Zimbabwe with Love(2014)

image: Challah (Photo by Mickey Feinberg)

Success. Brenda shows off her beautiful challah, the result of her first lesson in challah baking.
Shlomo and Aviv who joined in the fun looked pleased with their efforts
(Photo by Mickey Feinberg)

Dear Friends,

We feel so fortunate to have spent a gratifying month this summer with the Lemba community in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Our mission for Kulanu was to teach Judaic studies and build on the educational foundation begun by New York’s Elaine and Irwin Berg who visited the community for a month in October of 2013 and by Guershon Nduwa, an African Jew from Paris, who spent three months in Harare teaching last spring. Our hosts were community leader Modreck Maeresera and his wife Brenda (both in their thirties), their young sons Aviv and Shlomo, as well as their distant cousin Zvamaziva, 19, and Modreck’s nephew George, 24.  

We all lived together in the rented four-bedroom, three-bathroom house, which functions as the Community House and center of Lemba Jewish life in Harare. It is here where services take place, holiday observances are celebrated and instruction is given. We absolutely loved living with the family, who went to considerable efforts to make us feel comfortable!  In addition to enjoying the company of wonderful adults and darling children, living in the house enabled us to do continuous teaching on a daily basis. This was particularly so at the Shabbat table, sharing kitchen tasks such as baking challah for Shabbat and discussing the similarities between Lemba and American Jewish religious traditions and practices.

The four adults who live in the house were the most knowledgeable of our students. That was no surprise as traveling to the Community House from distant parts of the sprawling city for classes or to participate in services or holiday celebrations remains a challenge for most of the Lemba, many of whom are unemployed and lack sufficient funds for transportation. Before we left home, our wonderful friends and family provided us with funds to assist us in our mission and some of that money went to subsidize travel expenses for students during our visit.

During the first week in the community house, I taught Brenda and Zvamaziva how to bake challah. The challot looked GREAT on the baking tray.  But just as they were about to go into the electric oven, we lost electricity, a common occurrence in Harare. When electricity reappeared 12 hours later, all we could do was laugh about how much the dough had risen. Nevertheless, we weren’t deterred by that experience and kept baking challot for each of the subsequent Shabbatot we were there.  Even Shlomo learned to create an almost round challah and Aviv’s looks like a smaller version of the real thing. Brenda and Zvama (nickname) have  continued to bake challah weekly since our departure.   

Zimbabwe is intensely Christian with many churches of all denominations (Catholic, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventists, Lutheran, Dutch Reform, you-name-it and especially evangelical denominations) very visible.  We frequently saw vans with evangelical messages written on them announcing their intent to welcome new members. There were also many groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses, with each member wearing a badge identifying his or her religious affiliation. Needless to say, the presence and influence of so many Christian denominations throughout the country poses a real challenge to the fledgling efforts of the Lemba to reconnect with their Jewish heritage.

image: Private class (Photo by Mickey Feinberg)

Private class. Modreck meets with Mordy for a one on one
(Photo by Mickey Feinberg)

Our classes and Shabbat services were held in the synagogue/classroom/community center room in or around  Harare. Our students were friendly, appreciative and eager to learn.  In general, they are educated, mostly men, who grew up in villages and are currently living in or around Harare.  The lack of employment has other ramifications. Many of them are bachelors (in their 20’s and 30’s) who cannot afford to get married and support a family.

To make teaching easier, we used some of the money that friends donated to purchase a white board and markers.  Another purchase from contributions was for a solar hot water heater for the house. It was a relatively inexpensive purchase, and with so much available sun in Zimbabwe and the frequent loss of electricity, the purchase made a great deal of sense.

During the week (Monday through Thursday) we taught 10-12 students each day, a session at noon, one at 2 pm and another later in the day, at 4:30-6:30 pm.  In addition, Mordy was always available to meet privately with anyone who wished to learn to read Torah and some students took advantage of that opportunity.  We continued to “teach” (although less formally) on Shabbat.  

On Shabbat, we usually had 12-25 adults and many children participating in Shabbat morning services, which were led by Modreck. Several of the men wore tzitziot (ritual fringes or tassles worn by observant Jews). It’s quite difficult to offer Friday evening services as participants have different work schedules (if they are fortunate to have jobs), and traveling great distances on public transportation is difficult. Many also prefer to spend Shabbat evening with their families.  Brenda and Zvamaziva cook throughout the day on Friday, preparing the meal for the family on Friday evening as well as a full lunch for all those who attend Shabbat morning services…an amazing amount of gracious hosting.

image: Dancing (Photo courtesy of Mickey Feinberg)

Altogether now. Mickey teaches Israeli dancing to enthusiastic students
(Photo courtesy of Mickey Feinberg)

Our “curriculum” included: Jewish holidays (observances, prayers, melodies), Torah (reading in Hebrew, analyzing, understanding, reading with cantillation, and teaching it to young children), studying the content of the weekly Torah portion, Hebrew (reading and understanding and some speaking), Jewish life-cycle events (practices and blessings), Israel (historical, modern life-style, songs and dances), establishing a functioning synagogue board, the Shabbat morning service (organization, prayers, melodies) and the Rosh Hashanah service. It seems like an ambitious curriculum, but we analyzed the needs of the community as we went along and adjusted the classes as needed.  

While the Lemba have many long-standing Jewish traditions, the prayers and songs we taught them are more associated with “mainstream” Judaism.  When we asked our students to evaluate their progress during our time with them, one young man said that it was important for him to know that there are Biblical and Talmudic sources relating to the practices with which he’s been familiar all of his life. At the end of our month of study we had a siyum (party) with some of the students.

Although KulanuNews has carried several articles about the Lemba and some of their beliefs and traditions, I have chosen to discuss some of these in more depth to show the similarities between Lemba practices of Judaism and our own at home.

The Lemba consider one day of the week holy and they praise God on that day. Throughout many centuries, they referred to that day simply as the seventh day. On that day one is not allowed to do any kind of work; especially making fire, gathering fire wood, cooking, trading and working in the fields.  They rested privately on the seventh day until being forced by missionaries to observe a Sunday Sabbath at which time they began to rest secretly on the seventh day.

The Lemba consider themselves a chosen people. They teach their children to honor their mothers and fathers. One of the major traditions that has made the Lemba so different from other people in Zimbabwe is their strict observance of most Jewish dietary laws (See KulanuNews Winter/Spring, 2012). These include eating only animals with cloven hoofs and those which chew their cuds, the separation of milk and meat, and abstaining from eating seafood or predatory birds. Observant Lemba won’t eat in restaurants as they can’t be sure of the level of kashrut in those establishments. They will also never eat in the home of a non-Lemba person. Some older Zimbabwean Lembas won’t eat meat that is ritually slaughtered by someone they haven’t seen doing it or by those they don’t know.

image: Gifts (Photo courtesy of Mickey Feinberg)

Gifts from Boston. Mickey delivers Jewish ritual objects to Brenda and
Modreck collected by Kulanu Board member Judy Manelis for the Lemba Community House
(Photo courtesy of Mickey Feinberg)

The manner of slaughter and the draining of blood from the slaughtered animal indicates that the Lemba are familiar with the laws of shechita (kosher slaughtering). Both Modreck and George are shochtim (ritual slaughterers). While we were at their home, friends and relatives came by on several occasions with live chickens to be shechted (ritually slaughtered). A Lemba shochet is never permitted to decline a request to shecht chicken or meat.

Male circumcision (models of circumcised male organs were found at the archaeological site, the Great Zimbabwe) is a Lemba requirement. Today boys are circumcised at age eight, a custom that was introduced in reaction to a prohibition against circumcision by Christian missionaries in times past and to protect the community’s Jewish identity. As young boys run around their villages naked, they would have been identified easily as Jews, which would have put their families and communities at risk of persecution.

Each month’s new moon is celebrated on the day it is confirmed visually with the blowing of a shofar. Some elderly Lemba mentioned that they abstain from work on the day of pronouncement of the new moon, concurring with a practice in ancient Israel.

The Lemba place a Star of David on their tombstones. Lemba bury their dead with the head of the deceased facing east (if they’re from Zimbabwe), or facing north (if they’re from South Africa), in both cases toward the Land of Israel. There is a tradition of tearing one’s clothing upon hearing of a relative’s death. The Lemba bury the deceased as soon as possible (waiting no longer than a day) and the grave is referred to in Shona as “house of the deceased” (similar to beit kever in Hebrew). After the burial, mourners leave the cemetery in single file and wash their hands immediately. Mourners mourn for a week after the burial (shiva) and close relatives mourn for a year. All customs so similar to our own.

The manner of slaughter and the draining of blood from the slaughtered animal indicates that the Lemba are familiar with the laws of shechita (kosher slaughtering).  Both Modreck and George are shochtim (ritual slaughterers). While we were at their home, friends and relatives came by on several occasions with live chickens to be shechted (ritually slaughtered). A Lemba shochet is never permitted to decline a request to shecht chicken or meat.

Male circumcision (models of circumcised male organs were found at the archaeological site, the Great Zimbabwe) is a Lemba requirement. Today boys are circumcised at age eight, a custom that was introduced in reaction to a prohibition against circumcision by Christian missionaries in times past and to protect the community’s Jewish identity. As young boys run around their villages naked, they would have been identified easily as Jews, which would have put their families and communities at risk of persecution.

Each month’s new moon is celebrated on the day it is confirmed visually with the blowing of a shofar. Some elderly Lemba mentioned that they abstain from work on the day of pronouncement of the new moon, concurring with a practice in ancient Israel.

The Lemba place a Star of David on their tombstones. Lemba bury their dead with the head of the deceased facing east (if they’re from Zimbabwe), or facing north (if they’re from South Africa), in both cases toward the Land of Israel. There is a tradition of tearing one’s clothing upon hearing of a relative’s death. The Lemba bury the deceased as soon as possible (waiting no longer than a day) and the grave is referred to in Shona as “house of the deceased” (similar to beit kever in Hebrew). After the burial, mourners leave the cemetery in single file and wash their hands immediately. Mourners mourn for a week after the burial (shiva) and close relatives mourn for a year. All customs so similar to our own.

image: Garden (Photo by Mickey Feinberg)

Planting in Harare. Modreck works in the Community House
garden which the family is developing to supply food for residents and visitors
(Photo by Mickey Feinberg)

Many Lemba elders remember that when they were children, during the March-April period of a full moon, their families observed” Peseka” (compare our Passover) by slaughtering a lamb which they would roast and then they would meet together with family and neighbors to eat the entire animal.  After the arrival of missionaries, the community performed this ritual in secret.

Traditionally the Lemba celebrated two New Year’s, one in March-April and the other in September-October.  One wonders if they are celebrating the first month of Nisan and the seventh month of Tishre, both of which are considered New Year days under Jewish law.

Some elderly Lemba remember seeing their parents meet in secret a little more than a week after the Tishre holiday when they would abstain from eating for an entire day (Yom Kippur?). They would pray during that time and ask for God’s forgiveness, after which they would gather together and celebrate with food.

One of our students told us that in the Lemba villages during harvest time, farmers leave some grain at the corners of their fields for needy people to gather and use. They then make it known that the grain is available and they welcome the needy in their fields.  This custom is reminiscent of the story told in the Book of Ruth.

All these practices gave us such warm feelings about our common heritage and made us feel fortunate to have visited these remarkable people and to have shared some memorable experiences together. We’ll miss the camaraderie and intense curiosity of our wonderful students, the warmth and inclusiveness of Modreck and his family (with whom we sat together at dinner on a daily basis) and most of all, the darling children, with whom we spent so many fun and funny moments.   

Love from Mordy and me.

Mickey Feinberg

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* Jewish educator Mickey (Miriam) Feinberg and her husband Mordy (Mordecai), a retired US Government international economist, have traveled extensively teaching Judaic subjects and as avid and inquisitive travelers. They have significant experience as professionals and as volunteers in counties around the world.