Scholars of African Judaism Gather in London

Since ancient times, Jews have been interested in other Jews from distant lands and other cultures. From the 8th century BCE, the early writings of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah (11:11) prophecy that the Lord will “recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.”

The fascination with Black Jews has never abated.

A thousand years later, Eldad HaDani wrote, with dubious accuracy, about “black Jews on the other side of the river Cush (often translated as Ethiopia)” as well as accounts of Jews in Persia and in the land of the Khazars. Eldad and other writers during the Middle Ages traveled widely and were prone to attribute the origins of every unexpected population group to one of the Lost Tribes. In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela (from northern Spain), set out to catalog Jewish communities along a circuitous route to the holy land. Then in the 19th century, the French Jewish community sent Rabbi Joseph HaLevy, a competent linguist, to investigate reports of black Jews in Ethiopia, setting in motion a historic aliyah (immigration) that continues to this day.

The fascination with Black Jews, even among Christians, has never abated and in recent years has captured the imagination of university scholars who are attempting to unlock the secrets of origin and identity of African Jews in Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabawe, Uganda, Cameroon, Mali and South Africa.

image: Edith Bruder, co-organizer of the ISSAJ conference, with. from left to right, Esther Roniyah Stanford- Xosei of England, Guyana and Barbados and Yishibah Emunah Baht-Gavriel of Trinidad, England and Israel.

Edith Bruder, co-organizer of the ISSAJ conference, with. from left to right, Esther Roniyah Stanford- Xosei of England, Guyana and Barbados and Yishibah Emunah Baht-Gavriel of Trinidad, England and Israel.

In 2009, Daniel Lis (University of Basel) and Edith Bruder (University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS) created the International Society for the Study of African Judaism (ISSAJ) to foster an interdisciplinary approach to research, discussion, and understanding of Jews of African origin. On October 30 and 31, 2010, SOAS hosted ISSAJ’s first conference. The two-day gathering, which drew 60 to 70 attendees to each session, was a compressed, multifaceted gem of scholarship, sparkling with glimpses into various scholars’ past and ongoing studies.

The format was 20 to 30-minute presentations — lectures, slides, and two documentary films — followed by spirited and revealing Q & A. Tudor Parfitt (Professor of Modern Jewish Studies, SOAS) and Edith Bruder, the conference organizers, assembled an impressive array of scholars from the US, Europe, and Israel, providing a wonderful opportunity for networking with key players in the field of African-derived Jewish studies. The gathering included about twenty “practitioners” — members of the groups being studied, although not current residents of African countries. The tone of the sessions was interactive, often passionate, and quite collegial.

The greatest challenge for those in attendance was absorbing the abundance of material presented. Jacob Dorman (University of Kansas), a historian of the African American Hebrew Israelite movement, noted that the conference was extraordinary in attracting not only academics, but a surprising number of “intensely interested” lay people as well as members of the faith communities. A challenge for presenters, he noted, is being able to speak effectively to both the scholars and those whose interest is more personal than professional. Daniel Lis welcomed the diversity of attendees, because it “showed that research in this field is in constant dialogue with the communities concerned.”

Here are only a few of the topics presented: the Ethiopian Jews; the Lemba of South Africa, and their priestly clan, the Bhuba, who are the most likely to carry the Cohen Modal Haplotype (a genetic marker of the priestly class); the Igbo of Nigeria; the Hebrew Israelites of Dimona, Israel, and the evolution of the Hebrew Israelites in Harlem in the 1930s. (A complete list of the presenters, the 18 papers and two documentary films presented, and brief abstracts are available at www.issaj.com; click on “Conferences.”)

The diverse approaches of the presenters raised interesting questions beyond the topics themselves. For example, some researchers (e.g., Parfitt) drew conclusions from DNA testing; while others, such as Shalva Weil (Hebrew University), remain unimpressed with the significance of genetic testing. Indeed, it is valid to wonder about the various criteria for Jewish identity: practices and observances, self-perception or self-definition, or the criteria of halacha (Jewish law) — having a Jewish mother or a formal conversion.

It is valid to wonder about the various criteria for Jewish identity.

Similarly, while Bruder finds antecedents for Jewish identity among the Igbo of Nigeria in ancient trade routes, and Lis finds them in literary sources from the 18th Century, Johannes Harnischfeger (University of Frankfurt) believes Igbo “Judaism” is a blend of Judaism and Christianity. According to his interpretation, Igbo Judaism developed during the war for Biafran independence in the 1960s, when the Igbo began to idealize and identify with the embattled Jewish State.

As Dorman commented in a conversation following the conference, “History is not just a collection of facts, but a collection of interpretations.” Perhaps some future conference will have a panel discuss “meta” topics, such as conflicting methodologies and criteria.

But there is another important challenge to the conference of a pragmatic nature: the lack of African scholars and practitioners in attendance. Visas are more tightly controlled than ever, and the cost of travel and lodging is prohibitive for most black African Jews or intellectuals. In an effort to make it easier for Africans to attend, the next ISSAJ will be held somewhere in southern Africa in 2012. (Consult www.issaj.com.) I am already saving my pennies for the airfare from Boston, because — judging by the 2010 conference — I can look forward to exceptional content, lively discussion, and a chance to get to know the leading scholars in the field.