African Jews: Al Jazeera offers an absorbing look at Zimbabwe's Lemba tribe

Al Jazeera continues to embarrass the American press with its story on the Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe building its first synagogue.

The 2,200-word story has both breadth and depth. It has both broad brushstrokes and precise details. It tells of organizations and individuals. It's not casual reading, but it's absorbing and eye-opening.

The Lemba, numbering between 50,000 and 200,000, have long been known for Jewish traditions like kashrut and circumcision. In recent years, they have caught new attention as geneticists have found that their men have a gene typical of the ancient Jewish priesthood. And at least one researcher claims to have found a replica of the Ark of the Covenant -- which the Lemba say their ancestors brought out of the Holy Land.

There is, however, a soft spot in the story, which could have been easily plugged. We'll get to that in a few.

In what's called a shirt-tail lede, the article starts with a scene setter, surrounding the home of Lemba leader Modreck Maeresera:

In a quiet neighborhood in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, barefoot boys wearing yarmulkes run around a small compound. Inside the walled enclosure is a single-story building that serves as both Maeresera’s home and a makeshift worship center. On Saturday mornings the front door remains open as members of the congregation stream in and out during the course of a two-plus hour service.
Maeresera, the closest thing the community has to a rabbi, leads the congregation. He stands tall and composed, reading, speaking and singing in a mixture of English, Hebrew and the local Shona language. Among the boys in attendance are Maeresera’s sons; Aviv, 5, named for the Hebrew word for spring, and Shlomo, 2, or Solomon in Hebrew.

Al Jazeera goes into amazing detail on Jewish practices of the Lemba. It says Maeresera became a shochet, a "traditional Jewish slaughterer," at the Catholic boarding school he attended as a boy. The Lemba circumcise their boys and avoid marrying outside the tribe. Shabbat service includes sharing of challah and ritual grape juice. And the congregation is learning to pray in Hebrew as well as their native Shona tongue.

And one young adult, George Zvakavapano, uses a prayer shawl and wears the fringed undershirt known as a tallit katan. Zvakavapano also serves during Shabbat as a shamashi (should be shamash, I think), helping set up and clean up the worship space.

Whence came these Africans who embrace Judaism? The article recounts "oral traditions" that have their forebears leaving Judea about 2,500 years ago, going first to Yemen, then to Africa.

That would be hard to verify. But DNA don’t lie, as the article says:

Lemba men carry the Cohen modal haplotype Y chromosomal type characteristic of the Jewish priesthood at about the same rate as that of major Jewish populations. The results convinced the world and members of the Lemba community themselves of the validity of the legends, something some members of the younger generation had doubted.

Al Jazeera tells of organizations trying to help restore Jewish practice to the tribe: Kulanu in New York, the Lemba Cultural Association in Zimbabwe itself. But the story indicates an ambivalence toward Christianity, whether from the Lemba or Al Jazeera itself. On the one hand, it says that many Lemba became Christians "for employment or educational opportunities," without attribution. On the other hand, it says Maeresera's Catholic boarding school made sure he and other Lemba students got food prepared in their version of kosher.

The main soft spot is when Al Jazeera cites the theory of religion professor Tudor Parfitt, formerly with London's School of Oriental and African Studies. Parfitt in 2007 found a wooden drumlike object in the Harare Museum of Human Science that he believed was a replica of the Ngoma Lungundu of Lemba stories. He says the object represented the Ark of the Covenant, which the Lemba claimed to have once possessed.

Al Jazeera summarizes all of this without trying to verify it or flesh it out. The writer should have checked with Parfitt, which is what I did.  I met him while helping publicize a Jewish lecture series this year with Florida International University in Miami, where he is currently teaching.

Parfitt pointed out by e-mail today that his first book on the tribe, Journey to the Vanished City was published back in 1992. He's also the one who helped collect DNA samples among the Lemba, a fact acknowledged by PBS in 2000.

"I’m certainly not suggesting that the article should have been about me -- but it is plain wrong to have reduced my role to the rediscovery of the ngoma," Parfitt told me. "I was working on and with the Lemba for 20 years before that event."

Also not mentioned: The story of the Lemba is surprisingly similar to that of the Beta Israel, a tribe of Ethiopians who emigrated en masse to Israel centuries ago. That story, too, says the Ark came to Africa from Israel -- and the modern Ethiopian Orthodox Church even claims it still has the object.

Both the Lemba and Beta Israel, in turn, are part of the intriguing field of once-hidden Jewish communities -- groups in several lands that seem to retain traces of Jewish blood or customs. Those include the Crypto-Jews of the Americas, the Igbo Jews of Nigeria, the Cochin Jews and Bene Israel of India, even descendants of medieval merchants in Kaifeng, China.

But of course you have to stop somewhere, and Al Jazeera has gone further than nearly any American news media in telling the story of the Lemba. You may actually feel smarter when you're finished.

Photo: Screenshot from Al Jazeera story on the Lemba tribe. Thumbnail via

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