Jewish? Africans knew it all along

DNA: Genes support a tribe's belief that it migrated 2,500 years ago from the Holy Land.

September 25, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TSHINO, South Africa - The Jewish community in this dusty mountain village has some unorthodox customs to mark the Jewish new year. They slaughter a cow, eat its intestines, take snuff to expel demons and then, during an all-night ceremony held inside a hut with a cow dung floor, they dance, drink and sing, summoning the spirits of their ancestors for guidance in the year ahead.

"It's almost the same as Rosh Hashana," says Ephraim Selamolela, a 62-year-old businessman whose family has been celebrating the holiday this way for generations as members of South Africa's Lemba tribe.

Many Jewish communities would dismiss Selamolela's claims as outrageous. Even Selamolela admits that his tribe has lost touch with mainstream Jewish traditions. But the Lemba have not lost touch with their ancestry, he says. "We are Jewish," he claims. He also has DNA that he believes proves it.

The 50,000 Lemba scattered among the foothills of the Soutpansberg Mountains in South Africa's Limpopo region have a number of traditions that have always set them apart from other African tribes.

They practice circumcision, they don't eat pork or mix milk with meat, as prescribed by Jewish dietary laws. They keep one day of the week holy, and they bury their dead with their heads facing north, toward Jerusalem.

According to Lemba oral traditions, the tribe was led from the Holy Land more than 2,500 years ago by a man named Buba, to a city in Yemen, and later crossed the Red Sea into East Africa, following a star that eventually brought it to present-day South Africa.

They say they adopted local customs during their journey, like other members of the Jewish diaspora. They intermarried with African tribes, embraced African rituals and forgot many Jewish rituals and scriptures. European colonizers later converted many of the Lemba to Christianity. The Lemba don't have rabbis, synagogues or copies of the Torah.

But their dietary laws and cultural practices, nearly identical to those in Jewish communities around the world, survived generation to generation, as did their belief that they share an ancestry with the Jewish people.

For years the outside world dismissed the Lemba's claims as sheer fantasy. That changed in 1999, when geneticists from the United States, Great Britain and Israel discovered some backing for the claims.

The researchers found that Lemba men carried a DNA signature on their Y chromosome that is believed unique to the relatively small number of Jews known as the Cohanim, who trace their ancestry to the priests of the ancient Jewish Temple and, ultimately, to Aaron, brother of Moses.

The genetic discovery might have had a greater impact on Jewish communities that had rejected the Lemba's claims than on the Lemba, who never doubted their ancestry.

"For the Western Jewish world it was an identity crisis, but for the Lemba it was a yawn," says Jack Zeller, president of Kulanu, an organization based in Silver Spring dedicated to finding and assisting dispersed remnants of the Jewish people.

After the discovery, Kulanu and other Jewish organizations ventured to Lemba villages to understand the Lemba's history and practices and introduce the Lemba to mainstream Jewish beliefs and practices.

Some Lemba began learning Hebrew and visited Israel; some renounced Christian beliefs. Others recast their traditional Lemba ceremonies as counterparts to traditional Jewish holidays, as Selamolela did with his Rosh Hashana ceremony.

Still, the community as a whole appears to be at a crossroads. Some Lemba consider themselves Jewish while continuing to embrace Christian services and African rituals.

"It's difficult for me to be Christian. It's difficult for me to be Jewish," says Frederick Raulinga, 73, a former teacher who was raised in the Roman Catholic Church yet considers himself a non-practicing Jew.

Like many Lemba, however, Raulinga lives with these apparent contradictions. He remains passionate about his Jewish ancestry and serves as general secretary of the Lemba Cultural Association, a group seeking to unify the Lemba people.

It is not an easy task. About 50,000 Lemba live scattered across southern Africa.

"The tribe as a whole is pretty ambiguous about what it is," says Tudor Parfitt, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. "Its identity is fractured. They don't have a language that is their own. They don't have any formal leadership. They are shaky when it comes to what they are."

One of the attractions of their Jewish ancestry is that it provides a bond for the tribe.

"It turns them into Israelites. It makes them people of God," says Parfitt, who spent more than a decade studying the tribe. "They are a group with a particularly frail historical identity. This is a way of stabilizing their links with their own history as they see it."

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