It’s Not Easy Being Jewish, Let Alone in Nigeria

Some 30,000 of Nigeria’s 30 million ethnic Igbos consider themselves Jews, an identification that goes back to the last century, and that picked up steam after that country’s civil war. Political scientist William Miles visited with some of them and has written a book about the challenges they face.

Akin Ajayi
Akin Ajayi
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Akin Ajayi
Akin Ajayi

Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey, by William F.S. Miles,

Markus Wiener Publishers, 160 pages, $68.95 (hardcover), $24.95 (paperback)

The author of the book of Ecclesiastes suggests that “which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” Which might be true elsewhere, but suggests that the writer never had the opportunity to visit Nigeria. Between its 170 million citizens and more than 250 distinct ethnic configurations, there is always room to surprise.

But even so, the presence of a newly converted Jewish community? Laying tefillin, celebrating the High Holy Days, asserting spiritual affinity with Am Yisrael? Diversity is all very well and good, but one might have thought that the country was hardly in need of another configuration of personal identity. That said, it must be acknowledged that – fairly or not – Nigeria and Nigerians, the source of so many bank-scam attempts that all of us have been prey to, are often associated with skulduggery, sleight of hand and general misdemeanors. On the surface, at least, the notion of the Nigerian Jew is enough to stretch the credulity of all but the most naive – or optimistic, not that these are necessarily different concepts.

Certainly, William Miles, author of “Jews of Nigeria,” treated reports of new communities of converted Jews in Africa’s most populous country with understandable skepticism. “I mentally consigned the story to that collection of Nigerian oddities to be treated with due caution.” A professor of political science at Boston’s Northeastern University, with a background in Jewish studies, Miles also has 30 years of research engagement with Nigeria – all of which makes for a unique confluence of interests that makes him better placed than many to explore the curiosity of this new Diaspora community. And when, in spite of his reservations, he took up the opportunity to spend Hanukkah 2009 with members of the fledgling community, estimated to be 30,000 strong but scattered across two geographically distinct areas of the country, what transpired was the beginning of a fascinating ethnographic consideration of the intersection between religious faith and communal identity.

Suggestions of a genealogical connection between the Igbo tribe of southwestern Nigeria and the ancient Kingdom of Israel are not new. Common cultural practices like circumcision on the 8th day, similarities in dietary practices and the seclusion of women during their menstrual cycle hint at a correlation – although by no means an incontrovertible connection – between Igbos, one of Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups, and the Jewish people. Miles notes that as early as the 1920s, British colonial writers had documented the “Levite” practices of some Igbos, who had been almost completely converted to Christianity from (presumed) animist beliefs in the previous decades.

But what perhaps is more interesting is the evolution, in recent years, of an identity that might owe as much to socio-political underpinnings as it does to religious aspiration. On account of their geographic mobility and a presumed affinity for mercantile activity, Igbos have long been described by other Nigerians – for good or for bad – as the “Jews of Nigeria.” More pertinently, the upsurge in debate among younger Igbos about the causes and consequences of the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970 – the violent suppression of the attempted secession of the Igbos in the breakaway state of Biafra – has begun to shape a new and distinct political identity, one that increasingly draws explicit parallels of experience between the Jewish Holocaust of World War II and what is described as the Biafran genocide of the Nigerian Civil War.

For all this, “Jews of Nigeria” is primarily an ethnological description of the Igbo Jews, or “Jubos,” as the author affectionately describes them; the who and the what, more than [the why. Based on two visits to Jubo communities, the book describes in detail a Hanukkah celebration and a bar mitzvah – and the author’s personal reflections on these experiences – and presents the personal accounts of about 20 of the adherents concerning the path they took to their new faith.

Coke-bottle menorah

As a social scientist engaged in fieldwork, Miles is pointedly aware of the duality of his roles, as an observer of and participant in the activities of his principals; as a self-described semi-observant Jew, doubly so. The exoticism of lighting a Hanukkah menorah made from Coke bottles, praying with photocopied prayerbooks and donning second-hand tefillin could easily distract the more excitable, but to the author’s credit he avoids the patronizing pitfalls that these curiosities present.

There are moments where reminiscence edges a little too close to romanticism: “As the sun over Saturday on Eastern Standard Time advances,” Miles writes on his return to the United States, “I shall periodically wonder, thinking of the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat, ‘Have they performed havdala yet? For the Jubos put me, as a Jew, to shame...’” On the other hand, this self-reflection is largely thoughtful consideration of what might be considered a typical response from the Jewish “mainstream” to the newest adherents to the faith. During a weekday bar mitzvah, he notes a strange detail in the laying of tefillin, the adding of a loop around the pinky finger. “Another Jubo innovation? Is this Kosher? Have I – so recently a phylacteryphobe myself – already become judgmental about tefillin wrapping style?”

While rooted in observation rather than analysis, there is the inevitability that the political questions connected to Judaism – namely, who is a Jew? – will thread their way through this slender book. Validation is an important aspect of Jubo identity. It matters in a Nigeria where religious identity is rapidly becoming inextricably intertwined with communal identity. It also matters to the Jubos that they receive the imprimatur of authenticity from the wider Jewish community, all the more so in order to shore up their self-belief. Nigeria is a tough country economically, and the community is not given the institutional support granted to other, established religions; Miles describes the paradoxical situation of Jubos masquerading as Christians in order to carry out (state-subsidized) pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

It might be that suspicions of undeclared economic – rather than spiritual – incentives make it harder for the Jubos to reach out to their brethren across the waters. Miles’ Jubos aspire to a halakhic soundness in their practices, even though attempts to establish connections with organized Jewry in Israel have been largely unrequited. When Miles speaks with a source close to the Israeli Embassy in Nigeria, he is told that “the last thing (we) need is for some crazy rabbi to fly over from Israel, convert them and declare that they are Jews.”

Ah. The author describes himself as opposed to the notion of DNA-determined Jewry, and submits that “orthopraxy ought to trump orthodoxy,” the ritual and ethical components being the clincher. Which seems fair enough. But if only it were that simple. Miles interviews a number of the new adherents, and some are insistent on their genealogical ties – no matter how ill-defined – with the Jewish people. It all seems rather muddled at times. But then, which faith isn’t?

Support is available from other quarters, though. Miles describes the Jubos as possibly the first generation of “Internet Jews,” facilitating their faith through connections made across the World Wide Web. A principal champion of the community has been Rabbi Howard Gorin, until his retirement last year the spiritual leader of Conservative congregation Tikvat Israel, in Rockville, Maryland. Thanks to his consistent support of the Jubos, he is known fondly – if totally unofficially –as the “Chief Rabbi of Nigeria.”

“They need encouragement,” Gorin tells Miles. The Jubos, he says, represent a unique “opportunity to develop one of the biggest Jewish communities in the Diaspora.”

OK. But to what end? In any case, the community as it stands has about 30,000 congregants, a minute proportion of the estimated 30 million Igbo population of Nigeria, and is scattered and without a cohesive central leadership. But as one prominent Jubo observes to Miles: “Every Igbo man is a Jew, but the consciousness is not there.” Miles’ interlocutor does not make clear the grounds upon which he makes this claim. Neither, it seems, has he given much thought to the political and social ramifications of this proposition.

It might be that the question is an irrelevant one, at least for the moment. Disputations concerning who is a Jew are as old as the Jewish people themselves, and will [“could be expected to”] continue whether or not the Jubos existed. What seems more important to the Jubos is the question of what it means to be a Jew. Almost a third of the book is devoted to the first-hand Jubo accounts of their journey to their newfound Judaic faith. It is fair to surmise that for many of the interviewees, their embrace of Judaism is a response to economic and social exigencies, a keenly expressed sense of social and political marginalization that has – from their perspective – intensified in the last two decades. Amid repeated evocations of deus ex machina-type interventions, what stands out is a profound dissatisfaction with the lot of the Igbo in contemporary Nigeria.

“In secondary schools, in the history books, Igbo roots are not described extensively. They are summarized in two or three lines,” one interviewee claims. Another name-checks the late Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s most accomplished writer. Achebe, who died in March, was an Igbo who wrote extensively on the relationship between the Igbos and the rest of Nigeria. “The centre cannot hold,” one interviewee remarks. The quote is from Yeats’ poem "Second Coming," but the relevance lies in Achebe’s most noted work, which took its title from the preceding line of the poem: “Things fall apart...” The constant refrain is the desire to assert a distinct, independent identity; one that allows them, perhaps subliminally, to make sense of their place in a complicated modern world. The Jubos, one senses, place more stock in finding themselves within a greater tradition than with using it as a means toward an end. And in that sense, perhaps the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes was right: There indeed is nothing new under the sun. Just new ways of fulfilling age-old desires.

Akin Ajayi, a freelance writer and editor based in Tel Aviv, grew up mainly in Nigeria.

A Jewish Igbo boy reads from a siddur.Credit: Chika Oduah
The Jews of Nigera, by William F. S. MilesCredit: courtesy

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