Speaking with Temple Emanu-El

Last week I was in the states of New York, Maryland and Washington, invited by Kulanu Inc’, a Jewish group that works with what I’ll call the obscure Jewish communities. I gave several speeches at one of my stops: Temple Emanu-El, Staten Island, N.Y.


Greetings to Rabbi Gerard Sussman, Rebetzin Bonita, other officials and members of this holy community-Temple Emanu-El!

So many years when I began to examine my (Igbo) history and culture, to determine if they were Israelite, I cannot say that I knew that it would lead to meetings like this. I think that I felt that I was engaged in merely an academic exercise though my parents and several Igbo elders whom I believe knew better had observed with all seriousness that what I had started will not only put the Igbos, crushed by colonialism back on the right path, but will also define my life.

We (the Igbos) and you are of one family. We like you, are descendants of that humble patriarch, Jacob, that was also a prophet. Some of us are part of Israel’s children that escaped into Egypt when Nebuchadnezzar came for retribution, because of the murder of Gedaliah, and continued to move south and only stopped and settled at the banks of the river called Niger presently. Some of us came to West Africa with the ships of King Solomon, and apparently did not go back with the ships. Dr. Danny Ben Gigi, in his ‘Beginners Prayer Book’, told us that in ancient times the blue used to dye the tzi tzis was gotten from a rare snail that was only found off the coast of West Africa.

As I said, we moved south, and I say that you moved north into Babylon. But in many ways while we became separated by distance, we were not separated by what matters most: culture, and painfully some experiences.

What Hashem told us to do; that you continued to try to do wherever the Lord our G-d took you to during the bitter Exile, we also continued to try to do in the south. Anytime between the first day and the 8th day after birth our infants are given names, which most likely would be appropriated to the Igbo titles to the Supreme Being: Chi Ukwu and Chi na eke, and the males among them circumcised on the 8th day. These have been Igbo practices since immemorial times. Close to their mid teens both the Igbo male and Igbo female undergo a rite of coming of age which prepare them to be responsible stakeholders in the Igbo society. On hitting adult-hood; the women from 18, while the men from 20, must marry. Celibacy is not an available option to the Igbo. Neither is the choice to remain unmarried. And marriage to non Igbos is seriously discouraged and seen as a ‘loss’. After marriage which is an almost-permanent union of families and which is celebrated under an okpukpu (huppah), the Igbos begin to expect children. In fact one of the blessings given to the bride during the marriage is, ‘may G-d make you as fruitful as our ancestresses’, and ‘that you’ll bear many sons and daughters like our mothers’. In pre-colonial to present times, the following are some of the ways this blessing is rendered, ‘I ya amu Eke, muo Orie, muo Afo, muo Nkwo’ (you’ll give birth to Eke, Orie, Afo, and Nkwo), names of the 4 market days-our elders say that the names were names of ancestors and ancestresses.  And some say, ‘you’ll bear many children like the mother of our clan’. Identical blessings were given to Rivkah, one of our most prominent Hebrew ancestresses, when she got married to our patriarch Yizqak. And when the children arrive the Igbos are overjoyed. The Igbo woman is secluded after childbirth, as she is during her menstrual flow, like the biblical Hebrew woman who had to be secluded while going through her menstrual period and after child delivery. But this period is one of great enjoyment for her too. Her mother moves to her house, takes charge of cooking, and the new mother is gorged with choice delicacies: she could eat anything she desired, because at this period, the husband would not spare any expense but would do anything that would make the woman who had given him a chance to have children happy. The Igbos believe that the woman is the bedrock of the home/house or homestead. So the man is happy that his wife has laid a solid foundation for him by delivering a baby. In olden times, if its twins that she delivered a bull or a cow could be slaughtered in her honor. After many weeks, after the lady must have observed the ritual bath, she and the child dress resplendently and proceed to the sanctuary where the child is redeemed, dedicated, and presented to God in the ritual ceremony of ikuputa nwa.

In our settlements in the locality of the Niger River, we set up bet knesseths-every family had one, and every man had one.

Settled so comfortably we began to forget what brought us to where we were, until the jolts, some listed hereafter began to come: the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade which disconnected from us, and sent to the shores of America compatriots of yours like Rabbi Capers Funnye, Bishop T. D. Jakes, African American social activists Denise and Engr Richard E. Allen, and Yhoshua Yisrael, actor Forester Whittaker, singer Karen D. Taylor, Talescia Redding, Onleilove Alsthon, and Janice and Lee Hutson, criminal colonization which all but robbed us of culture, history and identity, and the tragedy of Biafra, which swallowed up at least 3million Igbos.

In spite of all we continued to struggle to be who we are supposed to be, whom G-d made us to be-bene Yisrael, and from all indications we are starting to get it right. Yes, our structures, narratives, etc, were demonized and destroyed during colonial times, but we are starting to build anew. In Nigeria, principally the part called Igboland, and in all the other parts that the Igbos live in, synagogues (Jewish congregations) that Jews from any part of the world would feel comfortable with, are springing up to replace what were destroyed, demonized and ridiculed. My colleagues in Igboland tell me that presently there are 74 shuls which follow the rabbinic tradition. Numerous Western Jews; some associated with Kulanu Inc, some with Shavei Israel, some friends of Rabbi Howard Gorin, who was at a time a chief rabbi of some Nigerian Jews, have visited these ladies and gentlemen of the Torah that are addressed as Igbo Jews. Rabbi Howard Gorin himself visited many times. The afore-mentioned Rabbi Capers Funnye, the chief rabbi of the African American Jews, Daniel Lis, Daniel Limor, Shai Afsai, Barry Dolinger, Irene Orleansky, Evan Green, Jeffrey Davidson, Lior Shragg, Marc Wishengrad, Bill Miles, Michael Freund, are among the Western  Jews that have come to see what they have heard. Tom Timberg, and the now departed Teddy Luttwak hosted and entertained members of this community endless times. The visitors came to pray with us and listen to the Hebrew songs that we belt out in some of our synagogues.

As I said at the beginning, when I started my research I had no idea that I was beginning something that would be part of something that is ongoing and that is very important: reunification of a people scattered all over the world. But I had no idea that I would run into Kulanu Inc’.

I did run into Kulanu, and so much good has come out of the relationship that we have built over many years. With its unstinting support, among other things, there exists today a standard compilation of Igbo cultural practices and beliefs ‘The Igbos And Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of the Largest Jewish Diaspora’. You, our kinsmen/women never totally lost all our books, so you won’t know what one who lost all suffers and feels.

Another good is the chance to be here talking with you as the family that we are. And I say, let there be more interactions between the various members of the House of Israel. We’ll all grow richer and stronger from that. We are living in interesting times. In many parts of the world, groups like the Igbo, the Ladinos in Latin America, etc, disconnected from other ha-Ibri, are emerging or re-emerging and many groups and individuals that fit the following: the gentiles that would follow him that is a Jew, and say I will follow you to Israel, because I heard that G-d is there. Members of Temple Emanu-El, I laud you for taking the step that you did: inviting me to come and talk, through your amiable Rabbi Gerald Sussman. I thank you, and I call on Chi ukwu (Great G-d) to bless you.

Here I will stop for now!

About the Author
Remy Ilona, is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where he also functions as a teaching assistant. He is also the secretary-general of Hebrew-Igbo people, an Igbo socio-cultural organization. He is also an author of 10 books. He is of Ibo or Igbo extraction, and a lawyer by training, as well as a historian of the Ibo. He is among the leaders shepherding the Ibos re-emerging Judaism.