I have the utmost admiration for my Jewish Ethiopian Israeli friend, Bizu Riki Mullu. She lives in Manhattan now, not far from where my grandparents settled when they emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s. My grandparents emigrated to seek a richer, safer Jewish life, and Riki’s emigration to Israel also fulfilled the dream of a return to Jerusalem, sought by Ethiopian Jews for centuries.
Bizu Riki Mullu
When Riki lived in Ethiopia, she enjoyed a rich Jewish life in her village, surrounded by family and the Jewish community, though Riki’s family yearned to return to Jerusalem. Jews in Ethiopia could not own land, and lived at the mercy of their Christian neighbors; they experienced discrimination and hatred, called by derogatory names, and treated as strangers. By 1973 Communism was entrenched into Ethiopian society and the Jews in the villages realized things would only get worse; the government planned to disrupt Jewish life further by separating villages and dispersing Jews to various places in Ethiopia. Instead many Jews chose to leave Ethiopia on foot, a trip that would take three weeks or more – walking through Sudan and Egypt – to finally reach Israel, though thousands died on the way, willing to risk their lives.
As a pre-teen in the late 70s, Riki and a small group of Ethiopian Jewish children were selected to immigrate to Israel and she did so under Operation Begin, well preceding Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991. In many ways Riki’s immigration is reminiscent of the Kindertransport that took place during the Shoah; parents will do anything and everything they must, to take risks to ensure their children a better life.
After WWII, my grandparents here in NY sought to locate any remaining relatives, and Riki had the hope and dream to reunite with her family, still living in Ethiopia in the early 80s. While having little communication with her family back in Ethiopia and still adjusting to Israel herself, with the help of individuals and organizations, she successfully arranged for her entire family to immigrate to Israel.
Riki enjoyed being surrounded by her extended family in Israel. Times were tough, and adjustments to a new modern country were many. For those accustomed to the rich but simple life in Ethiopia, arrival and life in modern Israel in the 80s had its challenges. Riki’s skill translating from Amharic to Hebrew for new immigrants became valuable to the Jewish Agency in Israel, and by 1991 Riki was sent to NY as a ‘shlichah’ to represent Israel, and the Ethiopian Jews, as a representative to Jews in the Diaspora.
RIKI’S LIFE AS AN ACTIVIST, ARTIST & NEW YORKER:
Original needlework creation – Torah cover- Ethiopian design
Riki became comfortable living in NYC and decided to stay, though she went back and forth as often as possible and still does, visiting her extended family! Now, 20 years later, Riki is still here, still an activist for Ethiopian Jews, always a Zionist, always seeing the glass half full! Besides Riki’s activist side, she is also a master artist, designing and creating Ethiopian jewelry and traditional Ethiopian needle craft.
ACTIVISM + LOVE OF JUDAISM = A BRAINSTORM!
In Israel, Ethiopian Jews have slowly integrated and have become part of the fabric of everyday Israeli life. Army service, participation in Israel’s IDF, is the glue, and binds people together more than other aspects of society. Ethiopian Jews arrived with special foods and customs, with a unique language, with talents in the arts. These unique, diverse cultural aspects of Ethiopian Jewish life became part of Israeli life; in 2008 the Jewish Ethiopian festival, the SIGD, became a national holiday in Israel.
But Riki is living in NY, visiting her extended family in Jerusalem only when she can. She remembers the customs and celebrations and food and memories of her childhood on those visits.
WHAT IS THE SIGD?
Of the many rituals and traditions, the SIGD festival stands out to Riki. SIGD is a Jewish Ethiopian festival which celebrates the giving of the Torah. According to Ethiopian tradition the Torah was given to the Jewish people exactly 50 days after Yom Kippur, rather than on Shavuot, as is the tradition in the rest of the Jewish world. In Ethiopia the Jewish community would make a special pilgrimage to the nearest highest mountain, since they could not observe the precept of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and there would be prayers and blessings by the Kesim (priests and learned elders), followed by a festive meal. In Israel today, thousands of Ethiopian Jews make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem each year, beginning with a gathering on the Talpiot Promenade.
AND THEN RIKI HAD AN IDEA!
“There are other Jewish Ethiopian Israelis now living in the New York area too! They are missing the SIGD. And… perhaps the Ashkenazi Jewish population and the Sephardi Jewish population, and all New Yorkers, would enjoy the SIGD festival, this taste of Jewish Ethiopian tradition. WHY NOT bring it to New York??!!”
THE ANNUAL SIGD IN NY IS BORN!
Chassida Shmella, the organization of the Ethiopian Jewish Community of North America, is the umbrella non-profit organization founded by Riki. The SIGD has been its annual stellar program for the past five years! Each year, it is bigger and better!
THERE ARE TWO PARTS TO THE SIGD FOR 2014!
-SHABBAT DINNER ON FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 14TTH, BEGINNING WITH SERVICES
-THE SIGD, SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 16TH IN THE AFTERNOON
ALL DETAILS BELOW!
SIGD IN NY 2013
On Friday afternoon, November 14th, at the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue (Congregation Shearith Israel on 70th Street) services begin at 4:30pm, followed by a lecture andShabbat dinner – PREPAID – details below -(consisting of both traditional and Ethiopian food, kosher of course) at 7pm.
At that time Shabbat dinner guests will have the pleasure of meeting Ethiopian rabbis, who travel to NY from Israel, and are present for the entire SIGD weekend. These guests will also be present, chanting during the SIGD on Sunday, November 16th at 3:45pm at B’nai Jeshurun synagague on the Upper West Side. The presence of the rabbis from Israel is made possible with the support of the Israeli Consulate.
You’ll be there, along with rabbis and scholars, Ethiopian music and dancing, reading and chanting, Ethiopian food and coffee. All in all, quite diverse and interesting company! All details – regarding fees and locations, all contact information, can be found in the beautiful invitation below.
Sunday’s SIGD, November 16th– Be sure to come on time, and HUNGRY! Hungry for the colors and the sounds, the music and the food, hungry for the experience, and the opportunity for families and people of all ages to learn about another dimension of Jewish culture. After all, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh, – ‘all the people of Israel are responsible for one another.’ And we are so lucky that we are living in this time, when, outside of Israel, the four corners of the Jewish world can meet in one place in Manhattan. ALL DETAILS AND FEES BELOW!
A few years ago, Riki founded a non-profit organization, Chassida Shmella, whose name means “stork” in both Hebrew and Amharic. The stork is the bird whose migratory patterns over Ethiopia and towards Jerusalem follow the dreams Ethiopian Jews wished for themselves. Chassida Shmella’s programs inform us about the rich customs and traditions Ethiopian Jews kept through centuries. In this masterful way, Riki has been both supporter of other Ethiopian Israelis living in the New York area- helping them to remember their traditions – and as educator … with programming about Rosh Hodesh in Ethiopia, Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, the challenges of Jewish Ethiopian emigration and immigration, Ethiopian films and music, and Jewish holidays. VISIT CHASSIDA SHMELLA’S WEBSITE http://chasmell.webs.com/ or visit Chassida Shmella on Facebook for further information or to learn about all the fascinating programs.