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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 3 of 4)

Our students — we taught about 15 people during our time in Zimbabwe — expressed concern that the current generation is not keeping the beliefs and traditions of the Lemba as strictly as prior generations. This is a result of the economic conditions in the country, the migration from traditional villages to cities, and the globalizing force of Internet, media, and exposure to other values that affects populations around the world.

This tendency to stray has been noted by the elders who have been struggling to find ways to combat it. Some believe that in order to survive, the Lemba must rejoin the world Jewish community.

In Zimbabwe, the “traditional” Jewish community knows of the Lemba, but for many reasons (some of them halachic) it has not accepted them.

These white European Jews came to the country prior to the 1930s for economic reasons, and some as survivors of the Holocaust. They found success as farmers, business people and factory owners. The mid-1960s saw the demographic pinnacle of Jewish life in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), with over 7,000 Jews in the country. A rich Jewish life developed there, with Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities living in harmony. Today, largely as a result of the violent land reform in the 1990s, there are fewer than 300 Jews in Harare, the capital, about 50 in Bulawayo, the second largest city, and virtually none elsewhere in the country. In Harare, there continues to be separate Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues, but the communities have merged. They conduct services together, alternating synagogues, yet despite this are barely able to scratch up a minyan for Shabbat.

Two-thirds of the Harare Jews are older than 65 — their children have left for the United Kingdom, Israel, the United States and Australia. The last bar mitzvah is said to have taken place in 2006. Their once flourishing Hebrew school now educates a vast majority of non-Jewish children.

As far as we know, there had been no communication between the Lemba and the local Jewish community until our visit, when we brought Maeresera to Shabbat services in the Sephardic synagogue in Harare. Irwin and Maeresera sat in the second row in the synagogue — Elaine sat separately with the women — and the group of 12 worshippers welcomed Maeresera. We understand that a member of the synagogue is helping Maeresera continue his Hebrew lessons.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.