Among the Igbos of Nigeria During the Festival of Lights

William F. S. Miles (Northeastern University) is the author of the new The Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey and nine other books.


image: Sar Habakkuk blessing his children after Sabbath candle lighting

Sar Habakkuk blessing his children after Sabbath candle lighting
Photo by William F.S. Miles

It is the 24th of Kislev, 5770 (2009), Erev* Hanukkah, I am in Nigeria. This is not my first visit. In fact, I have made some 15 trips over the last 30 years to conduct a variety of research studies. This time, however, I have come expressly for the purpose of spending Hanukkah (Festival of Lights) with a handful of Igbos who, in black Africa's most heavily Muslim nation, proudly but incongruously identify as Jews.

In previous trips, I had little interaction with Igbos and even my knowledge of the tribe was scant. I did know about the bloody Biafra War in the 1960's when Igbos, angry over economic, ethnic and religious problems in the country, seceded from Nigeria and formed the independent state of Biafra. The secession led to a highly publicized civil war in which over a million civilians died. The nation of Biafra was short-lived, however, and, after two and a half years of war, was reintegrated into Nigeria. I also knew that Igbos, who are highly respected as entrepreneurial merchants, have often been called "the Jews of Africa" for their business acumen.

So how did I find myself in Nigeria on this extraordinary mission? It was my interest in both Jewish and African studies that led to this trip. Two years ago, I discovered the community when I reviewed Edith Bruder's book The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity.** The chapter on the Igbos jogged my memory about an article I had filed away several years before about Rabbi Howard Gorin of Maryland, whose interest and involvement with the community went back many years. I wanted to meet this community.

So thanks to e-introductions by Rabbi Howard Gorin, I would spend this Hanukkah in the company of a people who, not satisfied with having survived the near-genocide of the Biafra war, have assumed another risky identity as a tiny minority of Jews in a mega-country that periodically fractures, in pogrom-like riots, along its Muslim-Christian fault line. Tonight, though, I am more worried about making cultural or liturgical gaffes as I bring my Long Island Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jew) understanding of Hanukkah to the Jewish Igbos of Abuja, capital of Nigeria.

Only 24 hours before, still in packing mode, I was wondering what I should bring with me. Would they use latke mix (for potato pancakes eaten during Hanukkah)? Should I bring dreidels, (tops traditionally spun on the holiday), Hanukkah gelt (money) or hanukkiahs (candelabras with nine candles)? I need not have worried about my hosts' lack of Jewish objects. The Igbos possess more precious commodities than I could have stuffed into my duffle bag: a joy-infused approach to Judaism, an unquenchable thirst for Jewish knowledge and masterful prayer leaders. And, though it costs 50 dollars at the local market, they even bring a bottle of Kosher Manischewitz wine for the Kiddush (blessing over the wine).

image: In the women's section of the Gihon synagogue (Photo credit: William F.S. Miles)

In the women's section of the Gihon synagogue
(Photo credit: William F.S. Miles)

In Abuja, I need to shuffle between the Gihon and Tikvat Israel congregations. Each is over forty-five minutes away, in opposite directions, from my accommodations in the center of town. I find the two congregations have some similarities and some differences. If the mechitza (curtain separating men from women during prayer) is a standard litmus test, we can say that Gihon is orthodox and Tikvat is conservative.

But more striking is the difference in infrastructure. At Gihon, the ceiling is finished, there is an ark for the Torah and the hanukkiah is large and lovely. At Tikvat Israel, where I lit the first night's candle, the rafters are open, there is no Torah scroll and the hanukkiah consists of painted coke bottles mounted on a wooden frame. What both congregations share in abundance is kavana, a sincere devotion to Jewish worship.

And neither community appears insecure in its observance of Judaism: it is I, the odd Ashkenazi in the minyan (ten Jews required for communal prayer; in this case 10 men) of black Africans, who looks like an outsider. But the hand-painted saying in Hebrew on the outside wall of the synagogue serves as a reminder: Kol Yisrael Haverim Ze l'Ze (loosely translated: All Jews are brothers).


SABBATH SERVICES

"Where did you put the aliyah? (call to the Torah)," I am asked at the conclusion of the Shabbat morning service. I thought my questioner meant the card with the number of my aliyah (seven people say blessings over the Torah reading) to the Torah. I am number four. Instead, he is referring to my "bid" for the honor of being called to the Torah. It is the custom here that all Torah readers are expected to pay for the privilege of an aliyah. For the honor to have my name, and that of my father, invoked in the benediction over the Torah reading, I had pledged to the synagogue five hundred naira (a few dollars). The Igbo gabay (synagogue beadle) was making sure I placed my money into the appropriate box, lest the bid be forgotten.

This was just one of the customs that makes Judaism in Nigeria unique. Like the ablutions. In "normative" Judaism, I had never experienced washing one's hands before entering the synagogue to begin prayers. Even between prayers (say, between those of Shabbat morning and Shabbat afternoon), ritual hand washing is practiced. Another first for me was men holding hands and dancing around the altar in the middle of the synagogue – not for Simchat Torah (celebration of the sacred scrolls), but because it was Shabbat. And finally, at the conclusion of the Sabbath service, the congregation exits the synagogue backwards, in song, to symbolize their reluctance to leave Shabbat. I also found the children in the community special. Humbling, too. In contrast to the squirming, running, yelling kids in many American synagogues, I see quiet, obedient Igbo children taking in the hours-long services.

In an ironic echo of the state of Jewry in America, the Igbos express their concern over assimilation. The main problem is the public school system where Christianizing influences are prevalent. "My son was beaten up because he does not accept Jesus," is a typical comment. "We need our own school. Only that way can they [the children] remain open and proud Jews." In Nigeria, you must "be" of some recognized religion, or else you are despised or worse. If you practice something unknown–such as Judaism–you may be accused of being a cultist. This is the reason that Igbos dare not display their Hanukkah candelabras in their windows.

Jewish education: this is the main message that Sar Habakkuk, leader of the Tikvat Israel congregation, wishes to convey. "A teacher. That's all we want. Someone who can come and teach our children. We have a building, we have a room for the teacher. But we need to give our children a Jewish education!"

image: An Igbo Elder (Photo credit: William F.S. Miles)

An Igbo Elder
(Photo credit: William F.S. Miles)

If there was a rabbi, things would be easier. Currently, the congregations are led by "elders" –venerated Igbo men who, over the last two decades, have rediscovered their Hebraic roots. For most, that path was a circuitous one, taking them first through the detour of so-called Messianic Judaism. For some, the theological contradictions eventually began to gnaw mercilessly. "When I first began thinking about it," says Pinchas (né Azuka Ogbukaa, a member of Gihon), "I could not sleep an entire night. The contradiction was too much. If we are to be worshipping the one and unique Creator as God, than how can we also be supposed to worship Yeshua (Jesus)?"

In the absence of trained and bone fide local rabbis, Igbos are Internet Jews. While holy books and Jewish texts do make their way to Nigeria, many via Rabbi Goren's book project, it is by going online–however fitfully, given limited computer access and frequent power outages–that Igbos connect to the greater Jew- ish world of learning. Miraculously, 29-year-old Moshe ben Natan Levi, who does seamless Torah readings in a beautiful voice and near flawless delivery, learns his Hebrew online.


HOW MANY ARE THEY?

How many Igbo Jews are there in Nigeria? Numeration is vague among the Igbos, at least in Abuja. At Tikvat Israel, I was originally told there are seven active families. But Elder Agbia puts the number at sixteen. Later I am told that there are definitely "more." For the Gihon congregation, there seem to be at least double the number of congregants. Throughout Nigeria there are 20 congregations. Some Igbos talk of 30,000 Jews among them, but there is no way to verify this number. Rabbi Gorin puts his estimate of the number of Jews practicing normative Judaism in the low thousands. Either way, it is a compelling phenomenon.

In describing their Jewish roots, I am told: "As Igbos, we circumcise our sons on the eighth day. We pray at the coming of the new moon. We blow the ram's horn. This we have done, as Igbos. But we did not know before that we were continuing the acts of our Jewish ancestors." These are not the only Igbo customs now believed to be Israelite survivalisms. "As Igbos, we have always observed Shavuot (harvest holiday) as Ufegiku, and Sukkot"–the Feast of Tabernacles– "as Afigolu."


FINAL DAY IN ABUJA

In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe lamented the deterioration of traditional Igbo culture that accompanied the advent of colonialism and Christianization. Reclaiming Jewish ancestry and identity, according to Remy Ilona, the most prolific writer from and about the community, is part of the contemporary Igbo struggle against those colonial and missionary legacies. In his Introduction to the Chronicles of Igbo-Israel and The Igbos: Jews in Africa,*** Ilona claims that one of the aims of the British was to alienate them from their real roots, contemporary and historic. For him, part of the work of cultural decolonization is to reclaim Judaism as the true religious heritage of the Igbo. Whether world Jewry itself is prepared to embrace this or any type of African Judaism is another matter altogether.

image: Young Hezekiah leading prayers at Congregation Tikvat Israel (Photo credit: William F.S. Miles)

Young Hezekiah leading prayers at Congregation Tikvat Israel
(Photo credit: William F.S. Miles)

The time has come to bid shalom (goodbye). Taking leave of Hezekiah, the young Torah reader of Tikvat Israel, is hardest of all. I see it is difficult for him, too.

He is a prodigy, this eleven-year-old, who chants for the community in soulful Hebrew. Quiet and softspoken as a boy, as prayer leader his beautiful and ull-throated chanting sails far beyond the unfinished rafters of this Nigerian shul (Yiddish word for synagogue). With the deep eyes of a Hasid-in-the-making, this African boy looks up to me and asks, in a mixture of sadness and hope, "Will you come to my bar mitzvah?"


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* Jewish holidays begin the night before at sundown.

** Elizabeth Bruder's book was also reviewed in the Spring, 2010 issue of the Kulanu News.

*** The Igbos: Jews in Africa by Remy Ilona is available for sale at kulanuboutique.com

William Miles is a professor of political science at North-eastern University in Boston, teaching courses on Comparative Politics, Religion and Politics, Music and Politics and the Politics of Developing Nations. From 1998-2002, he was the Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern. This article has been abridged and adapted from "Among the Igbos During the Festival of Lights", Transition: An International Review (105:35-45), published by Indiana University Press (2011).

Special note: Dr. Miles returned to Tikvat Israel in August, 2011 to attend the Bar Mitzvah of Hezekiah.