Mission Accomplished: Documentary Film on Igbo Jewish Community
Jeff Lieberman with members of Tikvat Israel Synagogue in Abuja, Nigeria
(Photo courtesy of Jeff Lieberman)
Over the past few months, I have had the pleasure of sharing my new documentary film, “RE-EMERGING: The Jews of Nigeria”* with audiences around the country. The project was six years in the making and a labor of love. Surprisingly, it was the result of an e-mail.
One evening in 2005, I received an invitation to attend a lecture and slideshow given by Rabbi Howard Gorin on his experiences with communities in Nigeria and Uganda who were practicing Judaism. A local Los Angeles synagogue was hosting the Maryland-based rabbi, and on a lark, I attended. Over the course of an hour, I was mesmerized by Rabbi Gorin’s photos of these communities. To this day, one picture remains seared in my memory. It was a photo from Nigeria. At first, it appeared to be a hut in the forest. On closer inspection, the structure had a Magen David (Jewish star) over the front door. Rabbi Gorin explained that it was a synagogue.
Approaching Rabbi Gorin after his presentation, I asked him if I could join him on his next visit to Nigeria and put my video skills to work, perhaps for a documentary. I had never been to Africa, but was fascinated by the continent, and curious about what Judaism looked like so many miles away. Several months after meeting Rabbi Gorin, we were on a plane together, and subsequently arrived in Abuja, Nigeria to the friendliest, warmest welcome I had ever experienced.
From Abuja we traveled together, crisscrossing the country meeting several additional Jewish communities which embraced us with hugs, songs and “Shalom”. For many of these Nigerian Jews, Rabbi Gorin was the only rabbi they had ever met. And so, for a group of people trying to figure out Judaism on their own, our visit was a chance for them to absorb as much as they could about Judaism in the short time that we were with them.
Much of our time was spent with one of the larger congregations, Tikvat Israel (The Hope of Israel) in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Their synagogue was a one-room building built on the property of its owner, Habakkuk, a man in his 40’s who lives on the property with his wife and five children. Their home sits at the end of a long, dusty road full of potholes. In that neighborhood, chickens and children dart between creeping cars, goats wander through discarded trash and people transport all sorts of goods by cart or on their head.
To understand Habakkuk’s compound, think of a quiet oasis in the midst of chaotic activity. Here, under the shade of a big cashew tree, Jews from around Abuja gather to pray, eat, sing, dance and celebrate Judaism together. They have only a handful of prayer books, and only a few community members are able to lead services or read Hebrew, but they are completely committed to living as Jews. As they joined together in singing “Oseh Shalom”, the sound is not only beautiful and distinctly African, but its familiarity brought tears to my eyes.
According to Habakkuk and others I interviewed, many Igbos believe they have a connection to ancient Israel. This common history, they say, is part of their oral tradition that has been handed down through many generations. They point out words in their Igbo language that sound like Hebrew. They also point out obvious similarities between Igbo and Jewish tradition like circumcising their sons on the eight day of life, and practices followed by women during their menstrual period. While most Igbos practice Christianity, the result of years of missionary proselytizing in Africa, these Igbos have discovered Judaism on their own through the Internet or through friends and family members.
While it is difficult for any filmmaker, historian or rabbi to prove or disprove an Igbo-Hebrew ancestral connection, it is clear that these Igbos share a passionate commitment to Judaism. I was amazed at the sacrifices many of them are prepared to make to learn about and practice their Jewish faith. Many have become vegetarians since kosher meat is not available. Others travel long distances to gather for prayer, sitting through services without a siddur (prayer book). They abide by the laws of Shabbat (Sabbath), even going for a dip in the river, which serves as a mikvah (ritual bath), before services. They spend what time they have learning Hebrew, whether it be from each other or at the cyber café where they research Jewish law and practice. While they are proud to identify themselves as Jews, they recognize that Nigeria is often a battleground where religious extremists terrorize and murder each other. As a result, this small Jewish community knows it must balance pride with caution.
At the end of my first Shabbat, I was given a great honor: an Igbo name. My name is Chukwu Emeka, which means God made a special person. At that moment, I knew I carried a great responsibility….to educate Jews outside of Africa about this committed group of Igbos who have embraced Judaism. I have taken that mission seriously, and, though it was an arduous journey, I’m proud to have completed my film on the community. It appears to be inspiring and motivating audiences wherever it is shown.** It is my hope that the film continues to spread the Igbos’ story and helps them get the resources they want and need to deepen their knowledge and enhance their Jewish practice. More importantly, they wish for recognition and acceptance. Based on a few screenings I’ve had so far, it gives me great satisfaction to know that love has already begun to head their way.
* See Among the Igbos of Nigeria During the Festival of Lights,” by William Miles, in the Fall 2011 issue of KulanuNews.
**I am happy to report that 700 High Holiday prayer books arrived in Nigeria in October, a gift from the Manetto Hill Jewish Center on New York’s Long Island, with shipping paid for by a Los Angeles gentleman who had recently seen the film.