An African ‘Lost Tribe’ Comes to TV: Following a British Scholar-Adventurer to South Africa

Should you be free at 9 p.m. on February 22, you might want to switch on
New York City’s Channel 13 and take in an hour-long documentary called
“Lost Tribes of Israel.” Having been involved in lost-tribe hunting myself
these past two years, I found an advance viewing well worth watching.

The title, to be sure, is a misnomer. Produced by David Espar and starring
the British scholar and writer Tudor Parfitt, the film is not about the
Lost Tribes in general. Rather, it deals with a specific African ethnic
group called the Lemba that, judged by strict standards, probably does not
qualify as a “lost tribe” at all. Technically, this legend (or, as a few
people think, reality) refers to the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom of
Israel, which according to the Bible were exiled by and to various parts of
the Assyrian empire in about 720 BCE. The Lemba, on the other hand…. but
let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

If you have read (as you probably haven’t) Mr. Parfitt’s delightfully
written “Journey to the Vanished City,” published in 1992, there would be
no need to tell you who the Lemba are. A tribal people numbering in the
tens of thousands and living largely in the northeastern corner of South
Africa, near the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, they outwardly
resemble such African neighbors as the Vendas, with whom they are often
confused, in their appearance and way of life. And yet in some respects
they are unique: They believe that their ancestors were Jews; they observe,
or until recently observed, certain customs having more in common with
biblical than African religion, such as the shunning of pork, animal
sacrifice and the celebration of new moons, and some of them, as a
consequence of contact with the outside Jewish world, are now attempting to
live what they conceive to be Jewish lives, adopting such Jewish rituals
and symbols as prayer shawls and Stars of David.

Apart from the tradition that they are Jews, that they come from a faraway
place called “Sena” and that they helped to build the great stone city of
Zimbabwe, today one of Africa’s most impressive archeological ruins, the
Lemba know nothing about their distant past — the investigation of which
was the goal of Mr. Parfitt’s first journeys through Africa, in the late
1980s and early 1990s. His often antic experiences are, as I have said,
marvelously described in his book, which concluded that the Lemba, while
probably involved in the construction of Zimbabwe, indeed are and always
were an indigenous African people whose religion absorbed Jewish and Muslim
influences from traders plying the Indian Ocean between the African Coast
and the Arabian Peninsula. As for “Sena,” Mr. Parfitt found a number of
African sites that might be identified with it but was unable to prove
anything definite.

Why Mr. Parfitt nevertheless felt that he had missed something and needed
to go back many years later for a second look at the Lemba is unclear. But
a second look he decided to have — and the PBS film lets us join him for
it. What we see and hear is astounding, utterly convincing and considerably
at odds with his earlier theories.

What made him change these? Two things, the first of which is the enormous
advance in DNA studies made since his first expedition. Scientists now
know, as they did not in 1990, a great deal about the genetic makeup of
Jews in general and of specific communities of Jews in particular, which
gave Mr. Parfitt the idea of running DNA tests on the Lemba. Armed with a
doctor’s swab stick and a pair of plastic gloves, he returned to Africa,
collected scientifically acceptable tissue samples from their inner cheek
linings and sent the samples for analysis to laboratories at the University
of California and University College of London’s Library for Genetic
Anthropology. I won’t spoil your fun by explaining the laboratory
procedures that the film shows or by telling you their exact statistical
findings, but I will, I hope, whet your appetite by revealing that the
correlation between Lemba and Jewish genes is far too high to be
coincidental.

Inspired by these results, Mr. Parfitt’s second new idea was to look for
the Lemba’s origins outside of Africa, at the nearest jumping-off point to
it — that is, in Yemen, the inhabitants of which have had commercial and
military contacts with the east coast of Africa for as far back as
historical memory reaches. Did he find Sena there? Indeed he did. Can he
prove that he found it? With a high degree of probability, yes. How? You’re
asking too many questions. Wait for February 22.

Of course, since we know that Jews lived in Yemen from at least the early
centuries of the common era and that independent Jewish tribes existed in
the Arabian Peninsula as late as the 16th century, there is nothing
intrinsically remarkable in this or even, perhaps, in the notion that a
group of Yemenite Jews should have crossed the straits of the Red Sea to
Africa at some uncertain time in the past, wandered southward, intermarried
with local black populations and eventually reached the continent’s far end
while retaining diluted elements of Jewish identity. And yet, although the
PBS film stops here and goes no further, a number of intriguing questions
and riddles remain:

– Yemenite Jews, to the best of my knowledge, are one of the few groups of
Jews in the world who do not have a high genetic correlation with other
Jews. How, then, explain the fact that the Lemba do? Is it possible that
they passed through Yemen on their way to Africa before Judaism came to
Yemen, in which case their separation from the Jewish people may go all the
way back to the biblical period?

– Although it is tempting to connect the story of the Lemba with that of
the Jews of Ethiopia, the Falashas or Beta Israel, a Yemenite origin for
whom has also been hypothesized, the latter, too, do not correlate well
genetically with Jews elsewhere. Did Judaism, then, strike root
independently in Africa twice, with no connection between the two cases?

– A number of medieval Jewish chronicles, especially those relating to the
enigmatic Eldad the Danite, a ninth-century traveler who turned up in North
Africa with fabulous tales of remote Israelite kingdoms, hint at the
existence of black Jews in the lowlands along the east African coast. To
the extent that this material has been taken seriously by scholars, these
Jews have been tentatively identified with the Falashas — who in
historical times, however, inhabited the Ethiopian highlands. Can it be
that the lost Jews spoken of by Eldad were the Lemba?

There is still much, much more that we need to know. Indeed, the
realization that we do need to know it is only gradually dawning on the
scholarly community, since even now the view that the “Lost Tribe”
narrative is pure myth continues to prevail. In part, it prevails because
until now Jewish history has generally been written by scholars with
normative Jewish outlooks and little interest in modes of Jewish identity
that fall far outside normative parameters. Men like Tudor Parfitt,
adventurers of the mind as well as of physical travel, have only begun to
make scholars aware that Judaism was in the past a more far-flung and
racially and culturally diverse phenomenon than has commonly been assumed.

Today we live in an age that is as fascinated by the idea of cultural
hybridization as previous ages were by that of cultural essences. This
fascination has links to global developments, which have increasingly been
characterized by mass migration, the unprecedentedly rapid mixing of once
racially and ethnically homogeneous populations, and a new worldwide
syncretism. As Jews, too, we find ourselves in a period, menacing and
exciting at once, in which many of the traditional distinctions between
Jews and non-Jews are quickly disappearing, leaving us uncertain how a Jew
should be defined or what Jewishness can and cannot encompass. Peoples such as the Lemba, who once seemed a purely exotic phenomenon, may now strike us as curiously paradigmatic of something greater. Their “lostness” has come to symbolize our own.

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