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Ancient Signs of a Vibrant Jewish Life

November 2, 2006 By:
Rachel Silverman, JE Staff
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Daphne is the daughter of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and great granddaughter of Rabbi Samson of the Abayudaya community, Uganda.

In a rural Ugandan outpost, black women bake challah over a charcoal stove. The men, most of whom are subsistence farmers, have names like Jacob, Isaiah or Solomon.

There is no electricity here, but five synagogues dot the surrounding hills, drawing crowds of kepah-toting locals on Shabbat.

Though scenes like these, as described by Philadelphia photojournalist Jay Sand, read like pages from the Bible, it is widely debated if these communities are Jewish at all.

Though some elements of their religious practice bear the familiar markings -- Star of David insignias, menorahs in the synagogue -- others appear foreign to Jewish scholars, who are accustomed to Ashkenazic or Sephardic traditions.

As Sand explained, "We want to see in them us -- or the parts of us that we like.

"But in reality they're doing something very different that has its roots in the same place," he continued. "It's viewed in lots of ways as odd or strange."

At a program titled "Exploring Africana Judaism," held Oct. 29 at the Rotunda in West Philadelphia, Sand explored this paradox of African Judaism.

Sponsored by Kol Tzedek synagogue in West Philadelphia, Temple University's Center for Afro-Jewish Studies and a predominately African-American synagogue called First Tabernacle, the program provided a glimpse into Jewish life in black Africa: largely isolated enclaves in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Ethiopia, South Africa and Nigeria.

It also allowed a diverse collection of attendees to learn Afro- Jewish songs, sample aromatic African dishes and view images of Sand's travels around the continent.

Sand, a Harrisburg native, listed about half a dozen Jewish communities he's visited there. A songwriter, journalist and photographer, Sand's interest in these groups took root when he developed a Jewish Ugandan pen pal -- and went to visit him.

"This is the synagogue board," Sand said, flashing a picture of an African family in traditional garb. "I'm sure it looks like your synagogue board," he joked.

Since that initial visit, Sand has documented the House of Israel people in Ghana, the Lemba of South Africa, the Rusape village in Zimbabwe and the Djerba island community in Tunisia -- all of whom speak of their Jewish roots.

Sand, however, cautioned against lumping together African Jewish groups.

Some, like the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, are said to have maintained Jewish practices for thousands of years.

Others, like those in the town of Rusape, Zimbabwe, are newer converts: In the early 20th century, two black men, who felt that Africans had been Israelites before being forcibly converted to Christianity, began teaching Jewish principles there.

This history made sense to the locals, many of whom had been separating milk and meat, keeping Shabbat and circumcising their children for years prior -- with no knowledge of why they did so.

"It was just like a light," said Sand. "Like they opened up the window and this made sense to them."

The Lemba present a murkier case.

Though Sand said the Lemba "don't lead an identifiable Jewish life," they do present some Jewish characteristics. For example, their mourning period lasts eight days, and some of their female rituals invoke Jewish purification processes. Still, this tribe "doesn't see conflicts in practicing multiple religions"; for example, many infuse their Jewish rituals with Christian and Muslim elements, said Sand.

This hybrid poses a problem for Jews in the West, he continued.

In February 2002, a team of Conservative rabbis went to Uganda to perform a conversion ceremony to make them halachic Jews. Sand described the ceremony, which involved about 500 people, as "the mikvah, rabbis and the whole nine yards."

Others have sought authenticity elsewhere.

In 1999, a team of geneticists examined the DNA makeup of the Lemba and found that there may be a Jewish link. By looking at the male chromosomes of the South African group, researchers determined that their shared ancestor was a Cohen -- and therefore, a possible descendent of Aaron.

Sand said this discovery has led the Lemba to be dubbed "the most Jewish" of the African-Jewish communities.

Such superlatives are literal goldmines, and the communities are aware of the benefits than can accrue from such designations, said Sand.

He described "this idea of, 'Now, this is what we tell the visitors; now, this is what we do,' " as a way of playing to Western sympathies -- and to Western pocketbooks.

Still, on the whole, African-Jewish sects remain a relatively unknown quantity.

Walter Isaac, a doctoral candidate at Temple University, noted that African and African-American Judaism exists in a "state of invisibility."

"There are about 20 black synagogues in Philadelphia," he said. "But it's a topic that doesn't get a lot of focus -- we just don't talk about it."

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