Nearly 60 years ago, a forced laborer in a Hungarian brick factory hatched a far-fetched plan to escape.
Northeastern University professor William Miles has been conducting research in West Africa for more than 30 years. So it came as a surprise to him that he learned only recently of a growing Jewish community in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja.
Nigeria is about half Muslim and half Christian. Animism is practiced as well. But now, thousand of Igbos – an ethnic group of southeastern Nigeria – have adopted Judaism.
In his book, “Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey,” Miles shares life stories from the community, as well as his own experiences, as he celebrates Hanukkah and a Bar Mitzvah with “Jubos” in Abuja.
How large is Nigeria’s Jewish community?
“The definition of what is a Jew is a very complex one. It’s complex in Israel, it’s complex in the diaspora, and it’s complex in the Nigerian diaspora as well. So depending on how rigorous a definition one wants to use, one is either in the lower thousands, or if you want to follow the more expansive Nigerian newspaper number, you can see figures up to 50,000. I’m actually more conservative and I tend to stay with the smaller thousands, in terms of a good number, although numbers are hard to come by.”
How did this group of Nigerians become Jewish?
“Through a history of colonialism and proselytisation through Christian missionaries. Most Igbos became Christian. Some of them in the 1970s, 1980s, were proselytized – from the United States, actually – by what in the American setting would be often called Jews for Jesus, what in Nigeria they still call Messianic. Now, having practiced Messianic Judaism for many years, which is all of the customs and the practices of Judaism – Sabbath, prayer on Saturdays, wearing of the tallit, the prayer shawl – but they also believed in Jesus, which for normative Judaism, regular Judaism, just doesn’t fit. And after some years of questioning – because Nigerians are really religious people, they take religion seriously, they go to bed thinking about it – some of them started to say, ‘this doesn’t compute. If we’re supposed to believe in one God, then this theology of a son of God in addition to God doesn’t make sense.’ And then the Internet arose and they were exposed for the first time to world global Judaism.”
The world’s first “Internet Jews”
“They had exposure to Hebrew language, to how Jewish ritual is practiced throughout the world. The Internet arrived in Nigeria at the same time that many of these Igbos were breaking away from Messianic Judaism, as they thought of it, and were able to learn and had this great access to whatever is out on the Internet. And everything is out on the Internet! Including Rabbinic Judaism.”
A very close observance of Judaism
“Most Jews in American were born into it, didn’t have much of a choice. And they practice in very varying degrees of religiosity and observance and worship. But the Jews of Nigeria have chosen not only to believe something that other Nigerians don’t believe, but to live their lives in a Jewish way. They want to be – and they are – as authentic as they can be. So that whereas for even observant Jews in the United States, much of it is confined to what they do in the home or on Saturday on the Shabbat, there they try to live the entire day and the entire week by calling each other on the cell phone with ‘shalom,’ with prayers throughout the day, with constant reminders of this special – for the Nigerian context – religion that they have chosen.”
Are you in the Boston area? A related film called “Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria” will be screened in Newton, Mass. on Tuesday, Nov. 13, as part of the 24th annual Boston Jewish Film Festival.
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