In re­mote Mada­gas­car, a new com­mu­nity chooses to be Jewish

Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - • By DEBORAH JOSEFSON

ANTANANARIVO, Mada­gas­car (JTA) – A nascent Jewish com­mu­nity was of­fi­cially born in Mada­gas­car last month when 121 men, women and chil­dren un­der­went Ortho­dox conversions on the re­mote In­dian Ocean is­land na­tion bet­ter known for lemurs, chameleons, dense rain forests and vanilla.

The conversions, which took place over a 10-day pe­riod, were the cli­max of a process that arose or­gan­i­cally five to six years ago when fol­low­ers of var­i­ous mes­sianic Chris­tian sects be­came dis­il­lu­sioned with their churches and be­gan to study To­rah.

Through self-study and with guid­ance from Jewish In­ter­net sources and cor­re­spon­dence with rab­bis in Is­rael, they now pray in Sephardi-ac­cented He­brew and strictly ob­serve the Sab­bath and hol­i­days.

The conversions were fa­cil­i­tated by Ku­lanu, a New York-based non­profit that spe­cial­izes in sup­port­ing iso­lated and emerg­ing Jewish com­mu­ni­ties, but were ini­ti­ated by the res­i­dents.

“Now that we’ve re-es­tab­lished the State of Is­rael, it is time to re-es­tab­lish the Jewish peo­ple, es­pe­cially in the Di­as­pora,” said Bonita Nathan Suss­man, vice pres­i­dent of Ku­lanu.

Her hus­band, Rabbi Gerald Suss­man of Tem­ple Emanuel on Staten Is­land in New York, added: “We are in the process of re­con­sti­tut­ing the Jewish peo­ple, which would have been more nu­mer­ous had it not been dec­i­mated by the Holo­caust and had we not lost mil­lions of Jews in Arab lands.”

Be­gin­ning May 9, mem­bers of the com­mu­nity came be­fore a bet din, or rab­bini­cal court, con­vened for the oc­ca­sion at the Le Pave Ho­tel here, the Mada­gas­car cap­i­tal. The court com­prised three rab­bis with Ortho­dox or­di­na­tions: Rabbi Oizer Neu­mann of Brook­lyn, Rabbi Achiya Delouya of Mon­treal and Rabbi Pin­chas Klein of Philadel­phia. All three be­long to a group of rab­bis who serve far-flung Jewish com­mu­ni­ties and support con­vert­ing emer­gent Jewish groups.

Delouya, whose back­ground is Moroc­can, spoke with the con­verts in their sec­ond of­fi­cial lan­guage, French, and also pro­vided Sephardi in­flu­ences for which the Mada­gas­car com­mu­nity feel an affin­ity.

The con­ver­sion process in­cluded pe­ri­ods of in­ten­sive To­rah study, in­ter­views by the beit din and full body im­mer­sions in a river lo­cated a 90-minute drive away from Antananarivo. A pri­vacy tent was hastily erected be­side the river for the oc­ca­sion, and a fes­tive at­mos­phere en­sued as men, women and chil­dren, rang­ing in age from three to 85, lined up to take the rit­ual plunge.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the Mada­gas­car men, who are al­ready cir­cum­cised, un­der­went “hatafat dam brit,” or rit­ual pe­nile blood­let­ting, to af­firm their new faith.

The 10-day pe­riod con­cluded with 12 Jewish wed­dings and a sym­po­sium on Mada­gas­car’s Is­raelite con­nec­tions fea­tur­ing a key­note ad­dress by Tu­dor Parfitt, a Bri­tish scholar and ex­pert on the Lost Tribes of Is­rael.

In­deed, many Mala­gasies, as the is­lan­ders are known, be­lieve they are of Jewish or Is­raelite de­scent, and that their founders were sea­far­ing mem­bers of the Lost Tribes. Be­lief in the “Mala­gasy se­cret” per­sists de­spite ev­i­dence that most Mala­gasies are of In­done­sian and African ori­gin.

Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal lore, Mada­gas­car is the bib­li­cal land of Ophir and played a piv­otal role in pro­vid­ing con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als to King Solomon’s tem­ple. Many also be­lieve that the Ark of the Covenant and other rit­u­al­is­tic tem­ple items are buried on the is­land.

Even Prince Ndri­ana Rabar­i­oelina, a de­scen­dant of the Me­rina monarchy of Mada­gas­car, proudly as­serts Jewish an­ces­try. He told JTA that up to 80 per­cent of Mala­gasies can claim Jewish roots. He as­serts that por­tions of the tablets, Moses’s rod and a copy of the Book of Daniel are safe­guarded by de­scen­dants of Le­vites in the Vata­masina-Vo­hipeno re­gion of Mada­gas­car.

Ad­di­tion­ally, sev­eral Me­rina tombs, in­clud­ing those of his fam­ily, bear He­brew sym­bols or let­ters, he said.

Nev­er­the­less, ev­i­dence of a his­toric Ju­daic pres­ence in Mada­gas­car is scarce, and what signs can be found could date from the seventh cen­tury, when traders from Arab lands sailed to the is­land, or the 1500s, when con­ver­sos may have been among the Por­tuguese sailors who es­tab­lished trad­ing posts.

Mada­gas­car, a coun­try of 20 mil­lion peo­ple, is awash with mis­sion­ar­ies. Some 50% of the pop­u­la­tion prac­tices some form of Chris­tian­ity, while most of the other half prac­tices an in­dige­nous an­i­mist faith in which an­ces­tor wor­ship fea­tures promi­nently. Ap­prox­i­mately 7% of the pop­u­la­tion is Mus­lim.

While many Mala­gasies were brought to Ju­daism through study of the Old Tes­ta­ment and a sin­cere ef­fort to get closer to God, some see the prac­tice of Ju­daism as a re­turn to their roots and an over­throw­ing of the last ves­tiges of colo­nial­ism.

“I was a victim of the col­o­niz­ers, as you know we had the French here, and then the com­mu­nists and then the so­cial­ists … so I didn’t have any roots any­more,” said Mija Ra­solo, an ac­tor who hosts his own late night talk show on Mada­gas­car TV and took the He­brew name David Mazal. “So I told my­self, for now, I am go­ing to be Jewish, be­cause that works for me. I found Ju­daism. I found my roots, baruch Hashem… Am Yis­rael Chai” – the peo­ple of Is­rael live.

As res­i­dents of Antananarivo be­gan to ex­plore Ju­daism, three lead­ers emerged to guide the nascent com­mu­nity: An­dri­a­narisao Asar­ery, known as Ashrey Dayves; An­dre Jacque Rabi­sisoa, known as Pe­te­ola; and Fer­di­nand Jean An­dri­a­tovo­manana, known as Tou­vya.

Ashrey is a dy­namic for­mer pas­tor and singer who works as a pastry chef by day and is fa­mous through­out Mada­gas­car for his tele­vi­sion cook­ing show. His fa­ther is also a fa­mous Mala­gasy singer. He fa­vors a more lib­eral and wel­com­ing ver­sion of Ju­daism, leads a con­gre­ga­tion of about 25, and con­ducts ra­dio broad­casts on Jewish top­ics and re­li­gious prac­tices.

Pe­te­ola, a com­puter pro­gram­mer, con­ducts He­brew lan­guage lessons and re­li­gious ra­dio broad­casts. He has a fol­low­ing of about 30 and fa­vors a mys­ti­cal and kab­bal­is­tic ap­proach to Ju­daism. He teaches To­rah con­cepts with gema­tria, through which mean­ing is de­rived to the nu­meric val­ues of He­brew let­ters.

Tou­vya, a self-taught can­tor, dav­ens de­voutly and sports peyot, the tra­di­tional side­locks men­tioned in Leviti­cus. He leads his con­gre­ga­tion of 40 in strict ob­ser­vance of the To­rah.

All three have set up makeshift syn­a­gogues in their liv­ing rooms, while some prayer services are also held in a space pro­vided by the English Lan­guage In­sti­tute. Services are gen­er­ally held at Tou­vya’s house, which is large enough to ac­com­mo­date most com­mu­nity mem­bers. Get­ting there can some­times be prob­lem­atic be­cause not ev­ery­one lives within com­mut­ing dis­tance of the home. Most Mala­gasies do not have cars and rely on their feet or bush taxi (taxi brousse) for trans­porta­tion.

In­evitable con­gre­ga­tional dif­fer­ences have also arisen.

The move to­ward con­ver­sion was spear­headed by Ashrey, who func­tions as pres­i­dent of the Jewish Com­mu­nity of Mada­gas­car, which is also known as Se­farad Mada­gas­car. Ashrey thought conversions would bring le­git­i­macy to the group as well as greater ties to world Jewry.

Tou­vya and Pe­toula were re­luc­tant at first to ac­cept con­ver­sion. Tou­vya in par­tic­u­lar felt that con­ver­sion was un­nec­es­sary be­cause he be­lieved that he was al­ready Jewish, and did not want or need the val­i­da­tion of an out­sider to con­firm it.

Com­mu­nity mem­bers dress mod­estly and strive to keep kosher in a land lack­ing the proper in­fra­struc­ture to do so. With­out a kosher butcher, most will eat only fish, dairy and veg­etable prod­ucts.

Many ob­serve the prac­tice of nidda, avoid­ing mar­i­tal re­la­tions or even touch­ing while a woman is men­stru­at­ing.

Only 30 peo­ple were orig­i­nally sched­uled to con­vert when Ku­lanu ar­rived on the scene last month, but the num­ber ul­ti­mately swelled to 121 as fam­ily mem­bers and Tou­vya’s con­gre­ga­tion joined in. Ku­lanu es­ti­mates that at least 100 more po­ten­tial con­verts live among the com­mu­nity.

The conversions are an ironic twist of fate, oc­cur­ring around the 76th an­niver­sary of the Mada­gas­car Plan. Launched by Nazi Ger­many on June 3, 1941, it was con­ceived as an al­ter­na­tive method to achieve the Fi­nal So­lu­tion by de­port­ing Euro­pean Jewry to Vichy-con­trolled Mada­gas­car. Most were ex­pected to die en route, suc­cumb to disease or be mas­sa­cred with­out international over­sight. The plan was never im­ple­mented.

In­stead, decades af­ter the Holo­caust took the lives of 6 mil­lion Euro­pean Jews, one pocket of the African na­tion has be­come a place of Jewish re­birth.

MEN PUSH char­coal for sale on a hand­cart along the streets of Mada­gas­car’s cap­i­tal Antananarivo in 2013. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Israel

© PressReader. All rights reserved.