In Nigeria, Shabbat is sung in with an African beat

By Jeff Lieberman, August 2, 2012
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It’s Friday evening in Nigeria and a large number of people have gathered inside the quaint building that sits on Habakkuk Nwafor’s property on the outskirts of Abuja.

One young man is still outside, pouring water over both his hands from a tall bucket before entering. The prayer leader, Cohen, begins a Shabbat song — something with Hebrew words but with a distinct African melody. The gathered group joins in — a vibrant call and response that progressively escalates in enthusiasm. This is Shabbat in Nigeria, and these are the Igbo Jews.

This is just one of several synagogue communities in central and southern Nigeria, many of whose members I met a few years ago while making a documentary film about the country’s Jews.
Nobody seemed to know that these communities existed, and they are only being discovered now because of the internet.

One of the young men I met, Shmuel Tikvah, impressed me with a level of knowledge, commitment and passion that rivalled many of the Jews I knew in my home community.
He told me that much of his knowledge had come from studying Jewish educational websites and reading weekly Torah emails.

When he first started reading about Judaism, he was fascinated by the large number of similarities between Jewish and Igbo tradition: circumcision on the eighth day; a belief in one supreme God; separation of the sexes during a woman’s menstruation; animal sacrifice; observance of a rest day. Cohen points out that Igbo (pronounced ee-bo) sounds quite similar to “Hebrew”.

Discovering the names Gad and Eri in the Old Testament further boosts confidence in an Igbo-Jewish link. In the south eastern Nigerian town of Aguleri, many Igbo pay homage to a forefather named Eri, who according to the Bible, was the grandson of Jacob.

Despite the threat from the Boko Haram, a militant jihadist organisation which has targeted Igbo institutions, there are many stories to celebrate. Shmuel and Habakkuk and Cohen want to make certain of that. Perhaps one day, there will be a school beside their synagogue.

Last updated: 12:41pm, August 2 2012