February 27, 2020

For we were strangers

When I first began taking trips to West Africa while working on my doctorate in African history, I assumed that while there I would keep my Judaism to myself. This was not out of fear of anti-Semitism, but, rather, I thought there would be no one to share it with. There, since my research is on Catholic education, I am often assumed to be Catholic. Even my name, which in the United States is generally a giveaway to my Jewish background, inspires amusing comments such as, “Rachel! What a good Christian name!” When people don’t assume that I am Catholic, they generally ask: “Are you a Muslim or a Christian?” Yet my experience of talking about Judaism in Senegal has taught me that Judaism doesn’t have to be a missing third category. Instead, it can be a conversation starter. 

Despite the fact that Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country with a small Christian minority, it is also home to some Jewish expatriates, mostly from the United States and France. This is a community I sought out when I first arrived in Senegal. In 2009, at a Passover seder in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, I met a researcher who happened to work in a field related to my own, and we continued to meet to exchange ideas. Making this contact over the seder table enabled me to have a fruitful connection to Senegal that I would not otherwise have had. The seder was a multigenerational, multicultural mix of Senegalese, French and Americans. We ate some Sephardic and some Ashkenazic foods, which inevitably provoked debates about who had the best recipes for various dishes. It was hosted by an American Jew posted in Dakar for the U.S. Foreign Service. His apartment was filled with artifacts from all over the world, from the various places he had lived for his work. He was the quintessential wandering Jew, with a diplomatic twist.

The experience of eating Jewish food and being surrounded by people who understood where I came from made situations like this seder comfortable and familiar. I was sharing a table with people who had a common set of reference points and who had somewhat similar experiences growing up in a Jewish community. However, I have found that the most enriching interactions where my Judaism has come into play have been in much less familiar contexts. 

These moments often followed an initial query about my religious beliefs. This can happen with just about anyone I encounter in a chance meeting, or with co-workers at the NGOs where I have volunteered. Asking what religion you are in Senegal is like asking what school you go to as a student in the United States. It is a way for people to locate you in their sense of social geography. Although at first I hesitated in my response, I began to routinely answer that I am Jewish. This provoked a range of reactions, from confused to intrigued, or some combination thereof. People have often tried, in follow-up questions, to relate my Judaism to their own beliefs. Thus I often find myself answering questions like “What do Jews think about Mohammed?” or “Jews believe in Jesus, too, right?” 

Before working in Senegal, I’d never had to explain to others what Judaism meant to the same extent or in the same fashion. While this was sometimes slightly bewildering and frustrating, it was mostly refreshing and liberating. So often, as American Jews, we’re confronted by negative Jewish stereotypes. By contrast, in most instances the Senegalese people I was talking to had little or no preconceived notions of Jews. I could explain things in my own way, according to my own experience and beliefs, and in so doing reaffirm what I personally find positive about being part of a Jewish community. Further, these conversations have reminded me that even in moments when I have truly felt like a stranger in a strange land, Judaism can help me connect to others. Experiences that I feel are so constitutive of my Jewishness — such as gathering for a good meal after a lifecycle event or a religious holiday — are relatable for any Senegalese person. 

The author, third from left, shares a meal during a visit to Senegal. Photo courtesy of ACI Baobab

My most memorable conversation about Judaism happened in an unexpected place — at the airport. When I arrived at the departure terminal, a security guard checked my passport. He recognized my last name as Polish and asked if I was Jewish. After three months in Senegal, this was the first time that a Senegalese person had directly asked me that. (In fact, several trips to Africa later, this remains the only time a West African has guessed that I am Jewish.) This security guard told me he was a devout Christian and studying to be a priest. I think he was just as amazed to have a living Jew standing in front of him, rather than merely reading about them in the Bible, as I was taken aback by meeting someone with such a deep knowledge of and appreciation for my heritage. The line was slow, so we had time to talk about his studies and to discuss the “Old Testament.” Before too long, our conversation was interrupted by some commotion ahead of us. It soon became apparent that my flight was overbooked. All remaining passengers were told that they could not get on the flight, and that we should return in 48 hours for the next flight out on that airline. 

When I came back two days later, the airline company made it clear that it wasn’t going to let me on that flight, either. Thankfully, the same security guard was there. He recognized me and, without my having to ask, he went out of his way to ensure that I was put onto my flight. When I thanked him profusely, he nonchalantly shrugged and then responded matter-of-factly “we are both people of the Book.” 

I would never have guessed that my last name would catch this security guard’s eye, or that opening up about Judaism and the Book could also open the door to an airplane. As I sat down in the only remaining seat on the plane, I was overwhelmed with gratitude and relief. I could not have asked for a better sentence or sentiment to conclude my trip to Senegal. 

Every year at Passover we conclude the seder with the wish “Next year in Jerusalem” expressing a desire, among many things, to see the end of a wandering, diasporic existence. However, being a Jew in West Africa has taught me to fully embrace the role of being a stranger in a strange land. Passover has a deeper resonance when I reflect on the warmth I experienced at the seder in Dakar, as well as all of the moments I’ve shared with people in West Africa talking about Judaism and other religions. I am grateful that these conversations leave me feeling less like a stranger in a strange land and more connected to the people and places where I work. 

Rachel Kantrowitz is a doctoral candidate in African history at New York University. She is currently conducting dissertation research, and is based between France and West Africa.