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We’re All Igbo

Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

We have been to many emerging Jewish-identifying communities around the globe, but we never imagined we’d find dozens of these “kehillos” in the remotest parts of Nigeria

Monday, May 29, 2017

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DEEP ROOTS Could the 30 million Igbos who populate the country really have their roots in the lost tribe of Gad? We headed off to the Dark Continent to see for ourselves

T he scene was surreal. We were sitting in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, in a torrential equatorial downpour. Within minutes, the dirt courtyard became a swamp and the roads were ankle-deep in water. The clouds were so thick that the sky turned the color of post-shkiah before Shabbos ends. But the rain and mud didn’t seem to distract the boys who crowded around us, many with peyos braided out of their afros.

They peppered us with questions in halachah and philosophy, all of this after an hour-long Shacharis recited in near-flawless Hebrew with leining from a paper Torah scroll. Their skin is the rich dark black of West Africans, and they are not considered halachically Jewish, but in all of our travels, we’ve yet to find such a dynamic and serious group of people looking for the truth and learning Torah. We have been to some of the world’s most unusual and remote emerging Jewish-identifying communities, but nothing prepared us for what we found in Nigeria.

Lost Tradition

It’s a huge country, the most populous in Africa, with over 180 million people and the world’s 20th-largest economy. Despite being rich in minerals and being awash with oil and natural gas (gasoline at the pump is cheap), most of its people are extremely poor. Only half the population has access to potable water and life expectancy is just 53 years. The infrastructure is in terrible shape — the roads are full of huge potholes that can overturn a truck, and the electricity supply is wholly unreliable.

The story’s not over. The Igbo are sure their ancestors were Jews and see themselves more like baalei teshuvah

The house in Ogidi in Anambra province where we stayed on Shabbos was not a pauper’s dwelling, and yet it receives electricity from the grid for only a few hours a day. Our hosts, like millions of others in the country, have a small private generator (which they thankfully kept running all of Shabbos especially for us), and we were grateful for that because it meant we had a fan to keep us cool at night in the sweltering heat. (In a huge supermarket in a big city, the power just stopped for no apparent reason, and the same thing happened in the international airport.)

Nigeria is roughly half Christian and half Muslim. (The local fundamentalist Islamic terror group, Boko Haram, regularly makes headlines by committing indiscriminate bombings and kidnappings.) But the Christian millions are actually newcomers to that religion. Prior to their exposure to Christianity by missionaries in the 17th through 19th centuries, they practiced an assortment of local religions — and many, it seems, even practiced some Jewish rituals.

Letters by missionaries sent back to Portugal four centuries ago claim discovery of a tribe that had Jewish customs. Those letters were surely referring to members of the 30-million-strong Igbo ethnic group, whose own tradition traces them back to some of the Ten Lost Tribes. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 662 – Special Shavuos Edition 2017)

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