PROVIDENCE – They came to my RISD “Bible as Art” class. Ovadiah (Agbai) and Pinchas (Ogbukaa), guests from the Ibo people of Nigeria, hosted on this visit by Israeli Emissary, Matan Graff, photographed by RISD alumna Ilene Perlman, and accompanied by Len Lyons, author of scholarly texts about Ethiopian Judaism.
“We thank Rabbis (Wayne) Franklin and (Barry) Dolinger and … Professor William Miles and librarian and traveler Shai (Afsai), for inviting us from Nigeria to explore, to study and to collaborate with the large Jewish community of Rhode Island.” Pinchas, in a grey tunic, welcomed us all. He reached into his sack and drew out a bundle of books about the current research into the tale of his tribe. The Biblical blessing of Jacob upon his son Gad – the origin of the loyalty of the Ibo to the Jewish story, its history both ancient and contemporary – made but one of the explanations of the bond between the Ibo people and the Hebrew people.
Ovadiah traced the names of the regions of West Africa to the Torah, the Tanakh, the mapping out of larger Canaan. “I chose the name Ovadiah not only because it sounded like my birth name, but also because it means ‘I believe in Ha-shem,’ the one God,’” he claimed. He spoke of the tradition of circumcision on the eighth day, of the blessings upon each new moon and numerous other signs and traces of the taproots of Judaism among his fold. “We weave the tallit with symbols of the star of David.”
Len Lyons spoke of the Song of Songs and the legend of the romantic – and also commercial – rendezvous of the Queen of Sheba, which was Ethiopia, and King Solomon, an affair that produced Menelik, who founded the dynasty of the ruling class in “Sheba,” or Axum.
A guest in the class, Kafumba Bility, a textile design major from the Ivory Coast and a Muslim, asked whether missionary Christian influence was not exploitive and destructive of native customs, rituals, beliefs, folkways. “Christian motivations, perhaps, but not Jewish,” answered our distinguished representatives.
Matan, whose mother was born in Morocco and whose father’s family had come to Israel after liberation from Poland and upon the establishment of Israeli statehood, brought up the issue of the modern nation’s acceptance of diversity. “It takes a while to open your arms to new arrivals, new concepts of who and what is a Jew. We teach the bible but not entirely from a religious point of view.”
As the professor in charge of the course, I wanted to gather up the words of the speakers and the student questioners and make sense out of the variety of versions of scripture.
Speaking symbolically, I explained that Europe did not pitch a Sukkot tent for its Jews ... they went to Israel, the only land that was theirs, and they had to fight for it. And yet, Israel’s first law was the Ingathering. Theories of the Lost Tribes have a deeper meaning in Jerusalem than they do in conventional academic scholarly circles. Israel needs friendly neighbors.
Photographer Perlman, a RISD alum and former student of mine, spoke of her travels with camera in search of hidden Jewish communities. She plans on a voyage to the Nigerian world of Pinchas and Ovadiah, with Afsai, to further their gestures of support from both American and Israeli sources for the independent growth of Jewish awareness and dignity within Nigeria. “They do not seek immigration to Jerusalem,” she said, “only recognition of their identity, both spiritual and historical, creative, productive, and actual.”
Pinchas and Obadiah took this moment to thank us all for the hospitality of the festival of Sukkot in Providence. “You have a large and beautiful Jewish world here, with several large and stately synagogues, and Sukkot was the perfect occasion for our journey, our pilgrimage in the sky.”
I promised my students to share the books the visitors presented us with, including “An Afro-Judaic Odyssey” by Professor William F. S. Miles and “Ibos: Hebrew Exiles from Israel – Astonishing Facts and Revelations” by Professor O. Alaezi.
Following their appearance on Benefit Street at the corner of College Street, Afsai invited the group to dine at “Grange,” the kosher vegetarian restaurant on Broadway in Providence. Pinchas and Ovadiah explained their names in a new way. First, Pinchas: “Ovadiah chose my name because it means something like ‘Zest’ or ‘Zealot’ and was intended as a compliment for my devotion. He was my elder and leader.” Ovadiah, in his quiet, deeply sincere and devout voice, claimed that his own name meant another kind of devotion – to the survival of their profound faith.
As I write this brief summary, I am just home from asking my students what they recall from their experience with these pilgrims to the land of Roger Williams, and of a city and campus that celebrate diversity and collegiality.
Like artists, they see spirit, soul, meaning, even in a native nut or fruit, and say blessings and expect blessings, from every element in their lives, even in a nation at war. Everything they said was relevant to the study of art, from still life imagery to landscapes and industrial design. We welcomed them as they welcomed us.
Mike Fink (email@example.com) teaches English at RISD. He writes a regular column for The Jewish Voice.