'Re-Emerging': In Nigeria, A People Finds A Faith

May 20, 2013
Originally published on May 17, 2013 11:01 am

If you believe religions are made, not born, it may not come as much of a surprise that Shmuel, a handsome, sweet-faced young Nigerian, considers himself Jewish.

Shmuel, the charming, yarmulke-wearing Exhibit A in Jeff L. Lieberman's documentary, Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria, found his faith through the Internet. But his is no fly-by-night cult. His adopted community of practicing Jews numbers between 5,000 and 10,000, with a fully functioning network of synagogues dotted around Nigeria. They claim an ancient Jewish heritage dating back centuries, when Jews were said to have made their way to the region via Ethiopia and Sudan.

That claim, Lieberman shows, can't be definitively verified — or disproved. But his question throughout much of this engaging movie is whether authenticity matters when the world history of just about any religion is all about revision to suit time and place.

I'll drink to that. Shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles in the late '80s, a friend with New Age leanings took me to Yom Kippur services at her local temple in Venice. The rabbi, swathed in vaguely Sikh white robes, began the service thus: "Almost everyone in this room has been through a 12-step program. So put your arms around each other, and let us sway."

To the age-old Jewish question of who is a Jew, Lieberman adds, Who's to say? In the movie, one American Jewish scholar wishes the Jews of Nigeria well but shakes his head; another says who knows, and who cares? A rabbi from Maryland, affectionately known as "the Chief Rabbi of Nigeria," sends supplies and learning materials.

The Jews of Nigeria have done their homework. They keep kosher, light candles for Shabbat, sing and pray in excellent Hebrew, all with creative modifications and an exquisite sense of tact as regards their mostly Christian neighbors. This last is also an adroit survival tactic, given that religious tensions rival ethnic strife in Nigeria, which, like many African nations recovering from colonial rule, suffers from savage civil wars.

Shmuel was raised Catholic, a faith no more indigenous to the region than is the Pentecostal Church, which was brought in by American missionaries in the 1980s. For that matter, "Nigeria" itself is an artificial country, patched together in the early 20th century by the British, who imposed Christianity and ruled with blind indifference to the nation's many ethnic divisions.

Most of Nigeria's Jews are from the Igbo ("EE-boh") people, and it's not hard to see why they identify with the Jewish history of oppression. In 1967, they tried to set up a separate nation-state (the short-lived Biafra) and suffered their own holocaust in the bloody three-year civil war that followed, in which hundreds of thousands of Igbo were killed or died of starvation.

Small wonder, then, that the Jews of Nigeria express a powerful affinity with Israel, whose government has not welcomed their efforts to travel or study there. Lieberman raises thorny questions about whether some Nigerian Jews may be using their religion to get exit visas, and whether a tiny country like Israel, which has already absorbed thousands of Ethiopian Jews, could accommodate another large influx of potential citizens.

Lieberman's disappointment with Israel's selective exclusion is clear. But he's a little squeamish about pursuing these complicated issues. Instead he shifts to an interesting but tangential discussion of Nigerian heritage among African-Americans.

It's a fun fact that actor Forest Whitaker traces his roots to the Igbo tribe, but that belongs in another film. Re-emerging speaks for itself as an uplifting portrait of an exuberant subculture that doesn't just practice its faith — it revels in it.

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