Igbo Jews of Nigeria Strive to Study and Practice
by Shai Afsai (July 2013)
Many Igbo, while practicing Christianity, nonetheless self-identify as Jews. This phenomenon dates back to the late 18th century, when the Igbo encountered Christianity, were introduced to the Bible, and observed similarities between their native customs and those of the ancient Hebrews.
In his popular 1789 autobiography, first published in London, Equiano Olaudah, a former Igbo slave turned abolitionist, remarked on “the strong analogy” that “appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen, and those of the Jews.” Pointing to circumcision, sacrifices, and purifications as examples of this resemblance, he concluded “that the one people had sprung from the other.” Many Igbo — who are now Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic group — have since similarly concluded that they are of Jewish descent.
A much more recent phenomenon has been a movement among some Igbo to match their tradition of Jewish descent with the learning of Hebrew and the practice of Judaism. Outside of Nigeria, there has been growing interest in the country’s Igbo Jews, who now number somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000. In 2012, New York filmmaker Jeff Lieberman released Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria, a documentary containing interviews with Igbo Jews and chronicling a three-week visit to the country by Rabbi Howard Gorin of Maryland. Earlier this year, Professor William Miles of Northeastern University published Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey, based on his two visits to Igbo Jews in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. A book on Nigeria’s Jews written by Daniel Lis of the University of Basel will be coming out in 2013 as well.
A family of Igbo Jews gets ready to enter Abuja's Tikvat Israel synagogue
Following an invitation from Habakkuk Nwafor, head of the capital’s Tikvat Israel synagogue, I recently traveled to Abuja, staying for a week with him and his family. Prior to my visit, Rabbi Gorin and Nwafor requested that a number of hazzanim (prayer leaders) and Hebrew teachers travel from Igboland to Abuja to meet with me, and four of them traveled over eight hours by bus to do so. One of these men, Eben Cohen, had taught himself Hebrew in part by acquiring materials through the mail from the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Israel. He also began instructing others. His first students now have students of their own, and knowledge of Hebrew continues to increase in Nigeria. Eben Cohen pointed with pride to Yehuda, Hezekiah, and Emmanuel, three teenage members of Tikvat Israel, but said he was especially moved by the exertions of older people. “When I see adults and elders struggling to learn alongside the younger ones, I find encouragement for my efforts and know I must work harder,” said Eben Cohen.
The visits to Abuja by Westerners have made a lasting impression on the city’s Igbo Jews. After befriending Rabbi Gorin in 2004, Habakkuk Nwafor renamed his synagogue Tikvat Israel, in honor of the Rockville synagogue that Gorin presided over for 32 years, before retiring last year, and Nwafor’s home became Gorin’s abode in Abuja. Alongside family portraits hanging in the Nwafors’ living room are three prominent photographs of Gorin, Jeff Lieberman, and William Miles dressed in Nigerian garb.
Yehuda beneath the letters of the Hebew alphabet in Abuja's Tikvat Israel synagogue
Igbo Jewish scholarship in Abuja has also been impacted by the Swiss-Israeli Daniel Lis, who has pointed out that already in the mid-nineteenth century there was some rabbinic interest in the possibility that a lost tribe of Jews might be living in what is now Nigeria. Lis’s editorial advice was sought for the locally-published The Igbos: Jews in Africa (2007), written by Nigerian attorney and author Remy Ilona. While I was in Abuja, Ilona came by Habakkuk Nwafor’s home to discuss Nigerian Jewry, and also presented me with a copy of the book. In it Ilona provides a detailed description of Igbo religious beliefs and practices, and attempts to demonstrate their similarly to Judaism. Since Igbo Jews consider themselves to be descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, and view much of Igbo tradition and culture as being essentially Israelite, it is of great importance to them to locate and record these similarities.
A more recently published example of this genre of Igbo literature is Dr. Caliben I.O. Michael’s 2011 Our Roots: Igbo Israel Heritage. One morning, Michael, a physician and surgeon, drove me and several other men to his Abuja residence, which also houses a synagogue and Igbo foundation. Above the dashboard of his van were the flags of Israel and Nigeria, and “OBGI Israel Heritage Foundation” was emblazoned on its side. Seated next to him was a young musician, Zadok Hayim, and as we drove Michael played a CD of Igbo Jewish music he’d recently helped Zadok Hayim produce.
The two men are in the process of releasing the album, Heaven in the Ghetto, whose songs in Hebrew and English focus on religious themes and Jewish identity. Michael contends that European and Christian influences have harmfully altered Igbo society, and its members must now, as one of the OGBI foundation’s pamphlets envisions, “rejuvenate the latent/dormant Hebrew souls of the Igbos to reflect their real essence.” He hopes Zadok Hayim’s music will increase awareness of Nigeria’s Jews.
Ariel, Pinchas, Eben-Cohen, and Sar Habakkuk in Abuja's Tikvat Israel synagogue
Though lacking local rabbis and often lacking sufficient religious items, including Torah scrolls, tallitot (prayer shawls), and tefillin (phylacteries), the Igbo Jews I met are practicing a joyous, forward-looking Judaism, composing their own prayer melodies, continuing to learn Hebrew, and maintaining ties with Jews abroad. Professor Miles surmises that Igbo Jews “are probably the world’s first Internet Jews,” and the Internet has indeed helped them study Hebrew and Judaism. Even in this age of social media and long-distance learning, however, there is still no substitute for direct human contact. “They are yearning and striving, under difficult conditions, to learn and observe Judaism to their maximum ability,” states Miles.
The Igbo Jews await further visits from rabbis and Jewish teachers who are willing to instruct them. They also seek to send some of their members to study Judaism in the U.S. or Israel. “Right now we are trying to get the traditions right, to do things the right way,” said Pinchas Ogbukaa, a member of Abuja’s Gihon synagogue. Above all, the Igbo Jews desire teachers and schools so that their children can receive a proper Jewish education within Nigeria. “For us, education is the most important thing,” said Ogbukaa.
Shai Afsai lives in Providence. His article "'The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man': Historical Fabrication and an Anti-Zionist Myth" appears in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, 30 (2012).
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