From Uganda to India, Obscure Groups Want to be Jews

James R. Ross, a journalist who has done extensive research on Jews in China, now casts a wider net to encompass Jews or would-be Jews in exotic places around the world.

In “Fragile Branches — Travels Through the Jewish Diaspora,” his approach is broad and deals with people who deals with people who do not have an established or traceable descent from Hebrew ancestors, but nevertheless think of themselves as Jews. Inevitebly, any such descriptive work raises the question of who and what is a Jew.

The first community he examines could be a test case for how to define a Jew. The Abayudaya live in Uganda and are descended from followers of Semei Kakungulu, a chieftain who was not only a great warrior but also a tireless searcher for enlightenment. Attracted to Christianity through the efforts of Anglican missionaries, he studied the Bible seriously, was impressed by the Hebrew Bible, ferreted out a visiting Jew in Kampala and took lessons from him on Judaism. In 1923 he built synagogue, declared himself Jewish and led his followers in Jewish rites.

The Abayudaya flourished as long as Kakungulu lived, but after his death they began to weaken. Under dictator Idi Amin they became another persecuted minority, but upon his ouster were able to re-establish themselves somewhat.

Today about 600 Abayudaya continue their religious practice. They have synagogues and ritual baths, keep the Sabbath and all Jewish holidays. Their leaders recognize that the world does not yet consider them Jewish but hope the proper authorities can come to complete a theological correct conversion. They receive small grants from American organizations to maintain their schools and synagogues, but one wonders how they will survive the maelstrom that is now East Africa.

From Uganda the author takes us to Peru, where we meet a community not unlike the Abayudaya. A young man Segundo Villaneuva, had as his prized possession a Spanish translation of the Bible left him by his father. He was particularly moved by the majesty and poetry of the Book of Psalms and felt that the Hebrew Bible was the true path to salvation. His friends and relatives studied the Bible with him and followed his lead in proclaiming Saturday as their Sabbath. They assumed the name of Israel de Dios and worshipped as Jews.

A Sephardi rabbi in Lima befriended them and began the first steps of formal conversion. In time, through the efforts of many concerned citizens, including the Lubavitchers, a beit din arrived to test the now 500 strong community. A few weeks later, Villaneuva led first contingent to the town of Elon Moreh in the West Bank.

In February 1990 the remaining converts were asked to follow the first contingent immediately. In August 1997 another beit din arrived and converted nearly 100 more who also immigrated to Israel. Today there is still a remnant of these Roman-Catholic- born aspiring Jews waiting in Peru for another beit din.

In northeastern India the situation is somewhat different. The Mizos, a widespread ethnic group called Chins in Burma, claim descent from Manasseh, the son of Joseph. There is considerable linguistic evidence— place names, religious terms— to give the claim some legitimacy. A number of Mizos think of themselves as Jewish, practice as much as they can the precepts of Judaism and would like to immigrate to Israel. Some already have and have been directed to Gaza and other front-line settlements. Currently, 100 immigrantion visas have been set aside for them annually, but financial aid comes only from some haerdi groups.

Back in Latin America, the author reports on a number of Moroccan Jews who came to the Amazon in the late 19th century to participate in the booming rubber trade. They flourished but married local women of mixed blood. Their grandchildren now seek their Jewish roots. And in Brazil, a significant number of Conversos, who hid their Jewish identity after the Inquisition, are now reasserting it.

All have moving stories, but all these communities present real problems to Israel’s Ministry of Absorption. Can one in good conscience simply ignore them? How deep is their commitment to Judaism and how well could they be integrated into Israeli socity? What role should Middle East demographics play in their future?

Ross, who is the director of the school of Journalism at Northeastern University, does not attempt to answer these extremely difficult questions. He describes these communities sympathetically and with detail, while the reader is left in awe at the tens of thousands who still yearn for Israel.

“Fragile Branches— Travels Through the Jewish Diaspora” by James R. Ross (229 pages, Riverhead, $23.95).

(Tags: Uganda, Latin America, India, Research)


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