Scholar to speak at Temple Emanu-El about emergent African Judaism

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When William Miles, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, first read that there were Nigerians practicing Judaism, he was suspicious.

“I’ve been working on this part of Africa for the better part of 35 years, so I thought I knew the lay of the land very well,” said Miles, a former Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern.

But two years later, in 2008, Miles was asked to review Edith Bruder’s “The Black Jews of Africa,” in which he encountered a description of people practicing Judaism in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. That was a scholarly source the professor could not easily dismiss. Intrigued, but still doubtful, he decided to travel to Abuja to find out about its Jews for himself.

“I went to explore with an open, if skeptical, mind,” Miles recalled. “All it took was a few minutes in one of their synagogues in Abuja to realize that they are actually practicing what any Jew in Providence – Orthodox, Conservative or Reform – would recognize as rabbinic Judaism. I was bowled over by the authenticity. It was the real deal. I saw their kavana [intention] in tefilot[prayers].”  

The Igbo of Nigeria number some 25 million to 30 million. Within the Igbo ethnic group, as Miles explains, “there is a self-creating Jewish community of 2,000 to 5,000 people, and it is growing. Many Igbo claim to be descendants of the Israelite tribe of Gad, but it has only been in the last 25 to 35 years that the claim of Jewishness and Israelite descent has been ratcheted up into rabbinic Jewish practice.”

The development of Nigerian Judaism differs from that of Ethiopian or Ugandan Judaism, Miles says.

“This is not like the Jews of Ethiopia, who have an ancient, documented, continuous chain of Jewish practice. Nor is this like the Jews of Uganda, who did not claim Jewish descent at all when they began embracing Judaism in the early part of the 20th century.”

Miles’ first visit to Abuja, during Hanukkah of 2009, inaugurated a relationship between the Jewish community and Providence’s Temple Emanu-El, one that many of the synagogue’s members may not know exists.

Using his discretionary fund, Rabbi Wayne Franklin procured 50 hanukkiot, and Temple Emanu-El’s gift shop supplied 50 boxes of Hanukkah candles, which Miles brought to Nigeria, allowing many in the Abuja community to have a household hanukkiah for the first time.

In 2011, Franklin and Miles received invitations to attend the first Bar Mitzvah celebration in Abuja. Although unable to go himself, Franklin sent the Bar Mitzvah boy, Hezekiah, tefillin by way of Miles.    

“It was the most amazing Bar Mitzvah I’ve experienced, next to that of the Bat Mitzvah of my daughter Arielle, and Bar Mitzvah of my son Sam,” Miles said.

These first two visits to the Abuja community provided the setting for Miles’ “Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey” (Marcus Weiner, 2013). The book was later chosen as a National Jewish Book Award finalist. Its cover shows Hezekiah wearing Miles’ own Bar Mitzvah tallit (which he gave to the boy) and the tefillin presented to him by Temple Emanu-El.

Hearing from Miles about his experiences in Nigeria led me to travel to their country three times myself, in 2013-2014; to invite two Igbo elders from Abuja to spend 12 days in Rhode Island; and to put together a photo-text exhibit at Brown RISD Hillel about Nigerian Judaism.

Miles’ trips to Nigeria were followed in 2015 by travel to Madagascar to learn about Malagasy Judaism. He has recently returned to the United States from a third visit to those practicing Judaism in Nigeria and a first visit to the Jews of Cameroon, who also began practicing rabbinic Judaism in the past several decades. 

Miles’ talk, “‘Who is a Jew?’ Comes to Africa: A Multimedia Presentation,” about emerging Jewish communities from Nigeria to Madagascar striving to acquire the knowledge and skills of modern Judaism, will take place at Providence’s Temple Emanu-El, 99 Taft Ave., on Wednesday, March 21, 7:30-9 p.m. The talk is free, with a $5 suggested donation.

SHAI AFSAI lives in Providence. His review of Miles’ most recent book (co-edited with Daniel Lis and Tudor Parfitt), “In the Shadow of Moses: New Jewish Movements in Africa and the Diaspora” (Tsehai, 2016), will appear in Reading Religion, a review site published by the American Academy of Religion.