Lost Jews of Africa

From Ghana to Zimbabwe, Tribes Claim Jewish Heritage

Lost Jews: The Lemba people of southern Zimbabwe are one of several scattered African tribes that claim Jewish ancestry.
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Lost Jews: The Lemba people of southern Zimbabwe are one of several scattered African tribes that claim Jewish ancestry.

By JTA

Published August 14, 2012.
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Filmmaker Laurence Gavron is on a journey to document lost Jewish tribes in Africa.

The French-born Gavron, who has made Senegal her home since 1989, says she was immediately taken by the project, which she says combines her passion for Africa with the mystery of rediscovering Judaism.

Laurence Gavron
jta
Laurence Gavron

The film, titled “Black Jews, Juifs noir en Afrique,” focuses on a dozen African tribes – in Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and other countries – each with a Jewish story. Some claim to be descendants of the Bible’s 10 Lost Tribes. Others believe that their ancestors were Jews who emigrated from Judea to Yemen looking for gold.

Rabbinical authorities have not accepted any of the groups as Jewish under halachah, Jewish law, although all the tribes strive to be recognized as such at some level or another.

Edith Bruder, who has been studying these Jewish groups for more than a decade and wrote the book “The black Jews of Africa, history, identity, religion,” turned to Gavron for the film, which is expected to be released in the coming months.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, you can find ‘Judaic’ tribes in Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Uganda, Cameroon, South Africa, Zimbabwe and even in Sao Tome and other countries. There are many of them,” Bruder said. “It is really a vast subject.”

The two women are documenting Sabbath celebrations in remote African villages, Ghanaian Jews practicing circumcision and Jewish-African traditional marriage ceremonies. They have even been deep into the forests filming black Jews preparing their “kosher” meals – in their own tradition, the way the Torah explains it simply – not mixing the meat of the veal with its mother’s cow milk.

Filming a Shabbat service in Ghana was a moving experience, Gavron says.

“At the end, [I was] really very touched and almost started crying,” she said.

The French connection between Bruder and Gavron seems almost predestined: Gavron with her fascination for Africa and for her Jewish roots, and Bruder’s researching of “Jewish-related subjects” for most of her academic career. Their producer, too, is French: Anne Schushman of Scuch Productions.

“I am very interested in Jewish people, being one, and in blacks, living in Africa and having become Senegalese,” Gavron said. “So black Jews is something that was more than perfect for me.”


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