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Judaism Added to the African Studies Agenda

New panels on Black Judaism offered at annual scholarly conference

Len Lyons
December 30, 2014
Friends of Hezekiah ben Habakkuk, bar mitzvah boy, in Abuja, Nigeria. (William F.S. Miles)
Friends of Hezekiah ben Habakkuk, bar mitzvah boy, in Abuja, Nigeria. (William F.S. Miles)

For the first time in its 57-year history, the African Studies Association’s annual conference this year offered panels discussing the rising tide of Black Judaism—communities in sub-Saharan Africa and in the African Diaspora identifying themselves as descendants of Jews or practicing some form of Judaism. I attended the November conference along with 1,600 participants from 30 countries, and presented new research on Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Five other researchers and authors in the field of Black Judaism also contributed to the panels.

The panels were proposed by William F. S. Miles, a political scientist from Northeastern University. His academic interest in Nigeria took a personal turn in 2008 when he discovered, while reading Edith Bruder’s The Black Jews of Africa, that the several thousand Nigerian Igbo who practice Judaism had religious traditions quite similar to those of his own family. Miles, who returned to Nigeria several times to visit the Jews of the capital city of Abuja—where there are now four synagogues—describes Jewish life in his book, The Jews of Nigeria.

Daniel Lis, who co-led the sessions with Miles, also studies Jewish identity and practice among the Igbo. His new book, Jewish Identity Among the Igbo of Nigeria, traces the history and current beliefs of the Igbo Jews. An estimated 30,000 of the more than 20 million Igbo have incorporated Jewish elements into their religious life—a process known as “Judaizing.” And 3,000 to 5,000 follow “rabbinic” Judaism—the prayers and rituals likely familiar to Jews everywhere—which they learned from visiting rabbis and from the Internet. Miles calls them the first “Internet Jews.”

Jewish identity and practice have taken root in more countries than Ethiopia and Nigeria. Tudor Parfitt, the most widely published scholar on the Black Judaism panels, stirred up controversy at a conference called ‘Converts, Returnees, and Adherents: New Ways of Joining the Jewish People,’ at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute earlier this year, where he made the stunning claim that a “shadow” population of those who self-identify as Jews by origin is equal to the number of recognized Jews worldwide—about 14 million. Along with the Igbo and Ethiopian Jews, there are the Lemba of Zimbabwe and South Africa and the Abayudaya of Uganda. The shadow population also includes the Zulu, Yoruba, and Tutsi, who have a tradition of descent from ancient Jews, but who don’t seek a connection with contemporary Jewish life.

At the ASA conference, Ruth Iyob from the University of Missouri, the author of several books on African history, took issue with the title of the new panel. During the Q&A portion of the morning session, she challenged the presenters to explain what they meant by “Black Judaism.” She later explained by telephone: “The word ‘black’ does not give people from Africa enough complexity. In fact if you go to Ethiopia, people there would be surprised if you told them they were black. We need more historical analysis of what black means.”

The diversity of the paths by which African Americans come to Judaism is an example of how the simplified rubric of ‘Black Judaism’ lends itself to controversy. According to an estimate by Rabbi Capers Funnye of Chicago, as many as 10,000 African Americans trace their Jewish identity to being descendants of ancient black Israelites. Conversion through modern Jewish denominations is therefore considered unnecessary. They created their own synagogues and are led by their own ordained rabbis, who follow a tradition that began in Harlem in the 1920s.

According to Parfitt, Bruder, Lis, and other scholars, the notion of descent from the biblical Lost Tribes or ancient Israelites was introduced into African societies during the colonization of Africa beginning in the 19th Century. The biblical narrative of world history was so dominant for the colonizing Christians of Europe that they could only conceive of the African peoples they encountered as descendants of Lost Tribes. The colonizers interpreted practices native to Africa, like circumcision and animal sacrifice, as “Jewish” in origin. Parfitt counts these populations, many of whom internalized and adopted that narrative, as Jews in his “shadow” population, though he characterizes the Lost Tribe believers as having a “constructed Jewish identity.”

Mainstream rabbis would also object to the idea that those who identify as descendants of ancient Israelites are Jews by the standards of halakha, or Jewish religious law. Those rules stipulate that to be Jewish, one must be the child of a Jewish mother or have been converted by a beit din, a religious court.

Some black Jews who affiliate with more mainstream Jewish congregations also disparage such claims of descent. But Yvonne Crenshaw, a 61-year-old graduate student in African Studies at Wayne State University, who attended the ASA conference with her adult daughter, Taija Woods, believes that’s a mistake. Crenshaw and her daughter both attend reform congregations in Oak Park, MI. Crenshaw’s father was a biracial Orthodox Jew, her mother an Irish Catholic who converted before Yvonne was born. Of Crenshaw’s six adult children, five remain affiliated with the Jewish community.

“Jews can’t possibly be an ethnic group,” Crenshaw told me by telephone. “I don’t know who was or who was not part of the Exodus, but I know the Israelites who came out of Egypt were not white. If the goal of Judaism is to follow God and the Torah, then whoever does that is a Jew. No one can prove descent.”

Crenshaw doesn’t think think the boundaries of Jewish peoplehood should be drawn so tightly. “Why are we excluding people when we are a shrinking faith?” she asked. “The fact that we (Jews) are shrinking in number means we need to hold onto everyone who wants to be Jewish.”

But for Crenshaw’s daughter, Taija Woods, there’s a far bigger race issue within modern Judaism than who is considered halakhically Jewish. “All this discussion is fine,” she said in the lobby following the afternoon session. “But as a Jew of color, as soon as I walk into a room full of Jews, the most important thing about me becomes the color of my skin, and there’s no getting around it.”

Len Lyons is the author of The Ethiopian Jews of Israel: Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land. He writes and lectures about Ethiopian Jewry and other Jews of African descent.