team Be’chol Lashon: Most Americans do not know much about Sigd. 

Wogderas Wassa: Sigd comes from the word Sigda, to pray to G-d to prostrate oneself. To celebrate Sigd In Ethiopia, Jews would walk for days to go to a high mountain where they could pray in the direction of Israel, towards Jerusalem. They would fast for the first part of the day, and go to the top of the mountain and pray. The kessim (the rabbis) would bless and then they would come down and eat a seudah (a feast) together. The whole community would come together like brothers and sisters. It was our hope to return to Jerusalem.

BL: Now that you live in Israel, what does Sigd mean to you?

Wogderas Wassa: Sigd for me is a day to stop and it is a dream that has come true. The ancestors prayed for generations for our return to Jerusalem and we have fulfilled this dream. For me, it is like our Yom Ha’atzmaut, our independence day. It is our day to celebrate our return to our own free country. And also like at Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) when we go from sadness to happiness because memorial day precedes Yom Ha’atzmaut, at Sigd we need to stop and recall all those who were lost along the way to get to Israel, to remember all the difficulties and then we need to celebrate because we have reached this place. Our ancestors prayed for this for 2,500 years.

BL: In addition to the celebration of Sigd on the 29th of Cheshvan, which this year is on the 27th of November in Jerusalem, there are Sigd celebrations throughout the month all around Israel. The largest is Sigdiyadah a festival in Tel Aviv. Tell us about this:

Wogderas Wassa: It is a big celebration. There will be Ethiopian food and art. There are displays of history and lots of storytelling. Our children who were born in Israel don’t remember coming here. It is a good chance for them to learn. There will be Ethiopians and lots of non-Ethiopian Israelis too. This is for everyone.

BL: President Reuven Rivlin be attending Sigdiyadah and you will be headlining. Wogderas Wassa: Yes, I will be on the main stage with my band Hewan which means “new beginnings.” I am just putting together my first album. I sing in Amharic and I write music. Here in Israel, we are an ingathering of the exiles. There are people here from Yemen, from Russia, from the whole world. I want everyone to see Ethiopian culture and the beauty of this music. I believe that we will connect through this music. We are one people, one tribe. It should just be love. I am looking forward to bringing this music to audiences in the United States and Europe too.

BL: But you have been performing for many years already

Wogderas Wassa: Yes, I grew up in a house where there was always music and it was joyful. I started performing when I was 13 years old, doing weddings and community events. After high school, I went to the army and after the army, I began performing with the Idan Raichel Project.

A few years ago, Idan Raichel and I were invited by Barak Obama to Washington DC for MLK day. I performed with Stevie Wonder and it was so meaningful. I was crying. I never have imagined that I would get to honor the memory of such a great man. I believe that G-d decides these things for us. You have to work hard every day but G-d directs us from above.

BL: You were born in Addis Ababa. How did you get to Israel?

Wogderas Wassa: (laughing) I came the normal way, by plane with my grandmother when I was 7 years old. Ten years later my mother and my sister joined us.

BL: Do you face discrimination in Israel because of your race?

Wogderas Wassa: Only G-d is 100% perfect. Even if I was a school teacher and my students got every answer right, I would give 99%. People are not perfect and we to help each other. We need to stop and notice the people around us. We need to appreciate our family, our friends, and our community. If we do that, it will be the time of the Messiah. I was raised to respect my elders, my parents, and my neighbors, no matter what country they come from, no matter what religion they are—Muslim or Christian. We need to honor and respect people. Only love and peace win.

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