After tangling with snakes and dodging gunfire while venturing into remote and dangerous regions, he's become known as the British Indiana Jones.
But instead of trying to find the Holy Grail, Tudor Parfitt's passion is tracing the ancestral history of the Jewish people. His latest quest: Examine their migration at the time of Christopher Columbus to the Caribbean, Central America and South Florida.
"There is always the question of whether Christopher Columbus himself was a Jew," said Parfitt, a distinguished professor of religious studies at Florida International University in Miami. "In any event, there were five or six Jews on his first voyage."
Parfitt plans to write a book — his 27th — about how Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition 500 years ago initially settled in places like Cuba, Panama and the Dominican Republic. But they soon fled to Miami to escape even more religious persecution.
"Things got a bit sticky on those islands, so Miami is where they came," he said.
Driven by his quest to unearth Jewish history, Parfitt traveled extensively and came up with some eye-opening theories. Among them: the first Jews to settle in the United States probably did so at St. Augustine, as part of the Spanish settlement; and many black Jews are the descendants of slaves, whose Jewish owners forced them to convert to Judaism. He also theorizes that the first person killed after arriving in New World on a Columbus boat was likely Jewish.
Parfitt thinks when the latest book is finished, probably next year, South Floridians will have a better understanding of Jewish roots in this region.
"There's a 500-year history of Jewish involvement in Miami that's been told to an extent, but not very well," he said. "Their roles in the trades, in local industries, in agriculture and in politics has been absolutely mega."
Born in England, Oxford-educated and fluent in several languages, Parfitt is an Anglican who regularly attends church. He developed an interest in Jewish history as a young child during World War II. His parents took in a Jewish refugee who had escaped the Nazis in Europe.
"He was an old man with a beard," Parfitt said. "He looked after the house and took care of me."
Like the fictional Indiana Jones, Parfitt, who prefers not to reveal his age – "I'm not 21, I'll tell you that" – has faced death on more than one occasion. Last year, he went to Papua New Guinea, and found the Gogodala tribe — at one time cannibals — could be traced back to the original tribes of Israel. While in a canoe on a river with the tribesmen, a highly poisonous snake dropped from a tree into the boat.
"A Gogodala tribesman cut the snake in half before it could do any damage," he said.
In the course of linking a group of people in Zimbabwe, Africa, to ancient Israel in the mid-1990s, he apparently rubbed someone the wrong way. While driving through the countryside, he saw barrels had been placed in the roadway ahead. He drove around them, only to have his back window shot out.
"I could see this was an ambush," he said. "If I had stopped, I wouldn't be here."
It was after this adventure that the European press dubbed him the "British Indiana Jones."
He also has been shot at twice while doing research in Yemen the 1990s. He thinks it likely was religious extremists in one case and terrorists in the other, based on a report that an al-Qaida unit was in the vicinity.
Like the fictional Indy, he also has searched for treasured historical objects, such as the Lost Ark of the Covenant, which was thought to hold the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. After years of searching, he found an ancient replica in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. It was such an amazing find he wrote a book about it.
Today he regularly gives academic lectures at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU and is sometimes introduced while the theme music from the Indiana Jones movies plays in the background.
"At one of these talks, someone stood up and said, 'You're not as good looking as Harrison Ford,'" Parfitt said. "I said, 'I do my best.' It's fun."
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Tudor Parfitt's adventures:
2013: In Papua New Guinea, linked the Gogodala, formally a tribe of cannibals, to the original tribes of Israel by way of DNA testing.
In 1996: In Zimbabwe, Africa, linked the Lemba tribe to the Holy Land through genetic profiles and — in the store room of the Harare Museum of Human Sciences — found a replica of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, thought to hold the Ten Commandments.
In the early 1990s: Linked an ancient Jewish community in Yemen to the Holy Land through DNA work.
In 1985: Studied various Jewish communities in Thailand, Singapore and Japan.
In 1984: During the great Ethiopian famine, with warfare raging, he wrote a report alleging that Ethiopian Jews were being poisoned in refugee camps.
In 1963: Spent a year with Voluntary Service Overseas in Jerusalem, working with handicapped people, some of whom had survived Nazi concentration camps.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun