Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter



Jewish Core in Island Lore

Ari Greenspan and Ari Z. Zivotofsky

Madagascar, best known for lemurs, chameleons, rain forests, and baobabs, is also, according to island legend, one point of settlement of the Ten Lost Tribes. We had to see for ourselves

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

 Mishpacha image

SHEVES ACHIM Last summer, over a hundred Malagasie men, women, and children, disillusioned with their Christian teachings, decided to convert and reconnect with ancestral tradition, becoming fluently versed in mitzvos, prayer, and leining. Touvya has learned an impeccable Sephardic nusach, using it as the daily chazzan of the shul he created in his home (Photos: Ari Greenspan and Ari Z. Zivotofsky)

W e have seen some surprising things in our years of halachic adventuring, but never had we expected to meet up with a group of Jewish converts on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Yet when we arrived in Madagascar, a large island 700 miles from the African coast of Mozambique (you might know it from the Risk game board), we discovered that not only had the group we met undergone a conversion process over this past summer, but that many of the island’s inhabitants claim to have their roots in the Ten Lost Tribes. Naturally, we wanted to see for ourselves.

This large and distant island, best known for lemurs, chameleons, rain forests, and the famous baobab tree, is the fourth largest island in the world, almost three times the size of Great Britain. Although it has a population of over 22 million, it is a poor and poorly managed country — but due to its remoteness, it’s the only place in the world that lemurs — a cute primate and a distant relative of the monkey — roam freely. There are close to 100 species of lemurs roaming around the country in their natural habitat, but we only had time to see them in a zoo in the capital. Still, we got the full experience, as the little creatures slobbered all over us after the zoo keepers smeared our palms with honey.

Lemurs are certainly fascinating, but we came to investigate Jews. Over the years we have written in these pages about numerous groups we’ve visited who want to or have converted, in some form or another, to Judaism. There’s the formerly Christian community of Erode, India who now pray in the Zion Torah center, and the Abuyadaya, a group of Ugandans whose chief accepted Judaism on himself and his tribe 100 years ago and who have since undergone Conservative conversion. In Columbia, South America, there are several shuls of truly frum converts, and there are synagogues in Nigeria belonging to the Ibo tribe who claim Jewish descent. In Zimbabwe, the Lemba are practicing Jewish traditions, as are communities in the Ivory Coast and the Cameroons. This phenomenon raises fascinating questions about motivations for conversion and the definition of what a Jewish kehillah really is.

Many of these communities have the Christian missionaries to thank for the ultimate move towards Judaism, and Madagascar is no different. One of the lasting legacies of the European occupation is that more than 50 percent of Malagasies (natives of Madagascar) self-define as Christian. But a number of individuals in the capital city of Antananarivo, after intense study and thought, decided that the true path to G-d was only through Torah and Judaism; others were convinced they had Jewish roots, evidenced by such long-time island practices as near universal circumcision and a widespread avoidance of pork. Back in 1658?

Unlike Madagascar’s kehillah of sincere converts, this “high priest” seemed to be praying for the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, but we were hard-pressed to believe his “prophecies” were part of an ancient connection to the Jewish People

Tienne de Flacourt, a French governor of Madagascar, asserted that the locals were descendant from Jews, partly based on the practice of circumcision. Others believe that Portuguese anusim settled on the island, and we heard rumors about ancient tombstones with Hebrew writing, although we did not personally see any of them.

Making Radio

Waves As residents of Antananarivo began to explore Judaism around five years ago, several communal leaders emerged: One of them is Andrianarisao Asarery, known today as Ashrey Dayves, a former Protestant pastor and singer who’s also a pastry chef with a popular television cooking show and a radio broadcast. He transformed his formerly Christian radio show into an hour of Judaism and Israeli pop music. He says that his grandfather and great- grandfather had claimed to be Jewish.

Then there’s Petuela (Andre Jacque Rabisisoa), a computer programmer who conducts Hebrew language lessons and religious radio broadcasts, and Touvya (Ferdinand Jean Andriatovomanana), a self-taught chazzan who sports peyos and whose Sephardi nusach is impeccable.

The move toward conversion was spearheaded by Ashrey, who functions as president of the Jewish Community of Madagascar, which is also known as Sefarad Madagascar. Ashrey thought conversions would bring legitimacy to the group as well as greater ties to world Jewry and a strengthening of their own commitment.

After several years of study, the group eventually made contact with Kulanu, a New York-based, non-denominational group that works with isolated and emerging Jewish communities. The organization assisted them in furthering their education and arranged for an Orthodox beis din to convert over 100 of them.

Related Stories

One Investment Leads to Another

Rochel Burstyn

Venture capitalist Jonathan Triest funds start-up companies to the tune of millions of dollars a yea...

White House Calling

Yisroel Besser, Washington, D.C.

Donald Trump’s trusted negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, is a devoted family man and observant Jew. Duri...

In Those Days, In This Place

David Damen, Brussels

After more than 70 years, 94-year-old Rabbi Yaakov Friedrich revisits the Brussels apartment where h...

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.
CAPTCHA
Message


MM217
 
The Fortunes of War
Rabbi Moshe Grylak We’re still feeling the fallout of the First World War
Some Lessons, But Few Portents
Yonoson Rosenblum What the midterms tell us about 2020
Vote of Confidence
Eyan Kobre Why I tuned in to the liberal radio station
5 out of 10
Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin Top 5 Moments of the Kinus
Day in the Life
Rachel Bachrach Chaim White of KC Kosher Co-op
When Less is More
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman How a good edit enhances a manuscript
It’s My Job
Jacob L. Freedman “Will you force me to take meds?”
They’re Still Playing My Song?
Riki Goldstein Yitzy Bald’s Yerav Na
Yisroel Werdyger Can’t Stop Singing
Riki Goldstein Ahrele Samet’s Loi Luni
Double Chords of Hope
Riki Goldstein You never know how far your music can go
Will Dedi Have the Last Laugh?
Dovid N. Golding Dedi and Ding go way back
Battle of the Budge
Faigy Peritzman Using stubbornness to grow in ruchniyus
The Challenging Child
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Strategies for raising the difficult child
Bucking the Trend
Sara Eisemann If I skip sem, will I get a good shidduch?
The Musician: Part 1
D. Himy, M.S. CCC-SLP and Zivia Reischer "If she can't read she'll be handicapped for life!"