The Garden of Eden? That is what Malagasies think of their island country. Not only do local residents believe that Madagascar is the original Gan Eden, many believe they are descendants of who else? The Biblical Hebrews.
And that is just the beginning of this ever-surprising story.
According to many Malagasies, the first Jews arrived on these shores after Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar forced most of Abraham’s descendants to leave their promised land. The next wave of emigration was from Ethiopia, from among the descendants of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. And after them came Jews from Medina, who apparently fled shortly after the rise of Islam. Is there any evidence that these stories are true? There are many pieces to the puzzle to be found and assembled before I am prepared to pass judgment. In the meantime, I am intrigued. And charmed. That millions of Malagasies should consider themselves to be related to Jews the world over.
In recent years, however, very few Jews have made their way to Madagascar and stayed long enough to be remembered. A few Israelis came to Madagascar to do business shortly after the country became officially independent from France in the early 1960s. But by 1972, a new government had formed and made all foreign investors unwelcome. The Israelis, like other foreign nationals left and have not returned since.
Forty years in the desert: time for a change? That is what Malagasies are hoping for. They have been exploited successively by Arabs, by French, by Indians, by Chinese, and now they want some relief. They want help in developing their country, but they want to do it their way. Many are looking to America and to Israel, and to Jews in particular, to help them in this endeavor.
I’m a convert to Judaism who lives in New England currently but spent some years in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. When planning my recent trip to Madagascar, I discovered Kulanu and the emerging Jewish community in Antananarivo. Thanks to Kulanu, I was able to deliver a Torah scroll donated by Congregation Kehillat Jeshurun on New York’s Upper East Side. For the past three months, I taught elementary Hebrew and Jewish history, Halacha (Jewish law) and minhag (custom) to members of this community.
The community observes Shabbat every week without fail. Together we planned and observed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. They make great challah, blow the shofar with stellar accuracy and enthusiasm, have a baal tefillah (prayer leader) who chants in Sephardic fashion better than I could ever have expected. They wear kippot (skull caps) and tallitot (prayer shawls) when they pray. And they try to observe as many of the mitzvoth (Jewish laws and rituals) as possible. But they don’t have a rabbi or a hazzan (cantor) or a shochet (ritual slaughterer) or even a proper Hebrew School (as I am a rank amateur) “so they need help in order to become part of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people). They want to lead Jewish lives disciplined by Halacha and minhag. They want to speak Hebrew and pray in Hebrew and study Torah and Haftorah (Select weekly readings from the Prophets) and Talmud in Hebrew” like other Jews.
Will other Malagasies follow in their footsteps and seek to become Jews? Could be. I know it would be good for the country. And good for Klal Yisrael as well, for Malagasies have much to contribute, not least of all their beautiful country with vast and mostly undeveloped natural and human resources.
The Jewish community of Madagascar invites you to rediscover Gan Eden for yourselves. I’ve made the trip twice in the past year, and I’m going back soon. Why don’t you join me?