Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey

image: Professor Miles with Bar Mitzvah celebrant Hezekiah Ben Habakkuk  (Photo Courtesy of Dr. Miles)

Professor Miles with Bar Mitzvah celebrant Hezekiah Ben Habakkuk
(Photo Courtesy of Dr. Miles)

By some accounts there are 27 million Igbos in Nigeria. Of those, more than 20,000 call themselves Jews. The Jubos, the name coined by African development scholar William F.S. Miles* to describe those [few thousand] Igbos in Nigeria who have [actually] embraced [rabbinic] Judaism, lead observant Jewish lives in one of Africa’s largest countries. Religiously, the country is almost equally divided between the Muslim north and the Christian south, with the Jubos found primarily in the southern part of the country. Miles, who visited two synagogues in the capital of Abuja during Hanukah in 2009 and for a bar mitzvah in 2011, gives a moving and affectionate account of his experiences in his new book “Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey (Markus Wiener; 2012, Hardcover, $68.95; Paperback, $24.95.

In describing the commitment and Jewish observance of this community, Miles writes: “References to Torah and Jewish ethics are sprinkled in routine conversation (“I don’t want to do lashon hara,” says one Jubo, invoking the Jewish interdiction against gossip, as the subject of conversation turns to others in the community.) Men don kipot (skull caps) when entering their homes; some wear their tzitzit (ritual fringes) in public. Their services are full, complete, in Hebrew and daily. Their life, planning, aspirations and achievements center around Judaism.”

The Igbo, who have often been referred to metaphorically as “the Jews of Nigeria” because of their business acumen, social mobility and education, are mostly Christian. However, in recent decades, thousands have embraced Judaism. Villagers, businessmen, farmers, royal families, lawyers, rich as well poor, have moved away from Christianity for reasons of “doctrine, logic and faith,” Miles writes.

Many of them have learned Hebrew, studied Jewish texts and prayers on the Internet, taken Jewish names and communicated with American rabbis. With research, they came to see a close connection between their own ancient rituals --such as circumcision on the eighth day and blowing a ram’s horn--and Judaism. They became convinced that they really were remnants of one of the fabled lost tribes. Whether the Jubos do descend from Jews -- and there is much discussion and even controversy about it among Western historians and scholars-- is not so important here. Rather, Miles offers endearing portraits of an eloquent people, in a country of religious seekers, who feel they have found true religion and have a very personal and joyous relationship with God.

“The fact that the individuals you will encounter in this book live as Jews – practice, worship, study, gather and, yes, dispute as such – is infinitely more important than whether or not they actually descend from some long lost tribe of Israel. They are vastly “more Jewish” than many Western Europeans or North Americans whose DNA may bear traces of Jewish ancestry but whose lived experience, individual sense of identity and religious practice and group identification is anything but,” Miles writes.

Observing their zeal, Miles takes the measure of his own Judaism. In 2011, Miles prepared to go to a bar mitzvah in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. Hezekiah ben Habakkuk, the bar mitzvah boy, needed tefillin (phylactery worn by by orthodox Jews during morning prayer) and instructions on how to use them. But the author, a self-confessed “phylacteryphobe,” had to overcome his “longstanding phylactery allergy” to help out young Hezekiah. He took lessons from the men in his synagogue and learned to wrap them appropriately on his arm, hand and around his head. At the bar mitzvah, the author presents the youth with a new pair of tefillin and the same tallit he wore at his own bar mitzvah.

The Jubo learned much of their Judaism with the help of their “Chief Rabbi of Nigeria.” Rabbi Howard Gorin, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Tikvat Israel in Rockville, Maryland, who “pioneered” the first contacts and remains close to the community, has provided religious instruction and materials. That is why Abuja Jubos named their synagogue Tikvat Israel after Rabbi Gorin’s synagogue. But not all rabbis are so accepting. Miles tells the story of one Rabbi who travelled to Nigeria from the United Kingdom but would not set foot in the synagogue because it was not Orthodox.

At its heart “Jews of Nigeria” is an exploration of just who is a Jew? “The question ties all sort of Jews in knots,” says Miles: “Orthodox Jews reject converts from the Conservative and Reform movements. Israeli rabbis are increasingly suspicious of the status of American Jews, even of Orthodox provenance. In such a world, Jubos have a long way to go before receiving widespread recognition as Jews – even though they practice Judaism more consistently, punctiliously, and earnestly than do, say, the president, prime minister, or most ambassadors of the Jewish state itself.”

When Miles asked someone close to the Israeli embassy in Abuja to explain its general lack of interest in the Jubos, he was told that “the last thing [the embassy] needs is for some rabbi to fly over from Israel, convert them and declare that they are Jews.” There are four or five times the number of Igbos in Nigeria as there are Jews in Israel and a rabbinic decision might, it is feared, make them all convert and eligible to settle in Israel under the State’s Law of Return. Obviously, the country could not accommodate such an immigration.

Yet according to Miles, the Jubos have not expressed any interest in moving to Israel. Visiting, yes. But moving? No. Nor or do they seek outside approval, “so secure are they in their Jewish faith and identity,” he writes. They care “remarkably little what the (dominantly white) Jewish world at large thinks about them…” Nigerian Jew Dr. Lawrence Okah, a civil engineer who changed fields and now has a Ph.D in theology with emphasis in Jewish studies, explains. “Hashem started us to establish ourselves and we are working with Him. From here in Nigeria we can help Israel. I don’t want to go there and trouble anybody.”

Okah is one of several Jubos who tell their stories in the second half of the book. Dr. Caliben Ikejuku Okonkwa Michael, writes “I always liken my people to that bird that lived for centuries with butterflies and started thinking it is one. But butterfly knows: “No, this is bird!” The best thing is to be ourselves, not assimilate and live with the truth.” Dr. Michael said he spent many years thinking about his Igbo roots before turning to Judaism.

“In 2007 I had a dream. In that dream somebody told me I should go see someone, a certain man who used to renew my vehicle license. I ignored the dream for thirteen days. Then I had the same revelation I should go meet that man where he worships. But I did not know where. So I went to where he works and asked, ‘Where are you worshipping? I would like to go with you… It turned out to be the Jewish synagogue in Abuja. “So I said to myself, ‘Okay, this is what is happening. After all my studies into my origins this is where I have been directed.”

The author became close to Sar Habakkuk, Hezekiah’s father, and a founder and leader of the Abuja Jewish community. Dr. Miles, thinking about when he is back home in Massachusetts (where he teaches at Northeastern University), wistfully predicts, “I shall come to think of Habakkuk every time I wake up on Saturday morning in America and wonder: What time is it in Nigeria? Where in the Shabbat liturgy are the congregants in Habakkuk’s synagogue?” For the Jubos, he says, “put me, as a Jew, to shame; periodically, the thought will even propel me to shul.”


* Dr. Miles is a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston. His article “Among the Igbos of Nigeria During the Festival of Lights” appeared in the Fall, 2011 issue of KulanuNews