Ethiopian Immigrants Create an Israeli Tradition Out of Africa

Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
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Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

Stands selling jewelry, embroidery and beer imported from Ethiopia lined the entrance to Tel Aviv’s Habima Theater on Friday, as people waited in line for about half an hour to buy the flat, lemony Ethiopian bread injera at the entrance to the Sigdiada, a festival celebrating the culture and folklore of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community.

Inside, the members of Almaz, a band that plays traditional Ethiopian music and says its future is endangered by funding problems, capered around the lobby. Onstage, reggae band Zvuloon Dub System and Ethiopian-Israeli singer Ester Rada performed, while Ethiopian-Israeli models wearing clothing inspired by traditional Ethiopian fashions strutted their stuff to audience applause.

About half the 3,000 people who attended the Sigdiada, named after the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd, which takes place November 2 and marks the yearning for Zion, did not appear to be of Ethiopian origin. This can be seen as an impressive indication of the strength of the Israeli Ethiopian community, or it may indicate that Israelis view the Ethiopians who live among them as a tribal band immersed in folklore and best represented by traditional foods, dances and jewelry. After all, the tribe to which Netanyahu, Barak and Olmert belong needs no necklaces or crafts to represent it. For the duration of the Sigdiada, racism and discrimination were set aside, as was the economic situation. It was an exciting event, and it’s important that it took place, but the Sigdiada was quite disconnected from the daily lives of Ethiopian Israelis.

Some things that were not onstage at the festival: the school in Beit Dagan that held a vote among parents over whether to accept children of Ethiopian background, with just three parents voting in favor; the Ethiopian-Israeli teenager who was hanging out with her friends at Gandhi Park in Lod last week, gripping an energy drink and telling me that at the ripe old age of 14 she was already “done with alcohol.”

The Sigdiada attendees weren’t bothered by the selective depiction of the Ethiopian community. “It’s a holiday, you don’t have to show the problems,” said Sivan from Holon. “Even if they were to hold an event for Polish people, they would have had food and dance,” said another woman.

There was some discussion of discrimination on the bottom floor, where “Gur Aryeh Yehuda,” a play by Sigdiada organizer Shay Pardo, was being performed. In the show, Pardo painfully relates his autobiography and recalls that coming to Israel from Ethiopia meant being given a track suit as well as a new name – Shay instead of Ashto. He tells of not being allowed into nightclubs and being called names on the street. One audience member shouted angrily, “This is a play by Habima?”

Pardo made no apologies for making traditional Ethiopian culture the focus of the festival. For 30 years, he said, Israelis’ association with the Ethiopian community has been “racism, misery and murder.”

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Dancing at the Sigdiada, a festival celebrating the culture and folklore of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community, in Tel Aviv.Credit: Nir Keidar
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Dancing at the Sigdiada, a festival celebrating the culture and folklore of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community.Credit: Nir Keidar
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Dancing at the Sigdiada, a festival celebrating the culture and folklore of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community. Credit: Nir Keidar

“They did some research once, and almost every mention of us in the papers was negative,” he said. “Even if it’s a fun subject, the writer will always find a mother of 10 needy children and ignore the good things. We came to Habima in the center of Tel Aviv, we were well received. For the most part, I’m being asked where this was until now.”

When I pointed out that his play does talk about discrimination, a topic that was absent from the festivities above, he said, “It’s always possible to say the opposite. Just look at the response there has been to the event.”

Year of Ethiopian celebs

The Sigdiada (one of whose more unlikely sponsors is Agmon, the association of retired Mossad employees) is part of an effort to turn Sigd into a national holiday, like the post-Passover Mimouna festival, which has its roots in Moroccan Jewry.

This has been a good year for the public face of the Ethiopian community, which is represented in the Knesset by two MKs (Shimon Solomon and Pnina Tamano-Shata, both of Yesh Atid) and can lay claim to Israel’s beauty queen, Yityish Aynaw, and the reality show winner Tahunia Rubel, a model who in August won on the latest season of “Big Brother.” Gili Yalo, the lead singer for Zevuloon Dub System, said excitedly onstage: “The Ethiopian community is blossoming. Now we even have celebs.”

“This is an exciting event,” said Yosef, a young attendee from Netanya, a city he described as “a mecca for Ethiopians.” For Yosef, discrimination was a joking matter. “The event was hindered by the rain,” he said. “It’s really racist against the Ethiopians.” Yosef said Almaz was the most authentic Ethiopian performance he saw at the festival.

With just a few days to go before the October 22 local elections, some politicians took part. Yesh Atid representatives who happened to be passing by left some blue balloons that the kids liked. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai had no reservations about jumping in and dancing with the girls from Almaz. “He wants another few votes before the election,” said one attendee.

The Tel Aviv municipality website and several news media reported that this was the first Sigdiada, but that’s not quite the case. It was the first one at Habima, but last year it took place in the Florentin neighborhood of south Tel Aviv. The street party, with the support of the cooperative vegan bar and restaurant Bar Kayma, drew about 1,000 people even though it was barely promoted.

Pardo plans to return to Habima, though, and stretch out the festival over several days. “Even Mimouna had to start somewhere,” he said. He was particularly excited by the long line for the spongy injera bread. “The line reminded me of experiences in Manhattan when they opened a new store,” he said. “This was an experience for the eyes.”

Dancing at the Sigdiada, a festival celebrating the culture and folklore of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community. Credit: Nir Keidar

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