Our Month With the Lemba, Zimbabwe's Jewish Tribe

Bringing Hebrew and Halacha to Harare

A Teaching Moment: Elaine Berg meets with Lemba children in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Courtesy of Irwin and Elaine Berg
A Teaching Moment: Elaine Berg meets with Lemba children in Harare, Zimbabwe.

By Irwin and Elaine Berg

Published March 01, 2014, issue of March 07, 2014.
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Further DNA testing confirmed Jenkins’s results. DNA tests of Jewish Cohanim, or descendants of the Israelite priestly class, show that over 50 percent have a specific marker known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype. The tests showed that Cohanim who carried the CMH were descended from a single common male who lived about 3,000 years ago in the Middle East. (This would coincide with the time that Solomon built the First Temple.)

According to Lemba tradition, a male named Buba was the founder of the Buba priestly clan. CMH was found in more than 50 percent of the Buba clan. It appears that Buba was a Cohen.

During our month with the Lemba, we taught a small group in Harare to read Hebrew and learn prayers, and gave them daily lectures on Jewish history, as well as lectures on Jewish beliefs, holidays, customs and ceremonies.

We found a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of those we met — mainly Maeresera’s contacts in the community — for learning about “traditional” Judaism. In addition to the formal lessons, we spent many hours just talking about ideas, customs, and history. This is clearly a group that is embracing a new future with sincerity and commitment.

They told us they saw our presence as a message from the world Jewish community that they were being accepted as Jews. They also demonstrated great pride in being Lemba and a desire to preserve as many of their own traditions as possible.

Of course, we learned from the Lemba, too. Living with Maeresera and his extended family of eight — including three children under the age of four — in housing provided by Kulanu in Harare, we shared meals of rice, potatoes, eggs, or the national dish, a polenta-like paste called sadza. The four women of the household were busy with chores all day. Since water was not readily available, just washing dishes and handwashing clothing required a huge effort, including filling and moving large vats of water collected when water was available, and then heating them over a gas stove.

Our greatest surprise was that Harare, once a wealthy and sophisticated city, suffered from a lack of municipal services. Water and electricity were available sporadically, the streets were full of potholes, and the streetlights only worked in midtown and near the airport. The United States dollar has been Zimbabwe’s official currency since 2009. However, there is almost no coinage in the country, so when you shop, change is often given in candy, gum or pens.

The Lemba live in a Christian society. The schools they attend, especially the better schools run by churches, and even those supported by the state, teach Christianity. Many Lemba have converted to Christianity even while retaining some of their particular traditions such as circumcision and kosher eating practices. “Messianic” protestant missionaries have now targeted those Lemba who have not yet converted.

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