Maori Member of the Tribe
So far, no solid evidence has yet been adduced to support claims heard from time to time that the Maori – the indigenous people of New Zealand who arrived from the Polynesian islands to Aotearoa, as they call the country, many centuries before Europeans first landed on its shores – are descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
But there does now exist a Jewish Hanukka haka dance (haka dances are the traditional dances of the Maori, which sports followers might recognize from the haka war dance performed by the All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby team, prior to matches), thanks to Steve Daniels, perhaps the only individual of Maori descent who ever converted to Judaism.
A large and jovial man, Daniels quips that he was born in 1963, “the year of the brisket.” He is a cheerful host to guests in his home in suburban Auckland, crammed with ritual Jewish objects from a shofar to a menora and adorned with a huge Israeli flag on the wall. He peppers his conversation with Hebrew and even Yiddish terms as he relates the path that brought him from Maori tribal heritage to being a “member of the tribe.”
Although he was raised in what he describes as an “extremely Catholic” family, his parents also made sure he was familiar from a young age with Maori traditions, and they even went out of their way to attend Roman Catholic mass conducted in both Latin and Maori. But as early as middle school, Daniels, intrigued by the Jewish faith of a classmate for whom he had a teenage crush, began evincing an interest in Judaism. “I spent years reading everything I could get my hands on about Judaism, from A to Z,” he tells The Report, “after her mother, who happened to be the school librarian, gave me a book on the subject.”
Daniels’ parents, who disapproved of his leanings toward Judaism, tried to rid him of the obsession by enrolling him in a Catholic seminary, but he was unceremoniously kicked out of the seminary for “irreverence and sacrilege.” (“They just didn’t have a sense of humor” is Daniels’ explanation of what happened.) After leaving the seminary, he found himself one day walking by Beth Shalom Synagogue of Auckland and felt a strong urge to enter.
He immediately felt at home in the “constant dialogue and open questioning” encouraged by the congregation and, at age 28, he took the full plunge and converted to Judaism. Shimshon Ben-Avraham, as he is known in Hebrew (“I had very long hair at the time,” he says with a grin, explaining the choice of his first name after the Biblical Samson) is today the vice president of Beth Shalom.
Employed as a manager in a mental health and drug rehabilitation facility, Daniels is strongly involved in his Jewish faith. He warms to speaking about his Maori heritage and is proud of it. Through Maori stories and chants, he can trace his ancestry through 42 generations, all the way back to the waka (boat) that first carried his ancestors to the coast of New Zealand. He signs his emails with the greeting “shalom nui”, which combines Hebrew and Maori into one to say “a great big shalom.”
Daniels dismisses claims of a connection to the Lost Tribes. “Can you really believe,” he asks, “that the Maori, who navigated across vast stretches of ocean by the stars alone, are related to the people who wandered in the desert for 40 years?” Nevertheless, he finds several points of similarity between Jewish and Maori traditions.
The traditional Maori blowing of the conch shell, he agrees, sounds remarkably like the blowing of a shofar. The Maori greeting of kia oro, he notes, translates literally as lehaim, to life. Even the word Maori can be read in Hebrew as “ma ori” – “what is my light?”
“The Maori language is direct and to the point, unlike English, which tends to waste time beating around the bush with convoluted expressions,” says Daniels. “When I visited Israel, I liked the way Israelis and Hebrew are also direct and to the point. In the Maori tradition, just as in Judaism, there is no intermediary between you and heaven. An intermediary is not needed, because we are direct and to the point.”