Interview with Beejhy Barhany, Owner of Tsion Café in Harlem

November 8, 2022Ellie Rudee

Beejhy Barhany (she/her) is an entrepreneur and activist who was born in Ethiopia, raised in Israel, and currently resides in New York. She is the founder of Beta Israel of North America (BINA) Cultural Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to celebrating and advocating for Ethiopian Jews in North America. Today, she is the chef and owner of an eclectic Ethiopian restaurant in Harlem, New York, Tsion Café, that incorporates cuisine from the many places that have influenced her journey.

Hi Beejhy, it's so nice to speak with you! Can you tell us a little about where your story begins, and immigrating to Israel?

I was born in the northern part of Ethiopia, in the Tigray Region. We made aliyahaliyahעֲלִיָּה"Going up." The honor of being called to recite the blessings before and after the Torah reading. Also refers to immigration to Israel, to "make aliyah" to Israel; plural: aliyot. Lit. "Ascent." in 1983 -- my family and I were part of the early waves of groups that left Ethiopia in the 1980s to immigrate to Israel. The journey to Israel from Ethiopia and through Sudan was difficult but everybody was in the mindset of fulfilling a prophecy and being in the Holy Land no matter what. People had a devotion and willingness to do whatever it took to immigrate. My family, and the whole community, wanted to fulfill aliyah to the Promised Land and were yearning to return. It was very much the love of Tzion (meaning Zion, or Jerusalem, in Hebrew), Yerushalayim, and the prophecy of returning to the holy land [that motivated us]. The immigration of Ethiopian Jews showcased bravery, courage , and a strong conviction that we belong in the Holy Land.

As an Ethiopian-born Jew, you made aliyah to Israel and now live in New York. Can you tell me about how you embody and celebrate these identities?

I grew up in Israel, then I decided to relocate to New York, the melting pot of the world. I wanted to be part of that diversity and establish a place where I could showcase my rich history and culture through food. That was when I opened Tsion Café.

I can say that I am blessed to have so many cultural aspects and many identities that I am proudly celebrating, being an Ethiopian Jewish woman, a mother, and a New Yorker. I try to encompass and manifest all of that through the different types of food I serve and the different experiences I provide for the people who dine at Tsion Café. It's very important that we continue to carry the essence of who we are and celebrate it.

One way I can do that is through Tsion Café, providing wholesome food and Ethiopian-Jewish cultural showcases. Jewish Ethiopian music, art, poetry, and so forth all enhance the visitors' experiences while nourishing the body and soul. It's a good gateway to Ethiopian Jewish cuisine and a great way to celebrate Jewish diversity. I think that's a beautiful way to showcase throughout the Diaspora that Jews come in different forms and colors, yet we all should learn from and celebrate our unique identities.

You've made it your mission to teach people about Ethiopian Jewry, both through culinary arts and education. Can you tell me a little bit about your initiatives, and which came first?

Before opening Tsion Café, I established a nonprofit organization called BINA Cultural Foundation, where I worked on a creative platform to increase awareness of Ethiopian Jewry and celebrate the richness of Ethiopian Jewish culture and history vis a vis cuisine and cultural showcases. That kind of led to the opening of Tsion Café, as I wanted to emphasize the food aspect. I would say that I have always been bringing awareness to Ethiopian Jewry and celebrating the rich history that we have to offer to the mosaic of the Jewish Diaspora.

There is an Ethiopian Jewish holiday coming up, Sigd. Can you tell me what Sigd is, its rituals, and what it represents?

Sigd is a very special holiday that has been celebrated by Ethiopian Jews for thousands of years. It is an ancient holiday that was first practiced by the [Jewish prophets in the Torah], such as Ezra and Nehemia, while exiled in Babylon. Ethiopian Jews held onto the celebration of Sigd for many years.

Sigd is held seven weeks after Yom Kippur and has two parts. The first part is fasting, praying, asking for forgiveness, and yearning for togetherness. Back in Ethiopia, the celebrants would go to a high mountain and pray all day and chant. Dressed in their best clothing, people would ask for forgiveness and carry a rock on their back. When they reached the top of the mountain, they would throw the rock, letting go of all their sins.

Around midday, everybody goes down from the mountain for the second part of Sigd. They have a wonderful feast with delicious food such as Doro Wat (an onion-based chicken stew from Ethiopia), cabbage, collard greens, Dabo [Ethiopian honey bread], and drinks like Tej (honey wine) and beer [called Talla]. Sigd is dear to my heart, and a holiday that I love. It's an ancient tradition that Jews around the Diasporathe DiasporaתְפוּצוֹתJewish communities outside Israel. should continue to celebrate until the Third Temple is rebuilt.

How has Sigd changed from the time it was celebrated in Ethiopia to today in Israel?

After [so many] Ethiopian Jews made it to Israel, there was this question of whether we needed to continue celebrating Sigd, since we made it to Jerusalem. The elders concluded that there is a need to continue celebrating Sigd, because we're still praying for the rebuilding of the Third Temple. Today, Sigd has become a national holiday in Israel, and Jews celebrate it together. It's now a holiday that celebrates Jewish unity, diversity, and gratitude for the things that we have. I think it's a wonderful way to celebrate Judaism and Jewish diversity through food, prayers, chanting, and dancing.

ETHIOPIAN GOMEN-HAMLI (Collard Greens)

Ingredients:

2 pounds collard greens, roughly chopped
2 yellow onions, strips
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled
1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1 jalapeno, chopped (optional)

Directions:

  1. cut greens and onions, mince cloves garlic and fresh ginger.
  2. In a large pan heat 1/4 cup oil; sauté the onions, garlic and ginger. Cook until softened, for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Add the 2 pounds collards (they will reduce when cooked) and 1/2 teaspoon salt, cumin and pepper. Cook for 20 minutes while stirring, until collards are soft.
  4. Add water as needed so collards don't dry out completely and scorch pan. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally.
  5. For extra spiciness, add 1 chopped jalapeno, if you like. Serve with injera or rice

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