Who wants to be a Jew? – The unlikely spread of Judaism in Africa

AS THE sun sets on a Friday in a smart new suburb of Lagos, Harim Obidike dons his kippah and opens up a prayer book. It is the start of shabbat, the Jewish holy day, and as he croons through the psalms, a gaggle of youngsters sing along. “We are Israelites,” he says after bread has been broken and the candles lit.

Nigeria is a devout country split loosely between a Muslim north and a Christian south: two halves which were brought together by colonialists and still butt heads today. A couple of decades ago, modern Judaism was almost unheard of. But this household is one of a growing number that are taking to the Torah. In Abuja, the capital, there are at least four small communities of Igbo-speakers that have opened synagogues. (Jews joke that every town needs at least two so that members can hold a grudge, and refuse to attend one of them.) In one, on the outskirts of the city, there is a gospel lilt to the songs: members taught themselves to read Hebrew and then had to make up the tunes, says one.

It might seem odd that people would sign up to join a small faith whose members have suffered centuries of oppression. Yet Uri Palti, Israel’s ambassador to Nigeria, reckons there are more than 40 such communities across the country. Daniel Lis, an academic, thinks there may be thousands of Nigerians who practise Judaism. Millions more of the Igbo tribe believe that they are descended from biblical Israelites. Across Africa as a whole there may be thousands more self-declared Jews. One community in eastern Uganda, the Abayudaya, adopted the faith almost a century ago. Its rabbi was recently elected the country’s first Jewish member of parliament.

Yet the embrace by these communities of the laws of Moses has not been warmly reciprocated by the Orthodox establishment in Israel. Unlike proselytising religions such as Christianity, the guardians of Orthodox Judaism go out of their way to make conversion difficult, insisting on a two-year programme of study and lifestyle changes.

Still, officialdom is shifting. Israel’s Jewish Agency last month recognized the Abayudaya as Jews, meaning that they are allowed to emigrate to Israel. There is a precedent. Since the 1980s more than 90,000 Ethiopian Jews (known to some as Falashas) did so after Israel’s rabbis accepted them into the fold.

Such a stamp of approval seems a little less likely in the case of Nigeria. Some fear it would open Israel’s gates to thousands of economic migrants. Yet this does not trouble the likes of Mr Obidike. Nigeria’s Semites argue that they are descended from one of Israel’s lost tribes and that cultural similarities such as circumcision are proof of their pedigree. Others at his synagogue do not worry much about officialdom’s response. “We are Jewish,” says one old lady who switched from Catholicism. “Whether you are recognised or not is no matter.”