Meet the Igbo, Nigeria's Lost Jewish Tribe

Some 15 years ago, the lawyer Remy C. Ilona traveled deep into rural Nigeria, on bus rides that lasted seven hours and through villages without electricity, just to hear stories. The folklore of origins and customs of his people, the Igbo, could be forgotten within a generation. So he came to document them.

“These things are not recorded in books,” Ilona said. “I studied the tradition directly.”

On treks to distant corners of his country, Ilona packed notepads, pens and a camera. But just as important to this work was a reference book: a Hebrew Bible. “I could understand the Tanach better because I understood the Igbos,” Ilona reflected. “And vice versa.”

There is an old belief among the Igbo population — at some 30 million people, one of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups — that they are descended from the ancient Israelites. After a bloody civil war in the 1960s left more than 1 million Igbos dead, their identification with the Jews, who faced their own genocide, took on a new depth.

In recent decades, several thousand Igbos have taken their affinity for Israel, ancient and modern, further. Not only do these Nigerians identify with Jews, they have begun practicing Judaism. And Ilona has emerged as their spokesman.

Based on the oral folklore he collected, Ilona published his first book in 2004 — and over the next decade wrote half a dozen more. Together they make something of an “Igbo Mishna,” as Ilona has called these collected tales, the most comprehensive insider ethnography of his people. Ilona has helmed community organizations and online forums, been featured in a documentary, and guided Western rabbis on their forays into Nigeria. Jonathan D. Sarna, a Brandeis professor of American Jewish studies, called Ilona “industrious and impressive.”

Though Ilona toiled for a decade in Nigeria, this past fall he enrolled in a distinguished Jewish studies program in Florida. “I am not the first person to talk about our Israelite origins,” Ilona said, speaking from Miami. “But I am the Igbo that has shown that our customs are actually Jewish customs.”

Ilona is an articulate and gregarious man who sometimes dons a fez, the national headwear of the Igbo people. He was born in the southeastern town of Ozubulu as the Nigerian civil war was drawing to a close, and was baptized, along with his six siblings, as a Catholic. He went to university nearby, and in 1991 he studied law in the capital, Lagos. For years, Ilona had a small law practice and also taught. By outward appearances, all was well.

But something was off. He felt adrift.

“I was not happy,” he said. “I looked at the state of Igbos, and I was not satisfied. They had lost direction. What could have led them to lose their way?” He saw Igbo businesses collapsing and a lack of ethnic unity: “When Igbos were not Christians they had a more cohesive community,” he said. “They lived longer; they were happier.”

Ilona, like everyone else, had heard about the Igbos’ Israelite roots. As a child, he learned about the horrors of the Biafran War a decade earlier — “our Holocaust,” Ilona calls it — in which more than 1 million Igbos, including two of Ilona’s uncles, perished in a failed bid for national independence.

There were also stereotypical “Jewish characteristics” attributed to the Igbos. Leading up to the war, the Igbos were seen as socially privileged and politically powerful (the war was, in part, sparked by an Igbo-led coup). During the fighting, international media even referred to Igbos as the “Jews of West Africa.” In the United States, the American Jewish Congress published a report on the war, comparing the Igbo’s plight to earlier Jewish persecution. In Israel, Magen David Adom—the Israeli Red Cross—flew food and supplies to the Igbos, and the government may even have provided arms.

During the Yom Kippur War a few years later, as Israel fought against a coalition of Arab armies, Ilona’s father reprimanded his young son for not following events in the Middle East more closely. “It’s Israel that’s at war,” Ilona’s father, who had been a solider, said. Then he reminded his young son that he should “know all about it.” The histories of the Igbo and Israel seemed intertwined: persecuted, embattled on all sides by enemies.

All this was on Ilona’s mind, but it wasn’t until 2001 that he began grappling with this Jewish identity. “I wanted to confirm that the Igbo came from Israel,” Ilona said. “I asked questions on the ground. I also went online.”

The Internet is full of websites that offer resources to people looking to bolster their knowledge of Judaism, and also a few that offer help to emergent, or re-emergent, Jews. Ilona sent out a flurry of emails introducing himself. “I am a Nigerian lawyer, and my people have heard we came from Israel,” he wrote. “I want to find out if this is true.”

Kulanu, a not-for-profit organization that provides support for isolated Jewish communities abroad, responded immediately. “We were taken with his research,” said Harriet Bograd, Kulanu’s president, who now runs the group out of her Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan. “He wrote beautifully and responded quickly. He was passionate about this story. And he felt the Igbo traditions were in danger.”

You may not find Igboland on a map; its borders were not set by colonial rulers or by government officials. It is a swath of land in the southeast of Nigeria, the size of Delaware, Connecticut and New Jersey combined, that is bound together by a language and ethnicity. An Igbo may move anywhere (Ilona has lived in both Abuja and Lagos), but Igboland, with its rainforests along the Niger River, is the beating heart of this people.

“I would go to an area in Igboland and stop someone, speaking only Igbo,” Ilona said about the early stages of his research. “I told the first person I saw, I wanted to talk to the elders, I wanted to talk about the origins of the Igbo. They would assemble the oldest persons in the community. Tell me where the Igbo people came from, I would say. And they responded without hesitation: from Israel.”

Colonial missionaries and anthropologists offer some of the earliest accounts of possible Israelite presence here. George T. Basden, an early 20th-century Anglican missionary, lived in Nigeria for decades and wrote the most detailed account, “Among the Ibos of Nigeria.” (“Ibo” is an alternative spelling for “Igbo.”) And as Igbo nationalism took shape, the Israelite identity played an important role. Independent Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, was also personally influenced by Basden.

But unlike Basden and other European observers, for whom the African continent was full of exotic mystery, Ilona writes as an insider chronicling his own people’s story — at once both building on these colonial accounts and offering corrections.

Lost Jews of Africa

Comparisons between the ancient Israelites and Igbos are detailed in Ilona’s books. He examines the entire Igbo life cycle, drawing out particular similarities: seclusion of women after childbirth, circumcision on the eighth day, marriage under a canopy, a seven-day mourning period after death. “I spoke to thousands of Igbo,” Ilona said. “It became so engrossing, I had to scale back my legal practice.”

Ilona also sought to retrace the steps of his ancestors, re-creating ancient migratory patterns through Africa and making notes along the way. “I traveled to the north of Nigeria, crossed into Chad, moved up into the desert,” Ilona recalled. “From Chad I veered west to the Niger Republic, journeyed into Mali, and stopped at the border between Mali and Morocco.”

Kulanu offered not only encouragement to Ilona but also, by 2003, had anointed him their “Nigerian Liaison.” Over the years the group provided Ilona with substantial material support: a monthly stipend of up to $500, a laptop, a kind of electrical generator and crates of Jewish books (titles by Chaim Potok and Joseph Telushkin, a Shulchan Aruch, a hefty Jewish encyclopedia and hundreds of other books).

“In the course of my research I found that the Igbo religion is still alive,” said Ilona, who studied his new library closely. “There is a modern version of it called Judaism.”

Moreover, Ilona found that he was not alone in this search for Jewish identity. Many other Igbos had taken this same path over the past decades. While Nigeria’s popular Sabbatarian churches practice a kind of Messianic Judaism, Ilona found a much smaller network of communities, which had shed all Christian elements. They were learning Hebrew, reading Torah and identifying not just as Israelites, but also as Jews. Today those communities, based largely in Abuja and Igboland, number up to 4,000 with about 70 synagogues, Ilona estimates.

“The Igbos that discovered that the Igbo religion is Judaism; they became Jewish and they dropped Christianity,” Ilona said. “When we found rabbinical Judaism we saw that it was the same as the Igbo traditions.”

Ilona’s profile grew. And so did international interest in the Igbo. He appeared regularly in Kulanu’s quarterly newsletter, chronicling his work and soliciting support. Rabbi Brant Rosen, a well-known Reconstructionist rabbi from Chicago, visited and wrote that he was impressed by Ilona’s “intense passion and commitment to his heritage.” And when Jeff Lieberman, a filmmaker, came to Nigeria to direct a documentary, Ilona was one of his first interviewees.

“I visited him in Nigeria,” said Daniel Lis, a Swiss-Israeli academic, when he was working on his book, “Jewish Identity Among the Igbo of Nigeria.” “Everyone he introduced me to was part of this Igbo Jewish movement. We traveled the whole time together, shared the same room. I wouldn’t have survived Nigeria without him.”

Howard S. Gorin, a Conservative rabbi now on Long Island, was intrigued when he learned that Judaism was growing in Africa. He traveled three times to visit the Igbo. Though he never oversaw any conversions in Nigeria, he did send crates of Judaica and helped Ilona build his library.

Gorin, whom some Igbo dubbed their “chief rabbi,” played a huge role in spreading rabbinic Jewish education; Kulanu’s steady support of Ilona also contributed. America’s own Hebrew Israelites, who are African American, have long taken interest in the story of Israelites in Africa and have also paid visits to Nigeria. And local customs are incorporated into ceremonies, like the chewing of the bitter and caffeinated kola nut and the ritual washing of hands before entering places of worship.

“I was taken by the way they pray and sing songs,” said Rabbi Barry Dolinger, who hosted a group of Igbo elders at his Orthodox Rhode Island synagogue and also went on a trip, partially funded by Kulanu, to visit Nigeria. “They compose their own songs and have an oral tradition where teachers go from village to village. It reminds me of early Hasidic culture.”

For journalists, rabbis and academics, Ilona acted as an eager source. Kulanu called him their “grand initiator.” He was a conduit: Rabbinic Judaism flowed in to the Igbos, and Jews abroad also learned about Ilona’s growing community. “Most of the houses we went to had few possessions,” Dolinger recalled of his trip. “Remy’s house was stuffed with books. He seemed to love ideas.”

“There must have been Judaism in Nigeria before, but who heard about it? Almost nobody,” one Nigerian man marveled at the time, quoted in a Kulanu newsletter. “Yet in a very short period, Ilona has made it a subject of discussion among the Igbos. This is proof that a man with a will of iron can build or rebuild a nation.”

Ilona’s success belies difficult questions that face the Judaizing communities of Nigeria—and others emerging elsewhere. Can these communities, each with their own stories, be accepted by global Jewry as they are? And, in looking for acceptance, where should they turn? Who are the gatekeepers to Judaism today?

The Igbos’ oral history of their Israelite origin, foundational for Ilona’s work, has perhaps posed the most challenges. In one case, detailed in Lis’s book, which began in 1988, an Igbo man named Chima Onyeulo—a onetime soldier in the Biafran War, who had also lived in Italy—tried to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Regional rabbinical courts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Ministry of the Interior and the Chief Rabbinate all weighed in.

The religious authorities told Onyeulo repeatedly that he would have to convert. He wasn’t interested. Arguing his case, Onyeulo offered both Igbo and colonial accounts of Jewish customs among his people. (The chief rabbi of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews also spoke on Onyeulo’s behalf.) But in 1994, Israel’s Supreme Court dismissed the case. “There are no historical, halachic or national grounds,” the court ruled, “to view the members of the Igbo tribe as Jews.”

In 2006, around 80 Tel Aviv-based Igbos went through a mass conversion, overseen by rabbinical judges from the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic community. But because most of the converts did not hold residency permits, they were kicked out. (Despite deportation, they continued practicing Judaism while back in Nigeria, said Ilona, who was close with one of the men.)

Kulanu has been most active in Nigeria, but Shavei Israel, an Israel-based foundation that supports isolated communities, may also offer a path into the mainstream. Unlike Kulanu, Shavei places a special emphasis on immigration to Israel. Its outreach elsewhere has been fruitful: The organization has helped thousands of Bnei Menashe from India, who hold similar claims of Israelite heritage, immigrate to Israel. Controversially, many were initially settled in the West Bank. This past May, Shavei sent its first emissary to Nigeria.

And the black Hebrew Israelites, who have had their own long and complicated relationship with mainstream Jewry, are also reaching out to the Igbo. The chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, Chicago-based Capers C. Funnye, recently made his sixth trip to Nigeria to provide religious guidance. Funnye (who believes that his South Carolinian family has Igbo roots) wants to see a formalized return to Judaism for Igbo, but one that is respectful of local culture. “We are going to talk about what it means to bring them as returnees,” Funnye said, “and what that process looks like.”

For many Western Jews, it’s the Igbos’ religious observance that has been the most appealing; the Igbo are seen to be practicing not entirely halachic Judaism, but perhaps a folksy Judaism, with “heart and soul.” “What’s most resonant with American Jews is their syncretic practice, their songs, their rhythms. It is a very alive Judaism,” Dolinger said. “I myself, honestly, I’m less concerned with the historicity of their claims.”

In this respect, Ilona and some American backers seem to be talking past each other. Ilona’s supporters are more drawn to the modern-day story of the Igbo than to the lineage that he has spent years trying to document.

And to the extent that the goal of some outreach is to bring the Igbos’ practice closer to the rabbinic Judaism recognized by mainstream religious institutions, Ilona is a challenging, even frustrating, figure. “Conversion,” he has said, “is not a word friendly to the Igbo.”

Ilona takes every conversation with a colleague, every email exchange with an academic, every interview with a journalist, as an opportunity not just to tell, but also to prove, this Israelite-Igbo ancestral connection. If acceptance means somehow shedding the historicity of his work, letting go of the story that has been with him since childhood, that’s not an acceptance Ilona is looking for.

“Remy has a heavy focus on this Israelite-Igbo lineage,” Dolinger said. “Other Igbos believe this, but are more concerned with their religious practice. For him, each Igbo is an Israelite and they need to know that.”

Sarna, the Brandeis historian, fields queries about Jewish history every day. His book “American Judaism” won the National Jewish Book Award. Around 2008 he received what may have been the most unusual query, from a man in Nigeria who said his people were Jews. “He wrote to me and encouraged me to look at his work,” Sarna said. Initially, Sarna had some reservations about Ilona’s focus on the lost tribe lineage, which he thought echoed earlier colonial writing. But “he was very earnest; and I thought: We in the Jewish community ought to make it possible for him to pursue his passion.”

The two began speaking about the possibility of Ilona studying at Brandeis. But funding proved difficult; Ilona had serious health issues and needed an operation. The opportunity slipped by.

“He almost died a few years ago,” Lis said. “He didn’t have the medical treatment he needed. He lost weight. But he didn’t give up, he sacrificed everything to this topic.”

In 2014, Ilona tried another academic, Tudor Parfitt, who he knew was a leading scholar of emergent Judaism. Parfitt, now director of Florida International University’s Global Jewish Studies program, had spent years studying the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and the Lemba of Zimbabwe and South Africa, who also claim Israelite origins. Parfitt was not as surprised as Sarna was to hear from the enterprising author from Abuja.

“I had known about Ilona for years,” said Parfitt, who called Ilona’s early books “very interesting primary documents.” Ilona applied to study with Parfitt in Florida, and the finances came together this time. Ilona is a Jonathan Symons fellow, meaning he basically has a full ride. He started classes last fall.

Years ago, when what Kulanu hailed as the “first Hebrew Centre in Nigeria” opened with support from the U.S. group, it was cause for celebration. The crowd was made up of Igbos (Christian, Messianic and Judaizing) and a visiting Canadian. Together they sang “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, and played folksongs from Morocco and Yemen. It was a scene both local and global, like the Igbos’ own story.

For the still relatively small number of Igbos who have chosen it, the path into rabbinic Judaism has been complex: Sephardim, Ashkenazim and Hebrew Israelites have been involved; Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis have all met these would-be members of the tribe.

Still, the Igbos have so far been treated as a fringe issue, perhaps even as an oddity. But Parfitt, whose scholarly work has focused on such remote communities with Jewish claims, estimates that apart from Jews already ensconced within mainstream Jewry, there are 14 million self-identifying Jews worldwide, many who claim Jewish or Israelite ancestry. They include groups in Africa, Asia and the Americas. That’s roughly equal to the number of Jews affiliated with major denominations worldwide.

“This is Judaism,” said Parfitt, who takes an academic perspective, removed from some of the complexities of Jewish law and sidestepping the fraught demographic debates of Israel. “They see themselves as Jews. They love other Jews and they love Israel. And Remy is part of that movement.”

From his new home in Miami, Ilona cooks breakfast for himself and often walks to class. He misses his children (two girls and a boy), who are still in Igboland with their mother. She calls him every day. “Anytime she calls, I pick up, even if I’m sleeping,” he said.

When he’s not in class, Ilona meanders through the nearby Jewish Museum, taking in exhibits, pausing to read placards next to glass cases and faded photos of Jewish history in Florida. “What happens to any Jew, anywhere, I take it as what happens to me,” Ilona said. “My father died before I began this work, but he told me so much about Israel. My mother said, ‘See this work to the end, many people will benefit.’ If you lost your tradition, when you return you appreciate it so much. You don’t want to lose it again.”

Inevitably, he assumes the role of emissary for the Igbo, like when a new friend, a Jewish woman named Ruth, recently introduced Ilona to another colleague. “Meet Remy,” Ruth said. “His people claim they’re Jewish.”

Ilona politely interrupted: “Not claim, we state.” He laughed it off, though, and even turned the interaction into a running joke with Ruth, who has an Ashkenazi background. He had the chance to introduce her later that week. “Meet Ruth,” Ilona said, smiling. “Her people claim they’re Jewish.”

Contact Sam Kestenbaum at feedback@forward.com and follow himon Twitter, @skestenbaum

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