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Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria

Posted By Ilya Galak & Alan Galak On May 17, 2013 @ 12:10 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 10 Comments

Like many young men and women growing up in Nigeria, Shmuel consistently heard that the Igbo people were Jews.

Yet, two centuries of Christian Colonialism prevented him and many other Igbo from exploring that connection further. When an Internet café opens in his town, Shmuel begins by comparing Igbo traditions with Hebrew traditions. What he found starts him on a journey that eventually leads him to a community of thousands of Igbo Jews. Yet, despite the Igbo Jews’ passionate commitment to Judaism they are often met with outside scorn, family rejection and violence.

In a devoutly religious country, with an Igbo population of 25 million, the movement has the potential to re-define Judaism. It also raises questions of identity for countless African-Americans, many who were once Igbo.

Filmmaker Jeff Lieberman has explored these very issues in his new documentary “Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria.” Recently, Mr. Lieberman was kind enough to sit down for an interview on his acclaimed work.

Q: To put it simply, how did they get there?

Jeff Lieberman: The Igbo have been living in West Africa for generations.  Many Igbo believe they descend from a forefather named Eri, so some Jewish Igbo believe there might be a link to the biblical Eri, who was the grandson of Jacob, and son of Gad.  Others theorize that the Igbo may have been exposed to Judaism through British Colonialists, many who were searching for “Lost Tribes of Israel.”  Another possibility is that the Igbo traded with Jewish traders who might have been fleeing persecutions in Spain, Portugal and North Africa.  That’s one question the film explores at length.

Q: Jeff, please tell us a bit about yourself

JL: I am a New-York based Journalist, Television Producer and Documentary Filmmaker.  I grew up in Vancouver, Canada and trained at Ryerson University in Toronto, and UCLA’s Professional Program in Producing.  For many years, I worked as a documentary producer in Los Angles, producing making-of-the-movie programs for HBO, Starz and many DVDs.  For the past 5 years, I have been working as a Broadcast Journalist at both The New York Post, and CBS National News.  More recently, I have been focused on my production company, RE-EMERGING FILMS, and 2 documentaries, “RE-EMERGING: The Jews of Nigeria” and a documentary film on the late, great Nina Simone.

Q: Where did you get the idea for this project? What was the inspiration?

JL: I was sitting in my office in LA one day when I got an email from a synagogue I sometimes attended. It was an invitation to a lecture and slide show from a Maryland-based rabbi who would be talking about his recent trip to Uganda and Nigeria.  On a lark, I went.  I thought the subject would be really fascinating as I always had an interest in different forms of Judaism, as well as a love/interest/curiosity about Africa.  Viewing Rabbi Howard Gorin’s pictures, I was mesmerized. One picture stands out in particular – a hut in the forest with a Star of David above the door. The rabbi explained that was a synagogue. After the presentation, I approached him and asked him why he didn’t have more pictures and why no video.  He said it was just him and a small camera.  I told him the next time he goes; I would love to join him.  He later told me that he didn’t think I was all that serious, but I followed up with him for several months, and some time later, he called and said if I was really serious to go get my shots and a visa, he was going in February (2006).

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the Igbo language? In particular, is there anything in their language that may suggest Hebrew/Semitic roots?  

JL: There are a lot of similar words in both the Hebrew and Igbo Language.  Here are 4 examples…

Hebrew   Igbo

Ivri/Ibri - Igbo

Ketan – Nkenta – Little/Small

Mezuzah – Mezuzo – Relating to the Door

Kol – Ool - Voice

Q: What were the things unique to their culture that linked them to Judaism?

JL: The most prominent similarity is circumcision on the eighth day, which all Igbo, regardless of their faith, practice.  There are also many other rituals related to rest day, diet, separation during female menstruation, belief in one God, that are strong links.  There is also strong lore in the Igbo faith that speaks of descending from the Israelites/Hebrews/Lost Tribes.

Q: Is it possible that there are people of African-American heritage today that have Igbo, and thus perhaps Hebrew ancestry?

JL: There is definite evidence that a large number of African Americans descend from the Igbo.  African Americans & people of the Caribbean descend from 1 of 7 West African groups.  The Igbo is one of the 3 largest.  Granted, once in the Americas, the groups were mixed extensively with both each other, and the White European-Americans who owned or encountered them. So, most African Americans might trace back to several ethnic groups, although DNA tests might show stronger genetic ties to one group or another.

If large numbers of Igbo in Nigeria believe they are ancestrally Jewish, then it’s not a far leap for an African American with Igbo ancestry to have the same belief.

Q: If the answer is  yes, in your opinion, how many are there?

JL: Impossible to know.  But many prominent African Americans have discovered Igbo Ancestry including Actors Forrest Whitaker, Blair Underwood & Bishop T.D. Jakes.  There are also many African American synagogues where members connect to Judaism through an Igbo link.

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