Montreal’s Jewish and African communities came together recently to learn about a 2,500-year-old holiday that’s celebrated by the ancient Jews of Ethiopia.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and the Réseau des entrepreneurs et professionels africains (REPAF), a non-profit association of professionals and businesspeople of African origin, along with members of Montreal’s small Ethiopian-Jewish community, hosted a celebration of the holiday known as Sigd, at the Segal Centre on Nov. 27.
Sigd, which is observed on Heshvan 29, historically reaffirmed the Ethiopian Jews’ wish to return to Jerusalem through prayer and fasting. Since 2008, Sigd has been a national holiday in Israel.
The Segal’s lounge was filled with traditional Ethiopian-Jewish crafts, costumes and music, and a video of Ethiopian-Jewish life in Israel was screened.
The highlight was tasting the cuisine. On offer were an array of vegan, often spicy, dishes served with traditional rolled pancakes made from fermented teff, an ancient grain that is a staple in Ethiopia.
The dishes had intriguing names like kik alicha, a concoction of split yellow peas, and selit fitfit, which is sesame-based.
The meal was topped off with coffee, prepared ceremoniously by toasting the beans over a burner before they are ground and brewed.
Acting as an “ambassador” between the communities was Yaffa Tegegne, whose late Ethiopian father, Baruch Tegegne, was a pioneering activist for his people’s aliyah, and whose mother is a Montreal-born Ashkenazic Jew.
Although numbering only about 25 families today, Tegegne described Montreal’s as “the only organic Ethiopian-Jewish community outside Israel,” one that is eager to share its culture with all Montrealers.
The community, which mainly arrived in the 1980s and ’90s, has dwindled, she said. Those who left commonly went to Israel.
The Beta Israel, she explained, believe they are the descendants of a son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The religion they practised for centuries was based on the Hebrew Bible.
They lived in isolation from the mostly Christian Ethiopian population, having fled to the mountains to escape persecution, she continued. They had no contact with the outside world until the late 1800s.
“They believed they were the last Jews on earth. When my father first met a (Jew from elsewhere), he could not believe a Jew could be white,” Tegegne said.
In Ethiopia, Sigd was a big event commemorating the receiving of the Torah and reaffirming the longing for Zion, she continued.
She spoke of the rescue operations carried out in 1984 and 1991 by the Mossad. Those not included in the airlifts made their way on foot to Sudan, and an estimated 4,000 died on the journey.
Her father, who died in 2010, took great personal risk covertly escorting the Ethiopians out of refugee camps to Israel.
Today, over 120,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. This year, thousands of Israelis of all backgrounds joined in Sigd celebrations, she noted.
Tegegne later told The CJN that Ethiopian Jews in Montreal, especially the second generation, are doing well economically and are integrated into the broader Jewish community, while maintaining connections with the African community.
“They face the same challenges as any immigrants, but that said, they have had the advantage of the support of the Jewish community and its institutions. Their economic success and social mobility is better than the Ethiopian Jews in Israel,” said Tegegne, who was born in Montreal and works as a lawyer.
The Ethiopians are engaged in informal Jewish life and the younger ones have mostly gone to Jewish schools and camps, she said, while also networking with other communities with which they share an identity.
Also speaking were CIJA Quebec chair Brenda Gewurz and REPAF president Lassana Mané, who expressed a wish for future collaboration.
Gewurz and her husband, Samuel, are the principal sponsors of the International Centre for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry, which was inaugurated in January at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, Israel.
Tegegne is pleased that Federation CJA and CIJA showed so much interest in Sigd this year. In addition to this private event, a similar community-wide celebration of the holiday was held at the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA on Dec. 1.