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The Lost Jews Of Nigeria

  • Until the 1990s, there were almost no Jews in Nigeria. Now thousands have enthusiastically taken up the faith. Why?

By Samanth Subramanian, The Guardian (UK), Tue 26 Apr 2022

Back in the 1970s, when Moshe Ben Avraham was growing up in Port Harcourt, in southern Nigeria, the town was small and fringed by bush villages, and there were no Jews in sight. Ben Avraham wasn’t yet Jewish himself; he wasn’t even “Ben Avraham”, for that matter. His Anglican parents gave him the name Moses Walison – still his official name – and they raised him as a churchgoing boy. In this, they were no different from millions of others in their part of the country. One of the first demographic details anyone learns about Nigeria is that while people living up north are predominantly Muslim, those down south are just as overwhelmingly Christian.

The minibuses sputtering up and down these southern highways bear slogans like “Jesus is Needful” on their back windows. On billboards, preachers hype their ministries; a prayer meeting is never just a prayer meeting – it is a “global mega powerquake” or a “harvest of miracles”. Islam and Christianity have been in Nigeria for centuries, but Judaism has none of that conspicuous history or heritage. In his childhood, Ben Avraham knew nothing about Judaism, and he’d only encountered Israel as a biblical name: “Israel, Abraham, all those things,” he recalled.

Then, in 1986, his father died, and a few years later, in the midst of a growing disaffection with his church, Ben Avraham fell ill: a cut on his tongue that set off a severe infection. At the time, he came across a Christian ministry called the White Garment Sabbath, and after one of its white-robed, barefooted priests healed him, he joined the group. In Nigeria, the White Garment Sabbath calls itself a church, and its prayer halls host icons of Christ on the cross. “But they told me that Saturday is the day of worship, the shabbat – not Sunday,” Ben Avraham said. It was the first time he’d heard this, but when they offered him proof – careful readings of Genesis and Exodus – he wondered what else he’d been doing wrong. “On my own,” he said, “I started to go deeper.”

A decade later, Ben Avraham took a further step, becoming a Messianic Jew – a member of a movement that spun out of Jews for Jesus in the US half a century ago, which considers itself to be a Jewish sect that nonetheless exalts Jesus as the messiah. To Ben Avraham, being a Messianic Jew didn’t feel very different from being a White Garment Sabbatarian. Both groups convened on Saturdays, prayed barefoot to God as well as Jesus, and slaughtered rams for Passover in accordance with old Jewish scripture. Ben Avraham opened his own hall of worship and called it Ark of Yahweh.

By this time, as the century turned, Port Harcourt was heaving with industry, on its way to becoming the biggest oil-refining city in Nigeria. It had offshore rigs, chemical skies and scores of visitors from other countries. In 2001, a Jewish-American executive with Shell, passing through Port Harcourt, saw Ben Avraham’s Ark of Yahweh and dropped in. “He told me that it should be called Ark of Hashem, because Jews don’t use Yahweh to call out the name of God,” Ben Avraham said. They kept in touch. “He was the one who told me so much about Judaism, sent me books and introduced me to rabbis in the Holy Land.” So when, in 2003, Ben Avraham spotted a small posse of Port Harcourt men in distinctively Jewish attire walking into a building on a Saturday, and when he followed them in to talk to them, and when their leader told him that the building was a synagogue and that they’d decided to worship only God the creator rather than the Holy Trinity, he was already well primed. “That was when I became fully Jewish.”

Ben Avraham was an early member of one of the youngest, most surprising Jewish communities in the world. Previously, Nigeria hadn’t appeared even on the periphery of any map of the Jewish realm. There is no old text laying down a Jewish lineage for Nigerians, the way the Kebra Nagast, the 14th-century epic, purported to do for the kings of Ethiopia. No Sephardic Jews migrated here from Spain and Portugal, as they did to territories in northern Africa in the 15th century. No Jewish communities arrived as part of the colonial project and stayed after its end, as they did in South Africa.

Beginning in the 1990s, though, a number of people in southern and eastern Nigeria have become practising Jews, importing wholesale the rites of this unfamiliar faith and its foreign tongue. Seemingly, this turn has been spontaneous – which is to say, there have been no local rabbis at hand to pilot these Jews through their incipient religion, and there has certainly been no formal guidance from Israel, which refuses to recognise this as a Jewish population.https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2022/04/nigeria-zip/giv-6562ECj5jD01Qgft/

No reliable census of Nigerian Jews exists. The Jewish Fellowship Initiative, an umbrella body in Nigeria, maintains a list of about 80 synagogues, but their memberships are varying and fluid. Edith Bruder, a French ethnologist who studies Judaism in Africa, reckons there might be as many as 30,000 Nigerian Jews. Howard Gorin, a retired American rabbi who has toured the country’s synagogues three times – and is so beloved that he’s often described as Nigeria’s de facto chief rabbi – thinks there are no more than 3,000, although he hasn’t visited the country since 2008. Even that lower estimate, though, would outstrip the other major group in sub-Saharan Africa to adopt Judaism over the last century: the Abayudaya of eastern Uganda.

Last August, in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, a panel of rabbis from the US and Uganda officially converted 96 people to Judaism – the first such ceremony in Nigeria. Ben Avraham wasn’t among the 96, but he is ready to convert. When God gave Moses the law, he said, and when Moses passed the law to the children of Israel, “the children of Israel said: ‘We will do, and we will follow.’ If conversion is the only way for us to be recognised as Jews, we will do. No problem! It’s very simple!”

Earlier this year, I travelled through Nigeria to dig into the extraordinary mystery of how Judaism popped up in Nigeria – a trip that began in the humid chaos of Lagos, near the south-western border, proceeded eastwards along the oil-rich coast to Port Harcourt and then up through the towns of Aba and Owerri, and finished in spare, rockbound Abuja, dead centre of the country. In all these places, there were synagogues – small ones, of course, but sometimes three or more to a city, with congregations ranging from the scrawny single digits to the impressive few dozen.

Much of this is Igbo land, populated by members of Nigeria’s third-biggest ethnic group. Nine out of every 10 Nigerian Jews are Igbo, and when asked about this near-total overlap, they invariably offer the same explanation. In their tradition, the Igbo descend from Gad, one of the sons of the biblical patriarch Jacob, and a leader of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. As evidence, they point to Igbo customs that echo those in the Torah: the circumcision of a male infant eight days after birth, for instance, or the rules specifying when a menstruating woman should be considered “pure” or “impure”. One man I met in Abuja had compiled a list of hundreds of Igbo words that sound similar to their Hebrew synonyms. Another played me a video of a traditional Igbo dance in which a man wore a blue-and-white checked wrap – the same colours as the Jewish prayer shawl.

Moshe Ben Avraham outside his Aaron Hakodesh Synagogue in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

Ben Avraham, whose thatch of beard resembles black steel wool, and who teases his sideburns into ringlets that reach below his jaw, is Igbo, too, and when he grew dissatisfied with the church, he began to believe that Judaism could knit tidily, coherently into his Igbo identity. There was still the small matter of knowing how to be Jewish, though, and in this, his timing was ideal. Through the 1990s and 00s, the world shrank so much and so fast that, with the help of remote advice and the internet, Igbo Jews were able to teach themselves their chosen faith. As Ben Avraham was learning – studying Jewish websites, sending emails to rabbis overseas, befriending Jewish visitors to Port Harcourt and pumping them for information – he kept feeling more and more at home. Becoming Jewish, he said, is for the Igbo “not a discovery. It’s a return.”

Young Jewish Nigerians singing and dancing outside their synagogue.

Young Jewish Nigerians singing and dancing outside their synagogue. Photograph: Emeke Obanor/The Guardian

The day I reached Port Harcourt was particularly sunless, its skies dulled not just by exhaust smoke but also by the Harmattan, the winter wind that picks up sand from the Sahara and whips it across west Africa. When Ben Avraham picked me up to take me to his synagogue, his Toyota was coated in sand, as if the original Moses had driven it through the Sinai. From the passenger seat, I spotted an edition of The Zohar, the mystic text of Kabbalistic Judaism, stashed next to the air freshener. A hardback, Ascending Jacob’s Ladder, nestled by the gearstick. An American rabbi preached on the stereo. To the dashboard, Ben Avraham had affixed a Nigerian flag, but also two Israeli flags, which twitched in the weak air conditioning.

About 15 years ago, Ben Avraham bought some land on the periphery of Port Harcourt, for 300,000 naira – about £1,400 at the time – and built the Aaron Hakodesh Synagogue. “I was the only man here. There was no one else in the area at the time,” he said, which seemed impossible to believe, given the torrents of traffic and the ranks of mechanics’ shops on the main road nearby. The synagogue’s buildings looked rough and unfinished, and shin-high hillocks of construction material sat around the compound, but the hall of worship, with its lofted ceiling, powder-blue arches and tiled walls, was airy and complete. The Sefer Torah – the sacred text of the first five books of the Hebrew bible, in the form of a scroll – lay behind a floral curtain. Up a flight of stairs, a compact library held shelves of religious titles such as The New Mahzor and High Holiday Prayer Book – many of them in Hebrew, which Ben Avraham can read only with difficulty. On one window was a sticker depicting a menorah, a Star of David, and, just in case things weren’t already clear, a declarative line of text: “I AM A JEW.”

Ben Avraham’s religious journey is a common one for Jews in Nigeria; the White Garment Sabbath and Messianic Judaism are regular way stations for those who eventually join synagogues. Sometimes, I heard this transition framed as a gradual disenchantment with Christianity’s contradictions – as a search for theological consistency. If Jesus was human, how could he return from the tomb? Why do Christians worship idols, despite God forbidding this custom? How could the death of one man 2,000 years ago relieve people of their sins today?

More often, Igbo Jews spoke so angrily of Christianity as a European imposition – as an alien creed that wiped out their traditions – that their rejection of Christianity really resembled a rejection of colonialism. (It wouldn’t be the only time this has happened. Semei Kakungulu, who set himself up as the first of the Abayudaya Jews in Uganda a century ago, quit the church after the British took over his lands.) The Igbo once venerated a supreme deity named Chukwu – an impersonal force that created the universe, rather than an Old Testament God with a personality and a temper. But other aspects of Igbo religion were diffuse and diverse, often conducted orally, varying from region to region, and embedded in cultural practice. Any Igbo looking now to a pre-colonial past to retrieve an older faith in all its lived fullness will find little to guide them. Ben Avraham told me that he’d “never seen any full teachings of the local story” – nothing that documented in detail how his forefathers prayed or worshipped. “I only know what my father told me,” he said. In that void of historical knowledge, Judaism exerted a strong allure – not just because it wasn’t Christianity, or because its rituals mirrored Igbo ones, but because of the common Igbo lore about their Israelite beginnings. Paradoxical as it may sound, for some, becoming Jewish was a way to define and hold on to Igbo identity.

Worshippers in the Aaron Hakodesh Synagogue in Port Harcourt, Nigeria

Worshippers in the Aaron Hakodesh Synagogue Photograph: Emeke Obanor/The Guardian

The notion of hailing from one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel offers the romance and the confidence of a link to antiquity. In its reluctance to collect converts, Judaism is also the sort of religion that, as the scholar and minister Robert L Montgomery once wrote, helps “threatened or unstable societies to assert their distinctive identities”. Small communities in Japan, Kashmir and Afghanistan have embraced theories that they descend from lost Jews; so have people among the Māori and Native Americans. Some groups have even been rabbinically validated as Jews on the basis of their ancestry, and have been admitted into Israel: Ethiopian Jews, or Beta Israel, for instance, or the Bnei Menashe of eastern India and Myanmar.

But in the Igbo’s declared kinship with Judaism, there is also an assertion of what it means to be Igbo – a group distinct from other local ethnicities. After Nigeria won its freedom in 1960, the Igbo suffered pointed discrimination: pogroms, a weakening of political power, an erosion of their control over oil deposits in their territory. From 1967 to 1970, Igbo secessionists fought – and lost – a war to slice an independent Biafran republic out of the south-east, and in the government’s wartime blockade of these regions, 2 million people, possibly more, died from starvation. Today, the dream of Biafra is being nurtured by Nnamdi Kanu, a British-Nigerian activist who wears his Jewish faith publicly. The government’s antagonism towards Kanu’s movement has made it a fraught business to be Jewish in Nigeria. Several people told me that they were unsettled by growing antisemitism in the country. Most Igbo Jews, as a result, find themselves in a strange bind – believing that their faith and ethnicity have been ordained into a perfect fit, but also wanting to disentangle their faith from their ethnicity’s knotty political implications.

From Port Harcourt, we drove north-east, deeper into Igbo country, to meet Eben Cohen, one of Nigeria’s first fluent Hebrew speakers. Cohen is a pocket-sized man with a towering reputation, and I’d heard about him several times already – mostly from cantors who’d studied Hebrew under him. (Howard Gorin, who otherwise purses his lips when asked about the grasp of the language among most Igbo Jews, describes Cohen’s Hebrew as “pretty darn good”.) Three hours north of Port Harcourt, under a flyover in the town of Aba, Cohen hopped into our car and drove with us through the Igbo heartland for the next couple of days. A twinkly 58-year-old, he is forever attired in a natty waistcoat and flat cap. He spends his days travelling from one synagogue to the next, staying weeks or months at a time to conduct Hebrew classes before moving on. “Like a better kind of wandering Jew,” he said with a laugh.

Cohen grew up in a village named Ezza, in south-eastern Nigeria, but in the late 80s he moved a few states west, to the town of Warri in the delta of the Niger river. Here, while working in a shop selling Nigerian handicrafts, he befriended an Israeli family that dropped by. Struck by his name, they gave him a chart of Hebrew letters, and Cohen – who, like so many others, had marinated in the conviction that the Igbo are Israelites – grew fascinated. “It looked like shorthand, but it wasn’t,” he recalled. “I decided to learn it. I like challenges.” Through his friends, Cohen fell into correspondence with a Jerusalem institute that sent out books and pamphlets to anyone keen on learning Hebrew. It was hard going at first, but he kept stumbling upon little similarities with Igbo – the “tz” sound, for instance – that delighted him, and in four years, he said, he was reading fluently.

In his book Jews of Nigeria, William Miles, a political scientist at Boston’s Northeastern University, calls the community the world’s first “internet Jews”. But even before the internet, others of Cohen’s vintage had relied on chance connections, maintained by post, to induct themselves into Hebrew and Judaism. In Lagos, I met a man who – having learned of the Jewish diaspora through an article about Henry Kissinger in Time magazine – wrote to the Central Synagogue in New York, asking for religious guidance. They couldn’t do much at a distance, someone wrote back, but they put him on their mailing list, sending him journals and his first Jewish book: a Hebrew-English chumash, a Torah in book form. In Abuja, a man named Sharon told me how, in the early 90s, one Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, at London’s Leo Baeck College, had sent his father audio cassettes to help his Hebrew pronunciation. Sharon recalled this so clearly that he reeled off the college’s address, a full quarter-century after he last saw it: “Manor House, 80 East End Road, London.” (Magonet, now retired, doesn’t remember Sharon or his father in particular. “Questions from Africa were very unusual, so it would have seemed important to be helpful but without anticipating much in the way of long-term results or consequences.”)

Eben Cohen, who teaches Hebrew across Nigeria.

Eben Cohen, who teaches Hebrew across Nigeria. Photograph: Emeke Obanor/The Guardian

Only late in the 90s did questing Jews turn to the internet – to websites like Chabad.com and JewFAQ.org, emails with rabbis abroad, and then videos. Ben Avraham blew through his savings at cyber-cafes, printing out prayers transliterated from Hebrew to English or expositions on the Torah. The cantor at Ben Avraham’s synagogue discovered that he’d been pronouncing “tsohorayim” – a regular Hebrew word, meaning “noon” – incorrectly only after he watched an American speaking Hebrew on YouTube.

The early years were thick with imperfections. No text, however detailed, could spell out every possible instruction, so people made mistakes. A friend of Cohen’s dutifully listened, every Saturday, to a BBC broadcast of lectures by Jonathan Sacks, the English rabbi, before realising that Orthodox Judaism forbids switching the radio on during the shabbat. When Gorin first travelled to Nigeria, in 2004, he noticed that one synagogue leader kept doves under the eaves of the building. “I asked why he did that, and he told me: ‘Because it says, in Leviticus, to sacrifice two doves when a woman gives birth,’” Gorin recalled. “I had to tell him that Jews stopped doing animal sacrifices about two millennia ago.” There were never enough texts or materials to go around. Siddurs – prayer books – had to be photocopied section by section and handed out. Rough approximations of prayer shawls had to be woven. If there was any imported kosher wine in the shops at all, it cost $50 a bottle. In an Abuja synagogue, Miles noticed a menorah made out of Coke bottles welded into a metal frame.

The festivals posed special challenges. Through the eight days of his first Passover, in 2004, Ben Avraham served rice and beans, because he didn’t know what kind of meals Passover called for. (The facts may have perplexed him further: William Miles told me that rice and beans are permitted as Passover dishes in the Sephardic tradition but banned in the Ashkenazi tradition.) During Rosh Hashanah, when the shofar – the ram’s horn – had to be blown to inaugurate the new year, no one knew what sound to produce. A single, long blast? Several short ones? (Later, an audio tape arrived from overseas to solve that dilemma.) When Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, came around, and when Ben Avraham still owned no siddur, they read from the Book of Lamentations instead, because it felt appropriately bleak. On Hanukah, they lacked a dreidel, the four-sided spinning top that is part of a game played during the festival. “Instead,” Ben Avraham said, “we used the lid from a pen.”

Some of these niggles vanished with time. Rabbis from abroad, like Gorin, offered corrective advice and materiel; twice, Gorin raised funds to fill and send a 40-foot shipping container of books, computers, shawls and other donations for synagogues across Nigeria. Kosher wine got cheaper and more plentiful. Ben Avraham found a man who imported matzo flatbread from Israel. Synagogues bought books online.

Other issues persist. Many synagogues don’t have their own Sefer Torah. And southern Nigeria isn’t an easy place to find a kosher butcher, so many Igbo Jews have given up meat altogether. “There’s not much advice out there on how to prepare a shabbat table, or how to organise a kosher kitchen,” said Yehuditz Derekyahu, a woman who attends the Har Shalom Knesset in the town of Aba. “And even to go out and buy fish – you go to the shop, and it’s run by a goyim, and you see an idol of Jesus on the wall. What do you do? You have to buy it anyway.” She shrugged, but then braced her shoulders, as if these inconveniences were the high but bearable price of re-entry into the religion of her ancestors.

In Basel, one night in 2005, Daniel Lis was at an R&B club, where he met a young Igbo man named Levi. Lis, a graduate student at the time, is a Swiss-Israeli Jew, and he remarked, above the music, that Levi’s name sounded distinctly Jewish. But the Igbo are Jews, Levi told Lis, who is now a social anthropologist at the Bern University of Applied Sciences. Lis was engrossed. The conversation prompted a line of inquiry for his thesis, sending him to Nigeria and to archives in Israel to understand the origins of the Igbo belief in their Jewish roots. Like so much else about Nigeria, he thinks, this conviction was first fleshed out by – and perhaps born out of – the violence and dislocation of encounters with the west. Even origin stories have origin stories.

As recently as the 18th century, Lis found, the people speaking Igbo were scattered across a vast swathe of land, united only by their language and a basic set of beliefs. “If you’d asked someone if they were Igbo, they wouldn’t have understood the question,” Lis said. “Igbo” wasn’t a pronounced marker of identity yet. A clearer sense of Igbohood arose in the late 1700s and 1800s – first in the diaspora that was brought into brutal existence by the slave trade, and then in Nigeria’s cities, where people sought work after the British subjugated the country through the latter half of the 19th century.

The memoirs, letters and colonial texts from this period that Lis consulted were the earliest documents to draw like-for-like comparisons between the Igbo and Jews. Sometimes, the authors were Igbo themselves, Lis said. “As they started to write about Igbo identity, they compared their customs to what they read in the Bible about Israelites and thought that some core elements of Jewish culture were similar.” Among the first such narratives was the 1789 memoir of Olaudah Equiano, a freed Igbo slave living in London. Describing “the strong analogy which … appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen and those of the Jews,” Equiano wrote: “We had our circumcision … we had also our sacrifices and burnt offerings, our washings and purifications, on the same occasions as they had.” Doubtless, he concluded, “one people had sprung from the other”.

Jewish diaspora in Nigeria during Passover.

Jewish diaspora in Nigeria during Passover. Photograph: Emeke Obanor/The Guardian

Christian colonists and missionaries nurtured the comparison as well, as they did in other parts of Africa. Emphasising the few loose affinities between local conventions and Jewish ones was a fine way to draft people into the broad Judeo-Christian tradition, en route to the church. But it also gave free rein to the wildly racist theories of Europeans in Africa. Often, colonisers conferred Jewish lineages upon those they deemed racially superior to other Africans. Writing in 1902 about the Fula people scattered across west and central Africa, a British journalist marvelled at “the straight-nosed, straight-haired, relatively thin-lipped, wiry, copper- or bronze-complexioned Fulani male, with his well-developed cranium, and refined extremities; and the Fulani woman, with her clear skin, her rounded breasts.” Surely the Fula were Jewish, he deduced. Such musty myths of racial differences weren’t easy to dispel, and the belief lingers, among some Igbo, that they are fairer-skinned, cleverer and more industrious than the Yoruba, Hausa and other Nigerian groups – and that they would be far more successful if it weren’t for their compatriots. By 1960, when Nigeria became independent, the Igbo novelist Chinua Achebe wrote, “the Igbos … led the nation in virtually every sector – politics, education, commerce, and the arts,” fostering resentment and “a lust for revenge” in the rest of the population.

When these frictions ignited into civil war, the Biafran struggle seemed to echo the Zionist cause. On the radio, the movement’s leaders likened their troubles to the persecution of Jews during the Inquisition. Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian president at the time, likened the secessionist campaign to “the Jews seeking a homeland following the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in Europe”. An Observer correspondent, reporting from Nigeria in October 1968, wrote that the Igbo refugees streaming into Biafra from elsewhere in the country reminded him of “the in-gathering of the exiles into Israel after the end of the second world war”. For its part, Israel sold arms to both sides, but it also offered humanitarian aid to Biafra. One Igbo Jewish man I met in Lagos recalled how, when he was a seven-year-old boy during the war, a bomb fell near his family’s bunker. “The fumes affected my breathing, so my dad took me to the Biafran military hospital,” he said. “And the doctor assigned to take care of me was an Israeli army medic. It was the first time I’d heard of Israel.”

Well after the war’s end, the Biafran wish to be an analogue of Zionism – a mission to reclaim a historic homeland – has persisted, and even grown more explicit. A short-lived separatist faction, formed in 2010, was named the Biafra Zionist Movement. Nnamdi Kanu, who leads a group called Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), has often flown the Israeli flag over his compound in Nigeria, and he appears in public with a Jewish prayer shawl draped around his shoulders. In a TV interview in 2018, Kanu urged Israel to “come and defend Judaism all over the world”. To this, however, Israel has offered no response at all.

The question of whether Kanu and other Igbo do, in fact, count as Jews is a prickly one. The Igbo may be entirely correct in believing that they are descendants of some ancient Israelites who drifted down to Nigeria as if blown there by the Harmattan. These peregrinations happened more often than we suppose in the ancient world. But in Judaism, proof of genealogy matters. One perfunctory 2017 exercise, testing the DNA of just 124 men for “Jewish roots”, found none. Even if the sample had been larger, it could, at best, have revealed genetic markers that these men shared with some Jewish populations – a statistical correlation, not clinching evidence that their forebears were practising Jews.

Most Nigerian Jews assign themselves to the Orthodox branch of Judaism, believing that the Torah’s laws should be interpreted to the letter; in their synagogues, women do not read from the Torah, and they sit separately from men. But Israel, which officially follows Orthodox Judaism, has rejected the Igbo’s assertion of Jewishness, and with it, their right of return – the right of Jews everywhere to settle in Israel and become full Israeli citizens. Even an official conversion makes no difference. The 96 Igbo men and women who converted last summer were ushered, by the presiding rabbis, into the Conservative branch of Judaism – which is, confusingly, more liberal than the Orthodox. But while Conservative American Jews enjoy Israel’s right of return, the newly converted Nigerian Jews do not. “According to law, you have to be converted in a place where there’s a recognised Jewish community,” Gorin told me. “But how can you have that kind of community unless there are some conversions? It’s a catch-22.”

In a way, though, Gorin said, the official status of these Igbo Jews and the biological truth of their Israelite ancestry are both beside the point. When the synagogues are full of people observing the rigours of the shabbat, it matters less if the impulse that brought them there – the Igbo-Hebrew linguistic concordances, or the faith in a Jewish lineage – sounds tenuous. And for all the modern aspects to this tale – the Biafran war in the 20th century, the internet in the 21st – the story of Judaism in Nigeria calls to mind one of the ways in which religions have always spread. A religion may arrive suddenly in a conqueror’s baggage, packed next to a sword or musket. But it may also arrive in trickles, as Buddhism did in east Asia, finding political traction and small harmonies with local beliefs and expanding into a syncretic marriage with these faiths. Judaism’s strict laws and tight-knit societies have historically allowed for no such accommodative diffusion, but that may shift in the era of the internet. “For all kinds of reasons, the doors to Judaism have been closed to outsiders,” said Bonita Sussman, the vice-president of Kulanu, a New York-based non-profit that works to bring isolated Jewish communities into the larger fold. “Now things should change.”

A cantor reciting the birkas hamazon after-meal prayer.

A cantor reciting the birkas hamazon after-meal prayer. Photograph: Emeke Obanor/The Guardian

An open-door Judaism would also be a more syncretic one – a Judaism with local flavours, of the sort that has developed in Nigeria. On the wayto Port Harcourt, I’d spent a few days in the south-eastern state of Akwa Ibom, which lies by the sea just where the Gulf of Guinea indents the west African coast. One Saturday, I went to the Beth Ha’arachman Haknesset, a synagogue set amid patches of yam and plantain crops. The synagogue had raw-cement walls and a corrugated metal roof, but for the kiddush, the mid-morning sanctification of the holiday, we sat in plastic chairs under a blue-and-white tarp held up by a lattice of wooden staves.

Any guest from an American or British synagogue could have followed the progress of events easily. They’d have recognised the sweet Mogen David wine (an American kosher brand, after all) and the challah bread (even if they might have found it a little mealy). The attire of the cantors, the kippahs secure on their heads and the four stringy tassels of their undershirts hanging below their waists: familiar. The prayers: familiar, even if the cantor recited many more than is routine for a kiddush. The melodies of the prayers: mostly unfamiliar, because the chief cantor made them up himself, even if he sometimes called into service older tunes. (The prayer Adonai Tzevaot was sung to Jingle Bells.) The junior cantors’ infectious beatboxing in accompaniment, and the congregation’s women dancing by their chairs: absolutely unfamiliar. The evening prayer service was hushed and solemn, but then the men and women moved back outside for more drumming, dancing and Hebrew prayers sung in hollered chorus. Sometimes they go till midnight, one cantor told me.

The next morning, I returned to meet some of the women in the congregation. I’d been wondering if the adoption of Orthodox Judaism had, as a side-effect, fixed women in conservative roles they might otherwise have escaped. “There are so many rules that bind us, as Jewish women,” Aduja Batisrael, a woman with bronze tints in her hair, admitted: rules about how to dress, or what religious duties they can and cannot pursue. You have to become comfortable with these strictures, she said – and she had. The real problem, her friend Rebekah Baruk said, lies in the barbed reception that their Judaism gets among the Christians they’ve left behind. Some families spurn their newly Jewish relatives. “They get scared or confused,” Batisrael said. “Many people haven’t even heard of Jews before, and if they have, they say that we killed Jesus.” Baruk, who runs a clothing store in the town of Uyo, has had customers come in and hector her for quitting the church. These aren’t everyday occurrences, she said, but they’re frequent enough to persuade her that her new religion sits at an uncomfortable angle within the geometry of Nigerian society.

The drive from Port Harcourt to Owerri – once-defiant capital of stillborn Biafra – took most of a day. The next morning, over breakfast, Eben Cohen told me of the time he’d been arrested for conducting a Hebrew class. In January 2018, he’d been explaining vowel sounds to a couple of dozen people in a synagogue in Aba, he said, when a number of heavily armed policemen entered. They demanded to know what Cohen was teaching and had then showed their displeasure with his answer. “I told them that I’m free to teach any language I want in Nigeria,” Cohen said. “Still, they took me away, with the chalk dust still on my fingers and the textbook still in my hand.” After eight days in prison, he paid 150,000 naira (£275) to be released on bail.

In the past five years, as Kanu has tied his Biafran ideals to his Jewish faith, the government’s jitteriness over Judaism has grown. In June 2021, Kanu was arrested in Kenya and extradited to Nigeria, to be charged with terrorism and secessionism. (His trial is now under way.) The following month, three Israeli film-makers visited Nigeria to shoot a documentary about Igbo Jews, taking with them a gift of a Sefer Torah for a synagogue. Kanu’s supporters plastered the trip all over social media, interpreting it as official Israeli encouragement of Biafra, and as a vindication of Kanu’s prophecy that Biafra draws closer with every Sefer Torah that arrives in Igbo territory. Nigeria arrested the film-makers, holding them in prison for nearly three weeks before deporting them.

Nnamdi Kanu (centre), leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in Umuahia, south-east Nigeria, in 2017.

Nnamdi Kanu (centre), leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in Umuahia, south-east Nigeria, in 2017. Photograph: Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty Images

After breakfast, we visited an Owerri synagogue called Association of Jewish Faiths. The synagogue’s leader is a man named Efrayim Uba, but everyone calls him Hagadol – “The Great” in Hebrew. Hagadol, in his 80s, has such a stentorian voice that even the most quotidian statement – “Association of Jewish Faiths, incorporated March 1999!” – sounds like the proclamation of an Old Testament patriarch. To complete the impression, other synagogue members sat around his desk, Amen-ing his declarations. He wore a black robe embroidered with golden lions, poured me whiskey and offered me a nibble of kola nut – an Igbo ceremony.

These niceties concluded, Hagadol told me about his “year of terror”. Last March, after a series of attacks on policemen in south-eastern Nigeria, security forces arrested 16 Igbo suspects – among them, Hagadol’s son Micah. He hasn’t been seen since, Hagadol said, insisting that his son wasn’t involved in any of the attacks. After that, the synagogue started locking its compound gate out of fear. Then, on a shabbat last October, the police arrived. “More than 200 of them,” Hagadol claimed, “in four armoured cars. They put ladders outside our walls and climbed in … They were here for two or three hours,” Hagadol said. “They made the men march around in a single file.”

Were they searching for something? I asked.

“Do you think they’d tell us?” he retorted. One officer demanded the footage from the compound’s CCTV cameras, but they’d all been switched off for the shabbat. For the same reason, no one in the synagogue had a phone either. But someone showed me clips shot by neighbours in an adjacent apartment. They were shaky and narrow, but they seemed to bear out Hagadol’s story: the armoured cars, the single-file parade, the tense air of a ruptured afternoon.

In his aura of power and the spry way he dodged crucial questions, Hagadol struck me as a consummate politician. This didn’t disqualify the truth of these episodes or the Igbo Jews’ worry that their religious energy is being misinterpreted as a purely political endeavour. “Biafra is not the same thing as Judaism,” Ben Avraham said. Barely three decades into their new ways of worship, Nigeria’s Jews already find themselves beset by political anxieties – which only convinces them even more strongly of their Jewishness, and of their intense connection with other Jews out there in the world.

The oldest synagogue in Nigeria, the Gihon Hebrews Synagogue, perches on the flank of a steep hill in Abuja. It was founded, nominally, in 1990 – even if it started in that year as three Messianic Jewish families gathering in a friend’s flat, before the members found mainstream Judaism in 1997 and built the synagogue’s two brick buildings in 2005. Towards the end of my journey, I attended shabbat here. After the morning service, most of my Saturday was spent with the 30-strong congregation in a square hall with blue and white chairs and hand-lettered charts of the Hebrew alphabet on the walls. Through the door, we could see the small, dusty roofs of houses in the valley below; behind us, the rock face reached up to the highway above.

A long-faced cantor delivered a sharp, short kiddush: just the one song, its refrain sung back to him by the assembly in practised unison. When I mentioned to the man on my right that I’d seen a kiddush in Akwa Ibom that ran nearly two hours, with plenty of singing and dancing, he snuffled in disapproval: “That’s how they are in Akwa Ibom. They bring music into everything.” (Gihon was strict with its rules when it came to me, too. No photos or voice recordings on my phone, I’d been told, and no taking notes – in fact, no formal interviews of any kind. Any shred of work would violate the shabbat.)

After the wine had been blessed and drunk, one of the men, wearing a black hat and coat in the Abuja heat, rose to deal with synagogue business. The festival of Purim was coming up, and Passover after that, he said, urging members to donate generously. “Covid is not over. Please continue to wear your masks. Be responsible, be the Jews that you’re meant to be.” The air was still, the light bright. In one corner, a woman cooed to a baby wearing a kippah.

A man touches the wall of a Parsi fire temple featuring huge carvings of ancient priests on the occasion of the Persian New Year in Mumbai, India, March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

Later in the afternoon, there were discussions on the Torah and other canonical texts: questions and spirited answers about the ideal synagogue, or about the precise years of the creation and the birth of Jesus (or “J5”, as they cryptically called him). But before that, over the shabbat meal of fish stew and rice, I talked to the man sitting next to me. Ariel, who works as an estate agent in Abuja, said that he’d once been an “Igbo traditionalist”, following a medley of old social customs without really knowing them as part of a grander Igbo faith. A religion demands a community, and Ariel felt the Igbo lacked that. “There was no place for us to meet, for example – no temple, nothing like that,” he said. Then, 18 years ago, he decided to be Jewish. “I found people to be with.”

Ariel wasn’t quite sure that he and his fellow Jews had as yet grasped the full expanse of their faith’s history and practice, and certainly the lack of encouragement from Israel rankled. But on both counts, he was prepared to take the long view. “When Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, they had no synagogues,” he said. “It was only afterwards that they built synagogues. We’re like that, too. We are in transition. We’re becoming Jewish. We’re getting there.”

Reporting for this project was supported by a Silvers Grant for Work in Progress from the Robert B Silvers Foundation

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