Zimbabwe is not a popular tourist destination for Americans Jews, or Americans at all. But in October of last year, we — a retired lawyer and a retired health care executive from New York City — went there to meet with an emerging Jewish community with ancient roots, the Lemba.
Modreck Maeresera, one of the leaders of the Lemba, had invited us to Zimbabwe to spend a month with him and his tribe. He is a 38-year-old Lemba, who was formally converted to Judaism by a beit din on a month-long trip to the United States, during which we first met him.
Our trip, and Maeresera’s to the United States, were both facilitated by Kulanu, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world. We have been active members of Kulanu almost since its inception in the early 1990s, and have traveled to Uganda, Mali, Ethiopia, China and South America with it.
We had known about the Lemba, having read Tudor Parfitt’s book, “Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel.” Both the oral history and the customs of the Lemba make clear their Jewish origins, though only some Lemba consider themselves Jewish.
Saturday is their day of rest, sexual relations between men and women are forbidden during the woman’s menstrual period, they observe most Jewish dietary laws, the manner in which they slaughter and drain animals shows a familiarity with kosher rules, and they believe in an abstract and singular God. They also circumcise their male children at age 8, a symbolic gesture toward the eight-day Jewish circumcision rule.
Tribal tradition holds that the Lemba people, who are now scattered across Zimbabwe and South Africa and number in the tens of thousands, originated in the Holy Land and came to Africa via Yemen. The original group was made up of just seven or eight male traders, who eventually married African women. In an article published in The American Journal of Human Genetics in 1996, geneticist Trefor Jenkins showed that 50 percent of the Lemba Y chromosomes were Semitic in origin. He also proved the veracity of the Lemba legend that their founding group consisted of seven or eight men.