Sigd and Ethiopian Jewry with Beejhy Barhany
A special interview with Harlem Chef Beejhy Barhany about the Ethiopian Jewish holiday.
This Wednesday, the 29th of Cheshvan, Ethiopian Jews all over the world - from Israel to Ethiopia to New York City - celebrated Sigd. To learn more about the holiday, and give you a break from my ramblings, I interviewed Beejhy Barhany, chef, activist, and proud Ethiopian Israeli Jew.
Beejhy Barhany is an entrepreneur and activist who was born in Ethiopia and made aliyah (immigration to Israel) with her family in 1983. After growing up in Israel, she moved to New York City, where she founded the Beta Israel of North America Cultural Foundation (BINA), a nonprofit that showcases the culture of Ethiopian Jews and all Jews of color. In 2014 as part of that initiative, she opened Tsion Café, a restaurant and artistic community space in Harlem that reflects the diverse flavors of her Jewish journey. But more on that later!
Can you share the story of how you immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia? How did you end up in NY?
I was born in the northern part of Ethiopia, in the Tigray Region. I made aliyah when I was 7. I come from an ancient Ethiopian Jewish community known as Beta Israel (The House of Israel), and we joined other Ethiopians at the time who wanted to fulfill a prophecy of returning to the Holy Land. The journey came from that yearning of returning Tzion (Zion or Jerusalem in Hebrew) that Jews all over had for thousands of years. If you know Jewish history, all the Jews throughout the diaspora wanted to be there among their brothers and sisters.
Then in Israel I lived all over, for some time on a kibbutz near Sderot, and I served in the army, but wanted to see the world. I went backpacking throughout Latin America and the U.S. About 20 years ago, I decided to relocate to New York, a diverse city where I could showcase my rich history and culture through food. That was when I opened Tsion Café.
Can you tell me about Sigd and how you celebrate it? What does it mean to you and your community?
It’s a Jewish Ethiopian holiday that comes from ancient Jewish tradition, dating back thousands of years. The first people that celebrated it were prophets in the Torah like Ezra and Nehemiah when they were exiled in Babylon, and the Beta Israeli celebrated it too when they were yearning for the return to Zion/Jerusalem.
It is always held seven weeks after Yom Kippur. It’s a unique day where for the first half of the day, people pray for forgiveness and go to highest mountain resembling Mount Sinai to pray and read from chapters of Exodus, Psalms, etc.
The second part of Sigd is where people come down from the mountain and rejoice with song and delicious food, honoring their commitments with Gd and giving thanks for whatever we have.
You may ask, “If it’s a holiday for returning, why are we still celebrating it when we made it to Jerusalem?” The reason is because we are waiting to rebuild the Third Temple. Once it’s there, we do not need to continue. Until then, Jews throughout the diaspora and the world should adopt this holiday. It’s a holiday of diversity and inclusion in the diaspora.
There is nothing like Sigd; it has a little bit of everything. It’s like a mini Yom Kippur because of fasting half the day, and then a mini Simchat Torah with the rejoicing.
A half-day fast sounds good to me! Once the fast is broken, are there any special foods eaten on Sigd?
Around midday, people descend the mountain and eat a lot of delicious food: dabo [Ethiopian honey bread], doro wat [chicken stew], vegetables, collard greens, and red lentils. They drink Tej [honey wine] and beer called talla.
Do Sigd celebrations differ by country?
In Ethiopia, they go to the highest mountain in the village. It’s such a special day that people from the north and south of Ethiopia meet and come together because it’s an ideal day to meet up and see people they haven’t seen in months. Sigd brings the community together, and at end of day we rejoice. Sometimes people will take a rock on their shoulder and carry it up the mountain. After they chant and pray, they let go of the rock, letting go of everything and becoming anew.
In Israel, people will come on bus to Jerusalem and celebrate together, with their Ethiopian rabbi praying and reading. After that, everyone goes home to celebrate, whereas back in Ethiopia, they’d go to synagogue where they’d have the festive meal.
Here in the U.S., people gather in a nice restaurant or home and have nice meal and talk. There’s no high mountain. In Harlem, there’s a little hill called Sugar Hill. Six years ago, I went there to resemble going to the mountain. We try to adjust here. There’s a synagogue in my neighborhood I sometimes attend.
What will you be doing for Sigd?
Sigd is about giving thanks. I celebrate with my family, give thanks for everything we have, and eat a delicious meal, make some bread and stews. We’re planning to have a celebration with the Ethiopian Jewish community in Harlem — there’s about 800 of us in NYC.
How do you preserve your traditions from back home (Ethiopia, Israel) here in Harlem?
I founded the Beta Israel of North America Cultural Foundation (BINA) to showcase and celebrate the rich history of Ethiopian Jewry, and to have better Jewish diversity as well. We host all kinds of events from film festivals to panel discussions to introduce the unique culture of Ethiopian Jewry. That’s when I opened the café to introduce the delicious food we have to offer. It’s also a way for me to introduce and celebrate my identity as black, Jewish, Israeli, and New Yorker. We also show the culture through music, art, poetry, and so forth all to nourish the body and soul.
How do you wish someone a Happy Sigd?
And lastly, because this is a Shabbat-themed newsletter, what are you doing this Shabbat?
I’m celebrating my family. We’re going to sit and have a nice dinner and connect.
If you’re ever in NYC, you must visit Tsion Café! I got the doro tibs, malawach - a fluffy Yemenite pancake filled with boiled egg and tomatoes - and halva. I definitely want to come back on a night there’s music. And who knows… maybe I’ll bring The Shabbat Drop into the real world, gather some Jews, have good food and conversation, and host it here. But you’ll have to stay tuned for that! Shabbat Shalom x
Additional links to learn more:
Chef Beejhy Barhany cooks up some Ethiopian Red Lentils Stew
EntwineNosh with Beejhy Barhany of Tsion Café
A Recipe for Sigd, an Ancient Holiday of Yearning
Sigd, the Pilgrimage Holiday of Ethiopian Jews
Last week’s q: Who/what are you grateful for in your Jewish life?
“I am grateful for my Uncle Chicky who takes time to teach me torah every Monday. I am grateful this provided us with a relationship that never would have happened without it.”
“I'm thankful in my Jewish life for the gift of endurance - whether it's keeping traditions alive for thousands of years or building a modern nation state in the face of impossible odds!”
In keeping with the theme of Ethiopian Jewishness, here are videos by some of the most popular Israeli artists right now.