Arts | Politics | Economy | Education & Sciences18 Nov 2017
Jews of Nigeria - interview with filmmaker Jeff Lieberman
Arts, 4 Dec 2012

An image of a hut in the African forest with a Star of David above the door was the starting point of a 6-year journey for filmmaker Jeff Lieberman. The photo was part of a talk given by a rabbi abouth his recent trip to Uganda and Nigeria. “Viewing Rabbi Gorin's pictures, I was mesmerized,” said Lieberman. Fascinated by the images and story, Lieberman asked to accompany the rabbi on his next trip with the idea of filming the life of the people associated with Nigerian synagogues.
That was in February 2006 and last November, Lieberman’s documentary RE-EMERGING: the Jews of Nigeria made its Canadian premiere at the Jewish Film Festival in Vancouver. The film focuses on the Igbo people of southeast Nigeria and in particular, one young Igbo man’s quest to find the truth about tribal folklore that said the Igbo were once Jews and descendants from one of The Lost Tribes of Israel. Some traditions in Igbo culture, including circumcision, language and food and dietary restrictions, mirror those of Jewish practice. By exploring these similarities between the two cultures, from two countries roughly 3000km apart, this young Nigerian explores his own Jewish beliefs and practices, and what it means to be Jewish as a black man in Nigeria.

“Being Jewish is in the mind, it’s not just being accepted by people,” says Shmuel Tikvah ben Yaacov, the protagonist in the film. “Because I know in me, there’s a Jewish soul.”

Lieberman talks about his film and how it has played a role in Nigerian culture.

At the start of the film, there is what sounds like traditional Nigerian music, but then you realize that the singers are singing in Hebrew. How else do you think Igbo culture is changing or adapting to include Jewish beliefs?

The music is one of the most interesting things about the Igbo Jewish culture. Individuals are creating these really beautiful and innovative melodies to Hebrew text that really makes the songs and prayers come alive. To Western Jewish ears, the songs are slightly familiar, but so different. Yet, they are alive, and full of spirit and so inspiring.

The Igbo who are embracing Judaism are very serious about practicing the faith correctly and within all the rules. I think the diets of many people have changed considerably, as they realize what they can and cannot eat, and great sacrifices are made since Kosher resources are non-existent there. Also, the Sabbath is taken seriously – with little work or travel happening for the 24 hour period.

There is an interesting point made in the film that the access to the Internet has really increased the discovery of Jewish roots in the Igbo people. Before this, the Igbo have been told of their ancestral Jewish routes through oral history told by their elders. If Judaism, along with other aspects of the Igbo history was passed down through generations, why is it not a larger part of the culture today, or as accepted as other parts of Igbo history?

Good question, and tricky question… One possibility is that Igbo tradition is Jewish tradition. The things that traditionalist Igbo do may be some forms of Jewish traditions, that over the centuries modified or adapted based on the times, and their location. Circumcision on the 8th day of life is an example. This is something that Jews around the world do, and something that also the Igbo do. For the Igbo, it could be a Jewish tradition that survived. There are many other examples. There are also many examples of things they don't do, making the similarities perhaps coincidences.

There is also the possibility that interference by Christian Missionaries that arrived with British Colonialists affected their traditional rituals. Throughout Africa, peoples were told that their rituals were sub-human, animalistic, etc. Many Igbo willingly and unwillingly adopted new traditions and culture that vastly changed Igbo culture, so that today it's much more difficult to find true Igbo traditions.

There is also some resistance in general Igbo society against exploring these connections, perhaps slowing a faster, larger acceptance. One bit of resistance is that linking Igbo culture to Jewish culture suggests that Igbo culture is not pure enough on its own, and needs some sort of outside embrace. The other resistance comes from a deep-seated passion and devotion to Christianity. Denouncing Jesus can be met with violent retribution, and so, many Christian Igbo are quite happy to not question any possible other Igbo connection.

You included an interesting section about Igbo slaves in the United States in the early 1800s, and the lasting tale or legend that exists in the area of the slaves drowning themselves rather than accepting a life of slavery in what is now Ibo Landing (Anglicised version of Igbo) at St. Simon’s Island, North Carolina. How do you think such an event has shaped the culture of local Igbo? How does this tie into the Igbo of Nigeria searching out their Jewish roots?

I think the story of Ibo Landing sends the message home that Igbo people walk amongst us. They are part of the fabric of American lives, and that their descendants now make up a considerable portion of the African-American population. We know this without the story – ship records, newspaper records, plantation schedules, interview with ex-slaves also all detail this.

The fact that a community in Georgia was still talking about an event regarding the Igbo two hundred years later that happened in their own backyard was fascinating to me. The fact that they weren't just referred to as slaves or Africans was even more amazing. These were Igbo – who were brought from the shores of West Africa to this very country. To me, to tell the story of the Igbo and not mention this story was missing a huge piece of Igbo history that happened in America.

Since the film will largely be seen in North America, I felt it was an important connection for North American audiences – making the Igbo less far away, and slightly more relatable.

I also felt that this piece of history opens up the topic and film to an entire new audience: African-Americans. I have had interesting reactions from people who have discovered the film, many searching for their African roots, and curious about an Igbo possibility.

Your film talks about the religious make-up of Nigeria being primarily Muslim and Christian. How will the increased exposure of this film affect the Jewish Igbo within their villages, cultures and religions?

I pray that it doesn’t affect their safety. I have laid awake at night wondering if I did something harmful, exposing them in some way. However, the reactions I have been getting from the Igbo Jews featured in the film has only been positive. They asked me to tell their story, and I feel proud that we accomplished that goal. There have been requests for large numbers of DVDs in Nigeria, and I think that's a positive sign that they want this story told in their country too. Now, I think more good can only come out of it. More people can stand up and be proud of their faith, and not worry about negative reactions.

How has this film been received by the international Jewish community? How has the film been received by those outside of the Jewish community?

I have been really pleased by the reactions from the Jewish community. Many synagogues have invited me to come show the film to their communities, and are very inquisitive and enthusiastic. Many want to help, and one synagogue organized a shipment of 700 prayer books to go over to the synagogues there. I am pleased to be in several Jewish film festivals, and just happy to get really nice comments and feedback on a regular basis. I hope to reach out to more non-Jewish audiences. I think the film has a lot of interesting elements that will connect with all peoples. Anyone interested in the topics of identity, ancestry, community, faith, belief, and finding one's self will find something interesting in the film – not to mention Africa!

In the film, Lieberman highlights the impact of Internet access in allowing Igbo Nigerians to further explore Jewish roots, but Lieberman also touched on the impact of film and how it may change the face of Judaism in many parts of Africa. “There are groups of Jews in other African countries that have also arisen: Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe… So, Jews in Africa is not new, nor is it unique to the Igbo. It's just that our access has grown. We know more now through the power of the Internet, and perhaps the power of filmmaking, and easier access to communities as Africa continues to develop and modernize.”

RE-EMERGING, also discusses how the Western perception of Africa may have led to current misconceptions of the continent and its peoples, making Judaism seem strange as part of the African continent. Lieberman highlights, “I think another important point made in the film is one by Professor Michael Gomez of [New York University] who says that people tend to think of Africa as an isolated place, when travel and trade was widespread through much of the continent. People moved around, and were exposed to all sorts of different peoples from all over the lower part of Europe, Middle East and Africa.” The concept of Jews in Nigeria then becomes unsurprising given the influence the country has had from people throughout history. Interestingly, while currently there are synagogues scattered throughout Nigeria, there are only an estimated 5000-8,000 Jews out of the 25-30 million Igbo in the country. But this may easily change with access to knowledge about Judaism.

This film is about more than Jews in Nigeria and hopefully, as the audience for this film grows, more people will realize that Africa is not an isolated place, nor a place of isolated people. Perhaps there are more bonds between people worldwide than we realize.
Sarah Taylor
Jeff Lieberman is a Canadian filmmaker living in New York. Sarah Taylor interviewed him during the Jewish Film Festival in Vancouver, in November 2012. Rabbi Gorin is a recently retired rabbi in the Conservative movement of Judaism. He is based in Rockville, MD.

<< to Magazine

more images for
Jews of Nigeria - interview with filmmaker Jeff Lieberman: fotofoto
More in Arts:
Africa's Women Artists, a Growing Voice
Claudine Pommier sat on a stool in the...

Francis Kéré - Philosopher, Activist, Architect
One of the most remarkable articles in...

Tanzanian students produce magazine on architecture and the city
The 2012 spring issue of the...

More in Nigeria:
Victor Ekpuk: I am trying to create contemporary sacred objects
The last three months of 2007, Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk worked in the...

Currently in the magazine:
Magisch Afrika - maskers en beelden uit Ivoorkust
Magisch Afrika, een schitterende...

Julidans - South African choreographer and dance company from Senegal
"At the same time we were pointing a...

Coup Fatal- uitbundige muziektheatrale ode aan de ‘sapeurs’ van Kinshasa (Congo)
Van 16 t/m 18 juni presenteert het...

Manecas Costa - alsnog in Nederland - win vrijkaarten
Manecas Costa, zanger, componist en...

Online expositie Afrika-foto's Frits Eisenloeffel
Sinds begin februari 2014 staat op de...

Auteur Helon Habila over Olie op water - korting voor bezoekers Africaserver
Op woensdag 19 februari komt de...

Sites for this article:
RE-EMERGING: the Jews of Nigeria Official Site

Film Trailer on YouTube

Politics and Society
hyperlinks index Africaserver

hyperlinks index Africaserver

hyperlinks index Africaserver

Processed by Apache Cocoon 2.1.7 in 73 milliseconds.