Igbo Jews of Africa as detailed in Forward – The Jewish Daily
LAGOS, Nigeria – Efraim Uba was born and raised Catholic in southeastern Nigeria, the homeland of the Ibo ethnic group. He spent 17 years as a Pentecostal preacher before joining a messianic congregation where members wore yarmulkes and tallits but praised Jesus. In 1999, one congregant traveled to Israel and came back claiming that the Ibos were Jews. He convinced the whole congregation to embrace Judaism.
“We believe we are from Israel, and we only recently discovered that so many old Ibo traditions were in fact Jewish ones,” said Uba, 60, who was wearing a large silver Jewish star around his neck. In 1999, he founded the Association of Jewish Faith in Nigeria, an organization with some 20 congregations, most of them in his native region. He is one of an estimated 30,000 Nigerians – a fraction of the nation’s 135 million people – who claim to be Jewish. In recent years, they have abandoned the Christian faith of most southern Nigerians and are longing for official recognition by rabbis and by Israel. Just this summer, four members of the community were the first to formally convert to Judaism.
Following the examples of Ethiopia’s Falashas, the Lembas of South Africa and Uganda’s Abuyudaya, the Nigerian Jews are part of a growing number of sub-Saharan Africans who have embraced Judaism. Nigeria’s Jews, like the Falashas, claim to be descendants of some of Israel’s lost tribes who settled in what is now southeast Nigeria. By comparison, the Abuyudayas do not claim to have blood ties to the ancient Israelites and converted by following a local leader.
“There is a real phenomenon of construction of a Jewish identity in sub-Saharan Africa over the last few decades,” said Edith Bruder, a French researcher who recently published “The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity” (Oxford University Press). “You have a belief among some local communities that they are descendants of Jewish communities who settled there since ancient times. This phenomenon has accelerated recently with the Falasha precedent and the globalization of information.”
The Nigerian Jewish claim was bolstered several years ago with the discovery in the area of an onyx stone reportedly bearing the name “Gad” in ancient Hebrew. In addition, the Ibo Benei-Yisrael, as they sometimes call themselves, have traditions bearing some resemblance to Judaism. Among them are the circumcisions of newborn males on the eighth day, the separation of women during the menstrual cycles, the mourning period resembling a shiva and the prohibition of eating the meat of an animal that was not blessed. There is also the blowing of a ram’s horn, akin to blowing of the shofar.
Reluctant to convert
But to be officially recognized as Jewish is a tedious process. Israel granted that recognition to the Falashas only after careful vetting. The Abuyudayas underwent a conservative conversion six years ago, a path the Ibos are reluctant to embrace. Their reasoning is simple: To convert would undercut their claim to be Jewish by ancestry. “We are Israelites. This is our identity, and our religion is Judaism, so being denied inclusion into the Jewish family makes us feel lost,” said Michael Ginika, a 53-year-old accounting teacher. ……………………………..
By Marc Perelman October 2, 2008.