Black Jews in Africa and the Americas: Book Review

An African-American Jew working in the telecommunications industry in Jerusalem was asked by a very orthodox co-worker “whether in fact she was Jewish, as she didn’t look Jewish.” She responded by saying that she doesn’t “recall anything written in the Tanach about how a Jew should look like.” Her Judaism was questioned because despite the fact that Moses married an African woman, Zipporah; despite the fact that for over 30 years there has been an Ethiopian Jewish community present in Israel, and despite the fact there have been and are very famous Jews of colour, such as the legendary Sammy Davis Jnr, the rapper Drake, actress Sophie Okenodo and Rabbi Capers Funnye, a cousin of first lady, Michelle Obama There is still an association of Judaism with ‘whiteness.’

Tudor Parfitt at the heart of his book Black Jews in Africa and the Americas challenges the above assumption.  Indeed, there were times in history when Jews were associated with being black.  Sir William Brereton (1604-1661) MP and a commander of the parliamentary forces during the English civil war happened to visit a synagogue in Amsterdam where he commented that Jews “were most black.”    The Jewish polemicist Joseph Ben Nathan Ofitsial in the 13th century drafted a polemic which challenged the Christian accusation that ‘the majority of gentiles are white and attractive, while the majority of Jews are black and ugly.’

Parfitt has unearthed a remarkable letter written in 1841 by then British Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell which was directed towards possible co-religionists living in present day Nigeria.  Clearly, the Chief Rabbinate at the time felt that there were Jews in West Africa.  Could these co-religionists be the Igbos of today?

Today in Africa, Judaism is practiced in numerous African countries.  Black Jews can also be found in the Caribbean.  Indeed, the synagogue in Kingston, Jamaica has recently seen its numbers boosted by black converts probably making it the most multicultural synagogue in the world. Ainsley Henrique head of Jamaica’s Jewish community, has estimated that up to 424,000 Jamaicans have Sephardi ancestry equating incredibly to 10% of all Jamaicans and some of these recent converts are merely ‘returning  to their roots.’  Furthermore, there are more than 200,000 people who identify themselves as Jews of colour according to the 2008 United States census.

One of the strengths of the book is that it extensively discusses the route to Judaism taken by the various Black Jewish communities.  The Jewish lineage of Ethiopian Jewry was recognized in 1973 by then Chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef who declared them to be the tribe of Dan. Others such as the Lembas of South Africa and Nigeria’s Igbos also claim a link to the lost tribes of Israel. Indeed, genetic tests show that many Lemba men carry a Y chromosome polymorphism, known as “the Cohen modal haplotype,” which is identical to the chromosome carried by cohenim.

In America, Parfitt points out that black Judaism is a product of conversion including the descendants of slaves who converted to Judaism, children born to interracial families, adoption, and also from an affinity with the Old Testament.    At the beginning of the 20th century in America there were a number of black congregations established, which even though the denomination was essentially Christian.  Nevertheless, its members observed Jewish practices. One of the cornerstones of this faith is the exodus, the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery. A parallel was made between the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and blacks who were victims of slavery in America.  Over time these congregations gradually abandoned all Christian symbols incompatible with the Jewish religion in order to live in accordance with traditional Judaic precepts.

And whilst mainstream Jewry has traditionally have had little contact with the black Jewish movement, shunning it as unauthentic.  This has begun to change over the last few years.  Rabbi Capers Funnye, one of the leaders of Black Judaism in America has initiated dialogue and built bridges to and spoken in reform, conservative and modern orthodox synagogues.

Shaye Cohen of Harvard university has stated that the Lemba will be accepted as Jews not as a result of their own practice or as a result of genetic markers, but rather if and when “the Jewish people want them to become Jews.”  This is not Parfitt’s first book about black Jews, but it is certainly is his most compact.  If in 25, 50 100 or 200 years time, members of the Igbo and Lemba tribes are recognized as Jews. Tudor Parfitt will go down in history as having done more than any other individual to champion their cause and to bring them to the attention of world Jewry

Black Jews in Africa and the Americas: By Tudor Parfitt; Harvard University Press

About the Author
Ze'ev Portner from London is a former political adviser to British Labour Member of Parliament, Louise Ellman. He has written briefings for both Tony Blair and Jack Straw when they were prime minister and foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. In 2012, Portner qualified as an Israeli attorney, undertaking his legal training in the law offices of Gilead Sher and Co. He is currently working as a copyright law specialist at the National library of Israel. He also guest lectures at Greenwich, Liverpool (UK) and Tel Aviv Universities.