Rabson Wuriga spoke about the Lemba Jewish Community of Southern Africa at Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, in February. A Lemba elder and a resident of Zimbabwe, he was in the US for a conference.
Wuriga tells of old map which locates a town called “Lemba” in Israel during the Hasmonaean kingdom (134-63 BCE), and cites oral history of gold and ivory traders coming to Africa from the area of Yemen. Wuriga says, “They did not part ways with their Jewish practices,” although they picked up Arab and African customs during their migrations. Circumcisions and marriage-within have remained central. Today Lemba can be found in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, and Malawi.
When Christian missionaries became active in Africa, Wuriga says that the only religion recognized was Christianity, and an African had to be certified or recommended by a local missionary before he could go to school. However, some elders founded a “church” based on the Old Testament, trying to help their children go to school. Many parents postponed their children’s education. Some Lemba walked more 26 km to and from school daily, although Wuriga’s family and many others did home studies (he now has a PhD in Philosophy).
Islam was recognized at a later stage. Wuriga is adamant that “we are not Muslim.” This has been told to the Lemba generation after generation. Older Lemba do not even accept any offer of food in Muslim houses.
It has been a struggle for the Lemba to keep their identity, according to Wuriga. Out of fear, they have tended to do much in private. He recalls that elders would talk until late on Friday night. Last year he interviewed an old Lemba who said his family celebrated Shabbat privately. Older Lemba still hold on to some of their traditions, but they are not written down or told to the young. Some were surprised, in reading the book To Be a Jew, to see their “secret” customs written down!
Wuriga has introduced an annual conference to teach the young about their religion, and he holds some progressive views not shared by all. For example, the Lemba had shifted circumcising from the eighth day to the eighth year out of fear. Wuriga says, “We must move eight years to eight days, and we should start educating women now.”
Lemba forefathers used to meet at a mountain as a pre-rabbinic community, with priests rotating among families. Therefore, some of the older members wonder why they need a synagogue. But Wuriga believes, “Now we should unite with other Jewish communities,” and a chief has given land for a synagogue in Mapakomhere, Zimbabwe. Lemba still tend to live near mountains and rivers.
Wuriga says he is still comparing his upbringing with customs he reads about and sees modern Jews doing. One Passover, he recalls, an uncle slaughtered a sheep. They would do kosher slaughtering facing east. To celebrate the New Moon, the first person to see the New Moon would go to the chief, who would send three witnesses to confirm the sighting. If confirmed, the first person would blow the shofar and sing songs and receive gifts.
Lemba have drifted away from their observances and have become more and more private. Wuriga is trying to convince the elders to give up their secrecy but congratulates them that “they have moved an inch.”
In 1985, a vice president of the Lemba Cultural Association told the chief that there was no secondary school, and the chief gave the 300-family community in Mapakomhere a piece of land for a school up to Form 4 (11th grade). As national coordinator and fundraiser of the Lemba Cultural Association and a member of the Mapakomhere Secondary School, Wuriga has taken an active interest in the school’s development. The community wants to expand to Form 6, to add computers (there are none), and to increase participation by women. The school population is more than 600. There are no Lemba courses, but no pork is served, and the library will have books on Judaism. He hopes it will become a boarding school serving men and women between 14 and 21 years old — teaching Lemba religion and culture.