Jewish? Africans knew it all along


TSHINO, South Africa - The Jewish community in this dusty mountain village has some unorthodox customs to mark the Jewish new year. They slaughter a cow, eat its intestines, take snuff to expel demons and then, during an all-night ceremony held inside a hut with a cow dung floor, they dance, drink and sing, summoning the spirits of their ancestors for guidance in the year ahead.

"It's almost the same as Rosh Hashana," says Ephraim Selamolela, a 62-year-old businessman whose family has been celebrating the holiday this way for generations as members of South Africa's Lemba tribe.

Many Jewish communities would dismiss Selamolela's claims as outrageous. Even Selamolela admits that his tribe has lost touch with mainstream Jewish traditions. But the Lemba have not lost touch with their ancestry, he says. "We are Jewish," he claims. He also has DNA that he believes proves it.

The 50,000 Lemba scattered among the foothills of the Soutpansberg Mountains in South Africa's Limpopo region have a number of traditions that have always set them apart from other African tribes.

They practice circumcision, they don't eat pork or mix milk with meat, as prescribed by Jewish dietary laws. They keep one day of the week holy, and they bury their dead with their heads facing north, toward Jerusalem.

According to Lemba oral traditions, the tribe was led from the Holy Land more than 2,500 years ago by a man named Buba, to a city in Yemen, and later crossed the Red Sea into East Africa, following a star that eventually brought it to present-day South Africa.

They say they adopted local customs during their journey, like other members of the Jewish diaspora. They intermarried with African tribes, embraced African rituals and forgot many Jewish rituals and scriptures. European colonizers later converted many of the Lemba to Christianity. The Lemba don't have rabbis, synagogues or copies of the Torah.

But their dietary laws and cultural practices, nearly identical to those in Jewish communities around the world, survived generation to generation, as did their belief that they share an ancestry with the Jewish people.

For years the outside world dismissed the Lemba's claims as sheer fantasy. That changed in 1999, when geneticists from the United States, Great Britain and Israel discovered some backing for the claims.

The researchers found that Lemba men carried a DNA signature on their Y chromosome that is believed unique to the relatively small number of Jews known as the Cohanim, who trace their ancestry to the priests of the ancient Jewish Temple and, ultimately, to Aaron, brother of Moses.

The genetic discovery might have had a greater impact on Jewish communities that had rejected the Lemba's claims than on the Lemba, who never doubted their ancestry.

"For the Western Jewish world it was an identity crisis, but for the Lemba it was a yawn," says Jack Zeller, president of Kulanu, an organization based in Silver Spring dedicated to finding and assisting dispersed remnants of the Jewish people.

After the discovery, Kulanu and other Jewish organizations ventured to Lemba villages to understand the Lemba's history and practices and introduce the Lemba to mainstream Jewish beliefs and practices.

Some Lemba began learning Hebrew and visited Israel; some renounced Christian beliefs. Others recast their traditional Lemba ceremonies as counterparts to traditional Jewish holidays, as Selamolela did with his Rosh Hashana ceremony.

Still, the community as a whole appears to be at a crossroads. Some Lemba consider themselves Jewish while continuing to embrace Christian services and African rituals.

"It's difficult for me to be Christian. It's difficult for me to be Jewish," says Frederick Raulinga, 73, a former teacher who was raised in the Roman Catholic Church yet considers himself a non-practicing Jew.

Like many Lemba, however, Raulinga lives with these apparent contradictions. He remains passionate about his Jewish ancestry and serves as general secretary of the Lemba Cultural Association, a group seeking to unify the Lemba people.

It is not an easy task. About 50,000 Lemba live scattered across southern Africa.

"The tribe as a whole is pretty ambiguous about what it is," says Tudor Parfitt, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. "Its identity is fractured. They don't have a language that is their own. They don't have any formal leadership. They are shaky when it comes to what they are."

One of the attractions of their Jewish ancestry is that it provides a bond for the tribe.

"It turns them into Israelites. It makes them people of God," says Parfitt, who spent more than a decade studying the tribe. "They are a group with a particularly frail historical identity. This is a way of stabilizing their links with their own history as they see it."

Parfitt was the first historian to attempt to verify the Lemba's claims. At the urging of the Lemba's spiritual leader, Matshaya Mathiva, who died last year, Parfitt retraced their journey across Africa back to Yemen and discovered signs of the city where the Lemba claim their ancestors had lived.

Parfitt recounts his travels in his book, Journey to the Vanished City.

His research along with the DNA evidence have been key to helping the world understand the Lemba's origins. Still, he cautions, the question of whether the Lemba are Jewish has not been answered conclusively: "DNA itself doesn't make anybody Jewish. All it can do is say something about their ancestry."

The question still being asked today is what impact these revelations will have on the Lemba and the Jewish world.

Many Jewish organizations readily welcome the Lemba as members of the Jewish people, as they have welcomed other communities elsewhere in Africa, as well as India, Burma, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. "I respect their individuality. I recognize our commonality," says Keller of Kulanu.

In the eyes of Jewish authorities in South Africa, however, the Lemba are not Jewish.

"It doesn't constitute proof," Rabbi Norman Bernhard, former president of the Southern African Rabbinical Association and a recognized authority on Jewish-Lemba relations, says of the genetic evidence. "It raises a possibility, even a probability."

But the Lemba must meet the tests of Jewish law, he says. The problem is that the Lemba apparently broke away from the mainstream Jewish community long ago and performed their ceremonies without full knowledge of Jewish law. The Lemba's claims of Jewish ancestry, for instance, are based on patrilineal descent, while under Jewish law it is based on matrilineal descent. Still, there is an easy way for the Lemba to become members of the Jewish community.

"Convert. We'll make it as quick and easy as possible," Bernhard says. "The door is always open should they choose to go through it."

It is unclear how many of the Lemba will do that, or even believe the issue is important. So far, despite overtures by different Jewish organizations to encourage them to go through the conversion process, there are no reports of Lemba doing so.

That's because most Lemba remain uninformed about Judaism or remain distant from South Africa's predominantly white Jewish community, says Selamolela.

"The South African Jews did not look after us. They didn't build us schools or a synagogue. Because of apartheid we were ignored," he says. But relations are improving, if slowly, he says. Selamolela, for one, is seriously considering conversion.

Selamolela's home remains a snapshot of the contradictions of the Lemba. His living room is decorated with African crafts and ceramics, and he also displays a wall hanging of a menorah from one of his visits to Israel. His key chain is emblazoned with the word Shalom.

In his back yard he recently built a traditional African conical hut fashioned from the clay of termite mounds, cow dung and thatch, where he held the Rosh Hashana ceremony last weekend - a week before other Jews observe the holiday.

His son, Nicholas, who lives in Johannesburg, sends his daughter to a Jewish preschool yet has no plans to seek conversion. "You are Lemba first and Jewish second," he says.

Others members of his family appear comfortable intertwining their disparate beliefs: last week Selamolela's 16-year-old nephew Donald Selamolela attended a Hebrew school on Saturday morning, participated in the Rosh Hashana ceremony Saturday afternoon and on Sunday attended a Christian church with his mother.

"There are some things that are confusing," Donald Selamolela says of his tribe. "It is an interesting life."

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