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Nigeria's Jews Celebrate Hanukkah

Dec 14, 2012
Originally published on December 16, 2012 8:51 am

"Being welcomed by and embraced by Igbos, who take Judaism so seriously ... it raises the question of what it means to be a Jew," says William Miles.

Three years ago, Miles, a self-proclaimed semi-practicing Jew, decided to celebrate Hanukkah in Africa's most populous country. He wrote about his experience in a new book called Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey. He tells NPR's Tell Me More host Michel Martin that he found "a very Jewish community, but also a very African community."

The Igbo are an ethnic group in the southeast of the country. Miles explains that a long oral history connects them to one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. "The tribe of Gad made its way all the way to West Africa, and they have been preserving ancient Israelite Hebrew traditions ever since, and so they claim they are just rediscovering their old roots," he says.

But based on his experience, Miles explains, there is more to the recent embracing of their beliefs.

"Even though they claim that they're going back to their ancient roots, it's only in the last couple of decades that they are actually practicing as Jews in a way that is recognized in global Judaism," he says.

Miles describes the Jewish Igbo as the "world's first Internet Jews." Through online research, they learned more about how Judaism is practiced throughout the world and started to master Hebrew. "It's really tough to learn Hebrew on your own," Miles points out, but "they are masters at it."

Miles says their celebration of Hanukkah would be "very familiar to any American Jew who plops down in Abuja." The main difference is their access to Jewish ritual objects to celebrate with. For example, instead of lighting candles at home, they lit a makeshift menorah at the synagogue. "Picture this: Coke bottles, which they painted ... a wooden box to put them in, and then put whatever candles they have."

"I have to say, Nigerians take religion very seriously," he says. Miles describes meeting Jewish Igbos who had made some significant sacrifices for their faith. One told him, " 'My wife ... insisted that we should go back to Christianity. Look, I said, I have found the faith of my forefathers, there's just no going back. So we parted, just like that, because of the religion.' "

The Jewish Igbo are not yet recognized by Israel's rabbinate, but Miles says that does not matter to them. "They are happy to be acting, practicing, worshipping as Jews," he says.

It's this commitment that Miles feels should raise questions for him and others in the Diaspora who "don't really feel that it's that important to practice Judaism." He claims that "if any Jew has the privilege to spend time with this Igbo Jewish community ... they would acknowledge that they have a lot to teach Jews around the world what it means to be Jewish."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll find out more about the late civil rights activist Lawrence Guyot and his impact on American politics. That's in a moment. But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith, religion, and spirituality.

You probably know that Hannukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights is being observed this week around the world. But what you might not know is that one of those celebrations is taking place in Nigeria. Nigeria is Africa's most populous country and one of its most diverse. And among the Igbo, an ethnic group in the southeast of the country, thousands of people have embraced Judaism.

Jewish Igbo are not recognized by Israel's rabbinate but there numbers are growing. Three years ago, William Mile spent Hannukah with some members of this community. He's just published a book about them. It's called "Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey." And William Miles, who's also a professor of political science at Northeastern University is with us now. Welcome and thank you so much for joining us.

WILLIAM MILES: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: You book describes them as Africa's newest Jewish community. How did it happen that this community of Igbo are now embracing Judaism?

MILES: So there are two stories, Michel. One is the oral history and the other is what I saw and what I experienced. And their oral history is that they are a lost tribe. One of the lost 10 tribes of Israel, the tribe of God, made its way all the way to West Africa, and that they have been preserving ancient Israelite Hebrew traditions ever since. And so they claim that they are just rediscovering their old, old roots.

MARTIN: Rediscovering their roots.

MILES: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, in the same way I think people are familiar with the Ethiopian Jewish community, which now has a significant presence in Israel. But the Ethiopian Jews, as I understand it, are recognized by the Israel rabbinate but the Nigerian Jews are not.

MILES: Right. And they're recognized by the Israeli rabbinate in large part because there has been a continuous record of Hebraic and Jewish practice on the part of the Ethiopians for thousands of years, actually. That's not case with the Igbos because even though they claim that they're going back to their ancient roots, it's only in the last couple of decades that they are actually practicing as Jews.

MARTIN: Now, you describe them as the world's first Internet Jews. Because you're saying that as the Internet became more widely available in Nigeria, it gave these people the opportunity to explore and embrace the religion. So can you describe, like, how that worked out? What was it? Was it there were, like, a group of families who had a strong informal or oral tradition connection to Judaism and then began to practice more formally? Is that how it worked?

MILES: That's how it works. And, you know, I have to say that Nigerians and Africans, they take religion very seriously. I mean, a lot of people, they go to bed at night wondering am I in the right faith? And so it happened with this particular group of what they called Messianic Jews.

These were Jews who were practicing what they thought was the Judaism that Jesus practiced and that that is the Judaism, including Jesus, that was good for them. And then they discovered, partially through the Internet that Judaism actually has evolved in the last couple thousand years and that there were people who called themselves Jews who don't need to have Jesus within their theology.

And through the Internet they learned about how Judaism is worshipped throughout the world. And most fascinatingly, they started to master Hebrew. It's really tough to learn Hebrew on your own but thanks to the Internet and through some photocopied prayer books, they are masters at it.

MARTIN: So you spent Hannukah with some members of this community. How similar was it to how you would've celebrated at home?

MILES: Well, it would be very familiar to any American Jew who plops down in Abuja in either of the synagogues that's there. The difference is they don't really have the access to Jewish ritual objects that we did. So, for instance, I brought some portable menorahs for the lighting of the Hannukah candles that I went and it was the first time that people were able to light in their own homes.

Because what they would do otherwise, they would gather at the synagogue and light a makeshift menorah. And you've got to picture this: Coke bottles, which they painted. Built a wooden box to put them in, and then put regular, whatever candles they have, and they would light those. And that was the menorah.

MARTIN: You described a lot of the creativity that has gone into the embrace of the faith. But you also talked about the fact that some of these families have made some fairly major sacrifices in order to adopt and embrace Judaism as fully as they would like to do so. Could you just talk a little bit about that?

MILES: Sure. So there's this one Nigerian Igbo whose name is Emmanuel ben Unitan (ph) and his Igbo name was Abor (ph). And he said my wife could not comprehend and insisted that we should go back to Christianity. Look, I said, I have found the faith of my forefathers. There's just no going back. So we parted, just like that, because of the religion.

I mean, that's what I'm saying. They take their religion so seriously that having to choose between remaining with a wife who wants to remain Messianic, or Christian, in whatever sense and regaining what they see as the faith of their forefathers, they're going to take the sacrifice.

MARTIN: What is the prospect for this community being recognized by the rabbinate in Israel? And why does it matter that they are?

MILES: Well, for them it doesn't matter. They are happy to be acting, worshipping, practicing as Jews. And one of the Igbos whom I asked this said, you know, from here in Nigeria we're already dong Hashem's work. So no need for me to go to Israel and stir up any trouble.

That's the thing about Judaism. It has prospered in the Diaspora and just as many - most - American Jews happy living as Jews, worshipping, practicing, identifying as Jews in North America, that's the way it is for most of the Igbos.

MARTIN: What do you draw from this? I mean, there are often very spirited debates about how Judaism should be practiced, you know, in part because of the various continuum of practice. What does a story like this do for your understanding, do you think, of what it means to be Jewish?

MILES: Well, here in America and a lot in the Diaspora and in Israel, one does not have to practice Judaism to be a Jew. The ethnic identity is sufficient. What my experience with the Igbos in Nigeria reinforced in me is that you can't take the Judaism out of the Jew. And it really raised questions for me as a semi-practicing Jew - I'll put it that way - for all of my coethnics here in America and elsewhere throughout the Diaspora who don't really feel that it's that important to practice Judaism.

But here, being confronted, being welcomed by and embraced by Igbos who take Judaism so seriously, what it raises is the question of what does it mean to be a Jew when otherwise one might have the option to take the religion seriously or not?

And if any Jew has the opportunity, has privilege as I did, to spend time with this Igbo Jewish community - which I called Jewbo because they're Jewish and Igbo - I think they would acknowledge that they have a lot to teach Jews around the world what it means to be Jewish. And I also wanted to say that this really is a double story. This is a very Jewish community but it's also a very African community.

And that's why I subtitled the book "An Afro-Judaic Odyssey." Because it really is exploring Igbo culture and Igbo traditions as well as Judaism in an unexpected context.

MARTIN: William Miles is a professor of political science at Northeastern University. He's the author of a number of books. His latest is "Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey." It's out now. He was kind enough to join us from Rhode Island Public Radio in Providence, Rhode Island. Professor Miles, thank you for joining us. And if I may, Happy Hannukah to you.

MILES: And Happy Hannukah to you too, Michel.

MARTIN: One more word about Nigeria. You might recall that we ran an interview earlier this week with Nigeria's finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Her 82-year-old mother was kidnapped on Sunday just days after that conversation. We can now report that her mother has now been released and is now back with her family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.