“A tiny beautiful flower surrounded by millions of weeds”
This is how my grandmother chose to describe the Lemba community in Buhera, my district of origin. Her comment, which may seem harsh to the casual reader, was actually an expression of pride in her Lemba culture and way of life. I have thought a great deal about my grandmother in recent days as I put pen to paper in an attempt to describe the Lemba-Jewish way of life to Jews abroad and to assess what we Lemba need to strengthen our community and to preserve our heritage in the years to come.
Today, the Lemba-Jewish community of Zimbabwe numbers approximately 150,000 souls in a country with a population of 14 million. Our culture and religious practices set us apart from the majority of our countrymen. That we managed to cling to our unique cultural heritage and traditions and eschewed assimilation into non-Lemba cultures is a miracle. How to reproduce that success for the next generation is our challenge.
So what exactly is it that makes the Lemba distinct from other ethnic groups in Zimbabwe? Chief among our differences are our marriage laws, dietary laws, Sabbath observance, circumcision and the holidays that we observe. In this issue of the Kulanu newsletter, I have chosen to focus on two of these differences, Lemba marriage and Lemba dietary laws. I have also described some of the challenges that confront both these institutions and our way of life.
MARRIAGE AMONG THE LEMBA
I believe our greatest fear was and still is assimilation, the fear of being gobbled up by the larger ethnic groups in Zimbabwe and to be lost forever as a distinct people. To guard against this threat, Lemba Elders long ago forbade intermarriage. They prescribed that Lembas must marry fellow Lembas. In total there are 12 Lemba clans in Zimbabwe, and a Lemba was permitted to marry into any one of them. Marriage outside this circle was forbidden.
My father and all my uncles married into one Lemba clan. As a result, all my mother’s sisters and cousins married my father’s brothers and cousins. These marriages were meant to strengthen inter-clan relationships. Having Lemba relatives from both my father’s and mother’s sides created a strong bond among the offspring and a sense of to-getherness. In fact, we are more than cousins. We don’t even use the word cousin to describe ourselves. We are simply brothers and sisters. We also do not use the word aunt or uncle among ourselves. Only the words father and mother exist.
Tovakare, Bubha, Seleman, Tsadik, Sarif, Hamis,
Bakar, Mani, Usingarimi, Hadji, Ngavi
My father, who is from the Tovakare clan, had three brothers. Unfortunately, they are all deceased; may their souls rest in peace. My father, the first born son, married my mother, who is from the Tsadik clan. Coincidentally, my mother is also a first born in her family. Two of my father’s brothers married my mother’s blood sisters, with my youngest uncle marring my youngest aunt. The third brother married my mother’s cousin. This custom did not start with my father and his brothers and cousins but had existed for many generations.
My grandfather had only one brother and they (my grandpa and his brother) married blood sisters so my father and his cousins, my uncles, were very close, just as I am with my cousins. When my grandmother’s sister died, my grandma raised her late sister’s children.
It was natural for her to do so because my cousins were like her own children.
What I am trying to point out is that among the Lemba, the institution of marriage has been used to bring together different Lemba clans. This is the reason that all Lemba consider their destiny and identity one and the same. Over the centuries, these communal customs protected our religious and cultural identity from unwanted intrusion from other cultures and from the complications that come with intermarriage.
Long ago it was taboo for Lemba-Jewish daughters to marry non-Lembas. The punishment for marrying a non-Lemba man was excommunication. A great aunt of mine was disowned by my great grandfather because she married a non-Lemba. For 40 years, my great aunt was not able to set foot in our village, not even to attend her mother’s funeral. She was allowed to return to the village only after the death of my great grandfather. It was only then that my grandfather relented and readmitted her into the community. But not her children. Such was the severity of the punishment.
Nowadays, Lemba marriage rules are not as harsh. Lemba girls are no longer excommunicated if they marry non-Lembas. My three sisters have non-Lemba husbands. They are only required to observe the dietary laws so that when we visit them we can eat at their tables. If they fail to observe and respect Lemba dietary laws, we cannot visit them.
A Lemba woman who intermarries does not automatically adopt her husband’s religion and culture and can remain a Lemba. However, according to Shona cultural mores (to which we adhere), the children of such a marriage belong to the father and adopt his culture and religion.
Fortunately, all my brothers-in-law follow Lemba dietary laws and are not hostile towards our culture. As a result, I can visit them and eat in their homes. Even though non-Lemba men are not allowed to convert and become Lembas, they can choose to live like Lem-bas.
For Lemba men, the demands are different. Lemba men are discouraged from marrying non-Lembas, but they are able to do so without penalty. Although non-Lemba men cannot convert and become Lemba, non-Lemba women can join our community. But, in order to be accepted as Lembas, the women must undergo a formal conversion, after which they enjoy the full recognition and respect that is accorded other Lemba wives
With a relaxation of marriage laws, however, our religious and cultural heritage is at risk. This situation is compounded by the fact that many of us no longer live in our ancestral villages as we did in earlier times. We are scattered in cities and towns across the country, making it more difficult for us to meet and form relationships among ourselves. This has resulted in more intermarriage. The unusual bond that we created among ourselves through marriage is at risk. If intermarriage continues, our identity will be compromised and we will be strangers to one another.