How to Be Black and Jewish
Tudor Parfitt’s last book, Search for the Lost Ark, was a scholarly romp through history and linguistics—an adventure story that ended where his latest book begins: the remarkable discovery that male members of a black African tribe, the Lemba, carried the genes of the priestly caste of ancient Jews, the Cohanim. Currently living in Zimbabwe, far from their Middle Eastern origin, the Lemba practice a number of customs that resemble those of ancient Hebrews. But it was their claim to have an “ark” that caught Parfitt’s attention and led him to wonder if they might actually be descendants of an early Jewish community—a belief later confirmed by DNA studies.
Whether Lemba customs (including wearing yarmulkes) were simply local developments—what anthropologists call “independent inventions”—or genuine connections to a biblical past, the genetic data were undeniable, concluded Parfitt, who is professor of modern Jewish studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
But what of the numerous other African tribes whose myths connect them to the Bible, and who assert Jewish ancestry? In exploring this question, Parfitt calls on his experience as a historian, scholar, linguist and writer to offer a surprising hypothesis. During the Middle Ages, he suggests, Jews were often, like the Moors, considered to have black blood. In addition, a long-held European tradition, he writes, “maintained that the Jews generally were ‘black’ metaphorically, in the sense that they were diabolical and evil, as well as black literally.”
When European invaders and explorers arrived in Africa in the 15th century, they did not know what to make of the strange customs and odd appearance of the natives. Given their assumption that Jews were black, it seemed logical to think that at least some Africans might be descendants of the Lost Tribes. Ostensible resemblances in cultural or religious behaviors, erroneous comparisons of native lexicons to Hebrew, and the existence of migratory routes from the Middle East through West Africa led many commentators of the time to proclaim one group or another the descendants of biblical Hebrews.
Among Christians, uniquely powerful evidence of the black-Jewish link was the biblical story of Ham. “Derived from the account in Genesis,” Parfitt writes, “it became the source of a convoluted history that associated Ham with Africa.” As the story goes, Ham discovered his father, Noah, “hot, naked and drunk, asleep in his tent.” Irate that Ham blabbed about what he saw to his two brothers, Noah cursed him and his son Canaan by declaring that henceforth and forever they and their descendants would be “the servants of servants.” Later, Parfitt explains, “The sixth-century Babylonian Talmud construed from the biblical account that the descendants of Canaan were cursed precisely by being made black and degenerate.” Canaan was soon forgotten, and it became expedient for the object of Noah’s rage to fall squarely on Africa as a means of justifying the trade in black slaves.
Local, largely indigenous African customs such as circumcision, menstrual seclusion of women and the marriage practice called the levirate, which requires a man to marry the widow of his deceased brother, mirrored practices described in the Old Testament and further strengthened Christian belief in this presumed biblical ancestry. In West Africa, the Europeans thus anointed the Maasai of Kenya as “Hamites” for their “handsome” physical appearance, the Yoruba and Ibo of Nigeria for apparent similarities to Jewish customs and language, and a number of Ethiopian tribes for their European acquiline noses and lighter skins. Parfitt quotes “…the Grecian features and brilliant eyes…” of Ashanti women in Ghana, described by a scholarly 18th-century English traveler, Thomas Edward Bowdich, who likened them to the civilized Ethiopians cited by none other than the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.
Actual connections between historic Jews and East Africa were more tenuous, but the process of discovering imagined Semites took firm hold nevertheless. The Tutsi of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi were labeled “Hamites” for their supposed cultural superiority, whereas smaller, darker people such as the Twa and Hutu were not. Although East African “Hamites” were hardly the equals of their European masters, they enjoyed a preferred status and more opportunities than their darker-skinned neighbors. Parfitt describes how these imposed, negotiated and adopted identities came to be irretrievably enmeshed with indigenous oral histories and myths, such as inherited shared experience of oppression and imagined blood lines.
Beginning after the abolition of slavery in America, networks developed among black Jews in America and black Jews in Africa. Over time, some of these ties diminished while others were made stronger by the groups themselves. Recently, for example, the Ibo strengthened their connections to Judaism by likening their experience as a minority scattered throughout Nigeria to the Jewish diaspora and referring to the Biafra genocide between 1967 and 1970 as another “Holocaust.”
The Beta Israel of Ethiopia, pejoratively labeled the Falasha (the name means “stranger”), gave life to their Judaism by building synagogues, learning Torah and practicing relatively strict forms of Jewish worship. Although they lack Jewish genetic markers, the Beta Israel were accepted as refugees and granted Israeli citizenship. To be sure, as Parfitt points out, not all Israelis have accepted the Beta Israel. Jews are hardly immune to color prejudice, and color has obstructed their smooth assimilation. And without a deeply historical or genetic connection to Judaism, the emigration of the Beta Israel could raise thorny questions about the “law of return” of other African groups.
Exploring race narratives over centuries in which not only were Jews cast as blacks but blacks as Jews, Parfitt details the complex, shifting relationships between religious and racial definitions and their actual impact on various groups. The results may be surprising to those who perceive identity as something fixed and immutable, when, in reality, it is a social creation arising from contact with other cultures, casual and sometimes deliberate misunderstandings, political and economic needs and profoundly held beliefs.
Closer to home, although also interwoven with African history, is Parfitt’s discussion of the rich and sometimes fraught relationship between American blacks and American Jews. Although white colonials had imposed Hamitic labels on African blacks, they never thought that some might actually practice the religion of the Hebrews. Black Jewish congregations existed in the United States but were largely ignored by Christians until the mid-19th century, when the growing Pentecostal movement led to rapid conversion of American blacks to Evangelical Christianity.
Initially cordial black-Jewish social relations had converged in the Jazz Age and other popular music of the 20th century. And Jews who had themselves been the victims of prejudice had long been prominent in the civil rights movement and the founding of the NAACP. But as more Jews joined the middle class and a majority of blacks remained below the poverty line, the gap between them widened. Anti-Jewish prejudice penetrated black churches. At the same time, many labor unions refused to admit blacks. The appearance of Islam in black communities led to further strains as some black Muslims took up the anti-Semitism nurtured by the bloody Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.
The processes that brought black converts to Islam are hardly different from those that made others Jews or Christians. In throwing light on the source of our beliefs, Parfitt makes transparently clear how prejudice and desire for status, to cite just two verities of human behavior, interact with ever-changing features of the political and economic landscape to transform human identities.
Gloria Levitas is an anthropologist and author who writes on food and culture, psychology and literature and has edited a collection of American Indian poetry.