For a few hours yesterday I was in Africa, right here in Jerusalem. Seeg’d – the annual holy day of the Ethiopian Jewish Community was celebrated on Wed. Nov 14, the last day of the month of Heshvan, on the Jerusalem Promenade, overlooking the Temple Mount. Seeg’d, which means ‘day of worship and prostration’, marks this community’s version of the historical date on which Ezra and Nehemiah, some 2,500 years ago, gathered the people in Jerusalem for the first public chanting of the Torah. In Ethiopia, the community would gather on the nearest mountain, fast, pray, and read form the Orita – their version of the Torah. The ceremony always took place on the last day of this month, Heshvan, and was followed by a break-fast and festive New Moon celebration. Now it’s happening in Jerusalem, and the promenade, right under the home where I’m lucky to be living begun reverberating with the public prayers from 9am on. Dressed in festive white, traditional garb for some and fancy modern for others, thousands gathered from all over Israel. The Kesim – religious leaders – mounted the stage, one by one, holding elaborate umbrellas hovering over their heads. Some of them carried cloth wrapped bundles on their heads – their personal copy of the Orita, placed carefully on the table before them. They chanted, in Gez, their sacred tongue, haunting, hypnotic, for hours, as many of the people prayed along, dancing, swaying, hands up in supplication, and many others just milling around, meeting, and taking pictures.
So much dignity in the wrinkled faces. The beauty of the hands raised, cupped and moving in prayer. How much these people went through to get here. So many didn’t make it. The pain was present here alongside the pride.
For just a few moments, for just one day of pilgrimage, forget the poverty and the despair, the tensions and difficulties that this community has endured on its way to, and once in, this hard and holy land.
This was a pilgrimage that reminded me of ancient days, Ezra and beyond, Africa, here and now. It felt exotic and familiar – mine and not – I cried and longed to be part of this tribe, of which I know not enough.
As I walked away, after a few hours of mesmerised chanting, talking with some, exchanging blessings, before the fast was broken, the Muslim Muezzins began wailing and praying from the nearby mosques. The voices blended in the air, chanting in Arabic and Gez, ancient words in contemporary throats celebrating mysteries, transcending, for just a sacred moment, the mundane mess of every day life.