Mickey and Mordy Feinberg Visit the Zimbabwe Lemba Jewish Community

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Dear Family and Friends

It was wonderful to return to the welcoming family and community that was familiar to us from the month we spent with them last year. Once again, under the auspices of the amazing organization Kulanu, we would be staying at the home of Modreck, the head of the Harare, Zimbabwe Lemba Jewish community and his wife Brenda. After a long plane trip in as comfortable an aircraft as possible (Ethiopian Airline does a great job of running the largest airline in Africa), George (Modreck’s nephew) was at the airport to meet us along with Hamis (whom we hadn’t met before). The two of them are the sweetest guys you could ever meet.

As we drove to Modreck’s house we were treated to a floral show of gorgeous trees, bushes and flowers. What a paradise of jacaranda, bougainvillea and succulents! It makes one realize the stunning beauty of this place.

We were greeted by a warm and wonderful welcome as we arrived at Modreck’s house. Those there to meet us, and staying at the house, were Modreck and Brenda (a marvelous, dynamic and happy couple), Aviv and Shlomo (six and two and ½ years old, respectively, smart, fun, and each other’s best friends),

George and Pinky (Modreck’s nephew and neice who live full-time with the family), Irene (Modreck’s cousin), Hamis, Chipo and Tatenda. George, Pinky, Irene, Hamis and Chipo are in their mid twenties and Tatenda is fourteen. Irene, Hamis, Chipo and Tatenda live in communities several hundred miles from Harare and are expected to share their Judaic knowledge after their return to their home communities.  It was a great idea for all of them to stay at the house as none of them has a car and public transportation is very unreliable.

We learned that Hamis is a member of the Lemba tribe of Hamisi, the name deriving from the Hebrew word Chamaish (meaning “five” as it is the fifth of twelve Lemba tribes). The name is often given to the eldest son in families from that tribe.

Just as was true during our visit last year, we found that we were greeted everywhere (in shopping centers, on the street, in public transports) by smiles and friendly interactions. It’s interesting that in that place where unemployment is 92% or more!!!! there seems to be no violence and interactions are warm and pleasant.

Modreck’s family and community have advanced remarkably in their Judaic knowledge and observance since we were with them a year ago. The three months during which Sara Eisen (an American Jewish young woman) lived with them and taught them so much really shows. In addition to having increased their knowledge and observance, we observed another phenomenon. Their home has become a community center for Lemba and non-Lemba who wish to learn to live Jewish lives. Modreck and Brenda are so remarkable. There’s such a sense of acceptance and joy in their home. For instance, there are four (non-Lemba black) women who regularly attend Shabbat morning services at the Sephardi or Ashkenazi synagogue weekly where they barely get a minion. After going to services there they come to the Lemba house for Shabbat services which start at 11 am. Those black women have attended one or the other “white” synagogues (Ashkenazi or Sephardi) for four years and have JUST begun to be accepted there. They love to come to Modreck’s services where they’re accepted so whole-heartedly.

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Shortly after our arrival we helped Modreck and his community initiate a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service (first time ever for them). Everyone was very excited about it. They continued doing it during each of the four weeks we were there, becoming more and more proficient with each Friday night. I’m sure they’ll never stop doing it.

It was so beautiful to watch Modreck blessing his own two children at the start of Shabbat on Friday evening, after which he blessed all of the other young people staying in his home. As he did so there was a sense of the “Shabbat Bride” hovering over the assembled group.

Mordy helped prepare two bnot mitzvah for their special day (first time ever in the Lemba community). Tatenda and Trish were so nervous and excited as they prepared for their big day and they did great! I taught Hebrew, Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah to a group of children aged 6-14.

A sense of camaraderie developed among the learners who were staying at the house. Others, not staying at the house, joined in the daily lessons as well, but the house residents had the advantage of learning any time they wished to do so. There were times when some wanted Mordy to listen to them prepare for Torah reading. Sometimes others wanted to practice their Hebrew reading.

We learned Shabbat and High Holidays liturgy, Torah trope (cantillation), Parashat hashavua (weekly Torah portion) Hebrew (reading and speaking), the Hebrew calendar and chevra kadisha (funeral practices). There was great excitement about the ability of a growing number of community members to read the Torah (from a chumash) with trope (cantillation). The number of readers increased to eight on our last Shabbat, including the two bnot mitzvah. The community is excited about receiving a real Torah in the near future.

On one of our non-teaching days George suggested that we visit Borrowdale Brook. We were so happy to have George with us, partly because he knows Harare very well (and we do not) and because we love his company.

Borrowdale Brook is a gated and guarded community where the wealthiest families live in huge gorgeous homes in the midst of vast areas of amazingly well-groomed gardens. We went with George, in a taxi, to that area but were turned away. Apparently no-one enters the area without being invited!

As an alternative, we visited Sam Levi Village, a beautiful shopping center adjacent to Borrowdale Brook. The last time we were in Harare, we met Sam’s widow, Gloria, a lovely, modest and religious member of the Sephardi Jewish community. Sam Levi Village is a thriving shopping center with beautiful stores and restaurants with a racial and cultural mixture.  The black-white racial mix is about 50-50 (unlike Westgate Shopping Center where we were DEFINITELY in the minority). Many of the patrons were scarved and veiled. It’s clear that patrons of that shopping center are not representative of the 92+% unemployed.

Until our most recent visit, we’d never taken public transportation in the city. We were advised to take only taxis because we wouldn’t like the public options. This time we decided to investigate what “mysterious” things were happening on the public transports that we were advised to avoid. We also weren’t thrilled about having to pay $20 !!!! per ride to anywhere in the city – especially when there are combis (“commuter omnibus”; a 15 passenger van) coming and going constantly on all major roads.  We started by taking a combi to a shopping center we’d visited many times in the past because of a wonderful restaurant we love to patronize. It all went well and we loved it!! We particularly loved the fact that it costs 50 cents per ride (can’t beat that price!).

We discovered that we were ALWAYS the only white people taking combis. We also discovered that although the van specifies that it’s a 15 passenger vehicle (written in large letters on a side panel), there were always many more passengers than that number per combi.  Our favorite event was the time that there were 21 passengers (sitting or crouching in various different positions trying to fit a part of their body on or near a seat or a partial seat). And that didn’t count the babies (there were two in the van with us on that occasion) and various packages (groceries, housewares, you name it). That’s in addition to the “conductor” and the driver, bringing the grand total to 23. On that occasion, one man brought long construction pipes on board with him, and a young woman was balancing a large TV (NOT flat screen) on her lap. You get to know people REALLY well on those combis!

The “conductor” is a guy who works really hard! He hangs out the window, often sitting on the open window frame – while the vehicle is moving of course – whistling or yelling at people standing by the side of the road,  to encourage potential customers to join the crowd in the van. While hanging out the window he bangs on the vehicle’s roof signaling to the driver to stop or go. One time, when I was close enough to get a look at the speedometer, I noticed that it was broken and registered no speed. We loved the combi experience, referring to it as a “cheap thrill”.

Modreck suggested that we visit Dr. Rabson Wuriga, an opportunity we didn’t want to miss. Dr. Wuriga, a Lemba, has spent many years doing ethnographic research on the background and history of the Lemba people. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy and biblical studies. He wrote the book “Of Sacred Times, Rituals and Customs: Oral Traditions of the Lemba Jews of Zimbabwe”, using his vast research findings to explain the Lemba’s numerous and convincing connections with biblical Jewry, including the fact that Lemba have a Cohen gene. Dr. Wuriga stresses that the purpose of the book is to help future generations who wish to learn about their identity and to provoke critical debate within the Lemba community on the relevance of preserving Lemba traditions and history.

After reading his book we were anxious to meet Dr. Wuriga and learn about his research findings. He lives in the city of Masvingo (200 miles south of Harare) and teaches Philosophy at the Great Zimbabwe University (near The Great Zimbabwe, an amazing archaeological site).

We took a bus to Masvingo (a 4 hour journey from Harare); a really interesting experience – for which we paid only $8! It was a bit confusing getting to the bus so dear George kindly took us to the bus depot and picked us up when we returned there the next day. I’m not sure we’d have been able to do it on our own. As we were walking there we passed an area that still has vestiges of remarkable beauty (although repairs to the sidewalks and buildings are in dire need). It’s an area between first and fourth streets on which, for ninety years of apartheid, blacks were forbidden from walking.  On the day that we walked through there to get the bus, we saw not one other white person.

When we arrived at the bus we found that no-one had made a reservation. They just showed up, which meant that we waited on the bus for one hour until it filled up. In the meantime, everyone (and his uncle) who was selling something got onto the bus and offered merchandise for sale; food, drinks, housewares, clothing, electronics. You name it, they tried to sell it. When the bus was full the vendors departed. All seats (5 across instead of 4 as in buses we’re used to) were filled, in addition to about 20 people standing in the aisles (and leaning on those who were seated as the aisle was so narrow) and another 4 or 5 sitting on the steps leading out of the bus near the driver. We were the only white people on the bus going both ways. Everyone on the bus was so nice to us; especially the conductor who told us where to sit and when we reached our destiny. A small boy (probably about a year old) look surprised to see us and pointed at us to whWe discovered that we were ALWAYS the only white people taking combis. We also discovered that although the van specifies that it’s a 15 passenger vehicle (written in large letters on a side panel), there were always many more passengers than that number per combi.  Our favorite event was the time that there were 21 passengers (sitting or crouching in various different positions trying to fit a part of their body on or near a seat or a partial seat). And that didn’t count the babies (there were two in the van with us on that occasion) and various packages (groceries, housewares, you name it). That’s in addition to the “conductor” and the driver, bringing the grand total to 23. On that occasion, one man brought long construction pipes on board with him, and a young woman was balancing a large TV (NOT flat screen) on her lap. You get to know people REALLY well on those combis!

The “conductor” is a guy who works really hard! He hangs out the window, often sitting on the open window frame – while the vehicle is moving of course – whistling or yelling at people standing by the side of the road,  to encourage potential customers to join the crowd in the van. While hanging out the window he bangs on the vehicle’s roof signaling to the driver to stop or go. One time, when I was close enough to get a look at the speedometer, I noticed that it was broken and registered no speed. We loved the combi experience, referring to it as a “cheap thrill”.

Modreck suggested that we visit Dr. Rabson Wuriga, an opportunity we didn’t want to miss. Dr. Wuriga, a Lemba, has spent many years doing ethnographic research on the background and history of the Lemba people. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy and biblical studies. He wrote the book “Of Sacred Times, Rituals and Customs: Oral Traditions of the Lemba Jews of Zimbabwe”, using his vast research findings to explain the Lemba’s numerous and convincing connections with biblical Jewry, including the fact that Lemba have a Cohen gene. Dr. Wuriga stresses that the purpose of the book is to help future generations who wish to learn about their identity and to provoke critical debate within the Lemba community on the relevance of preserving Lemba traditions and history.

After reading his book we were anxious to meet Dr. Wuriga and learn about his research findings. He lives in the city of Masvingo (200 miles south of Harare) and teaches Philosophy at the Great Zimbabwe University (near The Great Zimbabwe, an amazing archaeological site).

We took a bus to Masvingo (a 4 hour journey from Harare); a really interesting experience – for which we paid only $8! It was a bit confusing getting to the bus so dear George kindly took us to the bus depot and picked us up when we returned there the next day. I’m not sure we’d have been able to do it on our ich his father laughed in a somewhat embarrassed way.  We were entertained by a group of Evangelical Christians (called “Apostles”) who dress in white robes and white headdresses. They sang Christian songs, harmonizing beautifully, for most of the four-hour trip. It was really wonderful.

It was great to meet Rabson. He was so nice to us. As soon as we arrived in Masvingo (one can’t be sure of arrival time as we had to wait for the bus to fill up before leaving and then we had a variety of unanticipated stops) we phoned him. He came right over, having just finished teaching his university class, picked us up, and drove us (about 30 miles) to visit Mapakomhere, a rural area that is the historical and current center of Lemba life. It is there that a synagogue is currently being built; the first time ever in the thousands of years of Lemba existence in Africa. The drive into the country side, first over narrower and narrower roads, and then over windy, dirt roads showed us a part of the country that is ruggedly beautiful. As we drove along we were treated to a gorgeous show of clear red skies and strange rounded balancing rocks, the likes of which we’d never seen anywhere before.

The residents of this area are subsistence farmers who live off the land as well as from their chickens and cows. Rabson told us that while not all residents there are Lemba, only those who agree not to raise pigs are allowed to stay in the area (as Lemba cannot abide pigs in their environment).

Rabson took us to visit the synagogue that has been under construction for the past year. A large structure that will certainly be extremely beautiful when completed, it still lacks pillars and a roof. Community members have built every part of it themselves, starting with creating the bricks. We were excited to meet community members who built the synagogue with their own hands.

The hope is to get sufficient funding to complete the synagogue by December. There will also be bathrooms, showers and a mikveh (ritual bath) built adjacent to the synagogue.

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We were so moved by the desire of the community to build and use their own synagogue that we decided to make a contribution to its construction. It’s so inspirational to see the efforts of the community to realize its mission.

Mostly though, as we enter into the High Holiday period and the Days of Awe,  we feel particularly inspired by the intensity of the desire by our students to learn about and practice Judaism in very meaningful ways. We have been given an amazing gift of spirituality by teaching and learning from such a remarkable Jewish community.

Love – Mickey and Mordy

To see photos from Mickey and Mordy’s trip please click here.

As Mickey and Mordy so beautifully described, the Lemba have been working very hard to complete their Great Zimbabwe Synagogue (GZS) in Mapakomhere.   Will you make a donation to Kulanu to help them complete it? Simply click here and write “Feinbergs” in the comments.