What?! A Passover Seder in a rural African village in ZIMBABWE?

Who knew that just last week, in the year 2015, there was a traditional Pesach Seder (well minus the now-traditional toilets and electricity that is, haha) being held in middle-of-nowhere rural African village called Mepakomhere, Zimbabwe?! I am not talking about the amazing world-wide Seders led by Chabad. I mean a traditional Seder led by the local black Africans! (Don't worry, it's not un-PC to say that in this part of the world!)

Had we not been present, we could not have imagined the scene. Driving from one off-the-beaten-path pot-hole-filled dirt-road to the next, winding further and further into the beautiful mountains and the lush bush, the expressions of the locals became more and more stunned as two white faces passed by. Into the sunset streaked sky and onto the Chief's straw-hut-studded property we went, greeted exuberantly with multiple “Shalom”s. We erected our tent next to the five loudly 'meh'ing sheep that were tied up for next day's “ritual” Pesach slaughter.

By the crack of dawn, the roosters were clucking and the pots were clanking as the women began preparing food for the 200 person Seder ahead. The traditionally approved shochets (butchers) had been selected for the task. Our new humble Zimbabwean friend, Modreck Maeresera (one of the excellent leaders of the community) took his posse of by-all-means “cool” guy-friends to the closest shop to pick up sacks of the final ingredients for the charoset, karpas, and ginger-root as a maror substitute.

My husband Reb Keith and I, spent the afternoon cleaning, setting up and decorating the room in the neighboring school, and exchanging tradition and Torah with the guys. As Shabbat and Passover settled upon us, tens of people began streaming in for Kabbalat Shabbat/Passover. We danced in circles and sang Am Yisrael Chai… and assumed our seats in the large bare-bones classroom.

The men, women and children sat silently for hours listening intently and respectfully to the leaders as they guided them through the Haggadah that they have translated into Shona, the local language. They told the story of how our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, but Hashem took us out with a mighty Hand to freedom.

At the Seder

But wait… OUR ancestors? You mean our ancestors, right? Not yours? I mean… huh? Who?

All of ours. The Lemba people is a tribe of about 100,000 scattered across Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique. We and they believe that they are descendants of one of the Lost Tribes. They have an oral tradition of having come down Africa through Yemen after being exiled from Israel after the Second Temple.

If you ask even the most assimilated of the village elders in their own language, they will hit their chest and exclaim “Jew.” They have always identified as Jews, as their African tribal name, Maremba MaJudah, implies. They have even suffered forms of consistent anti-Semitism by other tribes and colonialists throughout their history in the African Diaspora.

With only a handful of exceptions, the majority of the Lemba laymen in Zimbabwe have very little-to-no knowledge about modern-day Judaism and its practices, but their own Lemba traditions are strong and strikingly similar to many Torah practices (as will be elaborated on shortly).

On the other hand, there are a select few leaders that have come back into the fold and even undergone conversion. They are dynamic and thirsting to learn more about modern Judaism with the hopes of both giving over all of their new knowledge to the greater community and seeing an eventual mass return to their Jewish roots.

Some of the Lemba traditions include dietary laws such as not eating pork, seafood or insects, except for one type of locust that has special identification requirements. They don't mix milk and meat, appointing special butchers that must kill only the appropriate animals with special knives and in the most pain-free and quick ways, and not eating out or anyone's' house who is not a Lemba.

They also strictly perform and advocate for brit milah. For thousands of years they performed brit milah on the eigth day, but when missionaries began to come through their territories they declared a  tribal-wide change of practice to performing brit milah on the eight year so that no one could persecute them or force them to convert.

The Lemba have traditionally watched for and declared the new moon with a horn, and made sure to have a new moon celebration. The celebration was encouraged and celebrated primarily by women. Our host told us stories of remembering how his grandmother used to go around telling all the children it was the new moon! For those readers that may not know, all of these traditions parallel the customs of the Torah.

Additionally, they have always had a traditional day of rest, and forms of celebration of Pesach, the new year, the day of self-affliction, and day of 'first fruit' offerings. They also have a seven day period of mourning, laws concerning the woman in her time of menstruation, and various gender separation and modesty customs.

We found out that many of them and their grandparents have names like Sukkot, Mishkan, Hillel, Miriam, Aviv, Shlomo, and my favorite… our host Modreck's given second name is Mordechai, and he has a tradition that his first born son should be (and is) named Yehudah, and that that name sequence should repeat. This discovery blew my mind because my Syrian brother-in-law Marcus' second name is Mordechai and he has a tradition that his first born son should be (and is) named Yehudah, and that that name sequence should repeat. Whoa!

Finally and almost unbelievably, genetic studies performed in the 90's show that a large percentage of the Lemba leadership do in fact have the “Cohen Gene.” Still, the purpose of our visit and this article were not to prove anything or deal with the issues in Halacha, lineage, intermarriage, or assimilation issues, etc.

The current status of the Lemba in Zimbabwe is that there is a small community in the main city called Harare, which is busy training leaders to go out and become resources for the more rural Lemba people. They run a small synagogue, study Hebrew, devour Jewish literature, are training traditional mohels in current circumcision practices, and welcome guests like ourselves graciously and openly. They are also fundraising for and have begun construction of a new synagogue in the rural village. Most impressively, their spectacular middot; their humility, kindness, joy and daily dedication to renewing their Jewish practices are inspirational.

I chose to share this all with you for two reasons. One, to tell you that YOU TOO can go on such an awesome and meaningful trip… we connected to this community through a unique organization called Kulanu (.org). They are a non-profit organization that works with communities all over the world who claim to have Jewish ancestry or practice Judaism for various reasons. While it seems that Kulanu has a predominantly Conservative support base, they were totally open and happy to welcome a fully-Halachic Orthodox couple coming from the Old City onto the team. We respect and appreciated this show of genuine pluralism. The director, Harriet Bograd, and her team of volunteers are happy to welcome new volunteers, and happy to help serious inquirers coordinate their own trips to various communities.  However this is on the condition that one can handle 1) third-world accommodations, 2) fundraising/sponsoring for one's own trip, and 3) that one has a strong Jewish education to share with communities without coercion or agenda.

The other reason I wanted to share this story is just to 'shout from the rooftops' that “Hashem is so awesome!!!” How cool is it that even when we are dispersed, intermarried, and lost for thousands of years, He begins to bring us back to our roots even in the most rural villages throughout the world?! It is mind blowing to witness the prophecies unfolding and coming true! Its like living the end of the Aleinu prayer, “Bayom Hahu Yihiye Hashem Echad UShmo Echad…” that “On that day, He will be One and His Name will be One…” …when a room of far-out Africans is having a Seder, and chanting and believing in the Shema… it is just amazing! Moreover, similar recitations of the Shema and local Seders also just took place in Madagascar, Ghana, Kenya, China, India and other locations as well…  wow!

Our friend Dr. Jack Zeller, who we thank for his support of our trip, shared the following torah-leh with us before we left as he came to drop off brit milah kits for our delivery to the community…. Every day in the Amidah prayer we pray that God will gather in the “nidchei amo Yisrael,” or “dispersed of Israel.” While the word “nidchei” is generally translated to mean ” dispersed, or scattered,” if you look up the root of the word, it actually means something that is so far from its original form that it is barely recognizable. So… black Africans living in a rural village in Zimbabwe in straw huts, perhaps a lost tribe? Connected to Jewish roots? Unrecognizable, for sure! …please Hashem, gather us all in as one and let us make Your Name One! Ma'eeta Bahsa… that is “thanks” in Shona!

The author and her husband, R'Keith

Rabbi attacked by African killer bees in Zimbabwe

A rabbi handing out matzah and wine for Passover to Jews in Zimbabwe was attacked by a swarm of African killer bees.

Moshe Silberhaft, the spiritual leader and executive director of the African Jewish Congress known as “The Traveling Rabbi,” was making a pre-Passover visit to the 190 Jews left in the beleaguered capital of Harare when he was attacked by the bees while walking from the Ashkenazi synagogue to the Sephardi synagogue on the Shabbat of April 2.

The rabbi was being accompanied by the Ashkenazi synagogue’s Torah reader, Yosi Kably. 

“They suddenly swarmed on us from nowhere, buzzing around our heads and in our ears,” Silberhaft said of the bees from the hive located under a wooden pole. “We didn’t even hear them coming.”

After being stung repeatedly the two men ran into traffic, pounding on car windows, but no one would risk opening their windows for fear of letting in the bees. Passers-by attempted to help by spraying the bees with a poison and setting a tire alight to smoke them out.

Silberhaft and Kably called for help and were taken to a private doctor’s clinic, where they received adrenaline, oxygen, antihistamines, cortisone and painkillers. Some of the stingers were pulled out one by one by the doctor and assistants.

The rabbi returned to Johannesburg with stingers still on his head, nose and hands, as well as in his ears.

Silberhaft, a regular visitor to Zimbabwe and other sub-Saharan African countries, was visibly upset at missing the service and was saddened that the incident occurred on Shabbat.

“Africa is not for sissies,” he said.

Open Debate Preferable to Blind Support

A recent report in The New York Times captured almost perfectly the thorny questions that stand at the center of relations between the American Jewish community and Israel. Should one be permitted to criticize the government of a foreign country with which one feels a deep affinity, or is it a moral and political imperative to support the policies of that government, right or wrong?

What was so striking about The Times article was that it raised these questions not about the American Jewish community and Israel, but rather about the African American community and Zimbabwe.

The parallels between the two cases couldn’t be more intriguing. Just as a number of American Jews, usually of the progressive persuasion, have asserted their right and responsibility to criticize Israeli government policy, so, too, a group of African American intellectuals and activists recently abandoned their posture of strong support and advocacy for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe by issuing a stinging condemnation of his policies, including appropriation of white-owned farmland.

In a letter of June 3, 2003, they recalled their “strong historical ties to the liberation movements in Zimbabwe, which included material and political support, as well as opposition to U.S. government policies that supported white minority rule.” But they quickly moved on to denounce “the political repression under way in Zimbabwe as intolerable and in complete contradiction of the values and principles that were both the foundation of your liberation struggle and of our solidarity with that struggle.”

This public letter provoked a torrent of responses from African Americans, many of whom were critical of the signatories. According to The Times account, the letter writers have been cast as “politically naive, sellouts and misguided betrayers of liberation struggle.”

Among the more serious critics, professor Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland justified his opposition to the letter by stating that “I am on the side of the people who claim there’s a justice issue in terms of the land. You can’t escape the racial dynamic, and you can’t escape the political history.”

Another critic, Mark Fancher, questioned the legitimacy of the letter writers. “This is an African problem, a Zimbabwean problem” — beyond the ken of “people who are really disconnected from the day-to-day lives of people in Zimbabwe.”

It is hard not to hear in those words echoes of a refrain frequently uttered in the American Jewish community — the gist of which is that it is the responsibility of American Jews to express enthusiastic and unequivocal support for the government of Israel.

The underlying logic is that American Jews are themselves “disconnected from the day-to-day lives” of Israelis. It is not they who fight the wars or suffer from the scourge of terrorism; consequently, they have no standing to criticize. Indeed, to express criticism of Israeli policies is to abet the enemy — and thereby come dangerously close to treason.

I am familiar with these arguments, because I have often been on the wrong end of them. Those of us American Jews who have felt compelled to condemn the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as immoral, self-destructive and a violation of Israel’s own best ideals have often faced the wrath of fellow community members. How could a Jew attack Israel in a time of need? Hadn’t the Palestinians surrendered any right to a state? Weren’t they better off now than before 1967?

A similar set of justifications now issues from the mouths of the opponents of Mugabe’s African American critics. How can one attack an African leader, a heroic figure, in time of need? After all, as Fancher asserts, “The one thing nobody disputes is that, whether he won or not, Mugabe got a lot of votes.” Such statements reveal the absurdity — and moral bankruptcy — of blind support.

Curiously, the tables have turned in the case of American Jews and Israel. Not too long ago, it was taboo to criticize Israel’s occupation. Israel’s government had to be supported, regardless of its policies.

But will the same people who insisted on these principles now be able to reverse course? After all, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a speech to his own party, used the “O” word — occupation — to refer to Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza. All of the extraordinary Israeli and Jewish public relations efforts that went into claiming that the territories were “administered” rather than “occupied” went out the door after that speech.

Even more significantly, Sharon has adopted the “road map” for peace. The logic of blind support would dictate that American Jews line up in warm embrace of this Israeli government policy.

It is tempting to argue that those who demanded in an earlier period that American Jewish progressives hold their criticism do the same as Israel enters a new and more promising phase, even if they have reservations about the road map. Tempting perhaps, but not beneficial in the long run.

The recent case of African Americans and Zimbabwe reveals that the stifling of dissent not only reinforces a dangerous status quo but replicates the very policies of repression that one might want to criticize. Open debate, with all its messiness, is preferable to blind support.

This is an important principle to keep in mind — now and in the future — as Jews and African Americans debate the policies of, and demonstrate their bonds to, the countries of their dreams.

David N. Myers is professor of Jewish history and vice chair of the history department at UCLA.