Why Maori are singing their love for Judaism


Emotional and spiritual connections between Jewish people and Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, have long been observed and recorded.

Ties go back to the arrival of New Zealand's early settlers and, with them, Christianity. Traditionally, Maori recognised a pantheon of gods and were, therefore, willing to incorporate Christianity into their belief system.

A high number of Maori converts embraced the Old Testament and, quite rapidly, a belief emerged that they were descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. In 1819, English colonialist Samuel Marsden even published an influential study on the similarities between Jewish people and Maori.

Wellington writer David Cohen recently curated the exhibition Te Jewry for New Zealand's Jewish Online Museum.

In Mr Cohen's view, Maori have felt longstanding empathy for Jewish cultural isolation, historical desolation and biblical exhortation - and some of that warmth has been extended to Israel. Responding in kind, the Israeli Embassy in Wellington places an emphasis on its ties with Maori.

In modern times, some Maori have even converted to Judaism. Steve Daniels, past vice president of Auckland's progressive congregation, Beth Shalom, is a high-profile example of this.

Mr Daniels, who converted in his late 20s, often speaks of how he felt a calling to Judaism from a young age. At the same time, he maintains a strong connection to his traditional Maori iwi [tribes], Te Arawa and Tainui.

While Mr Daniels does not believe in the lost tribes link, he does see similarities between Maori and Judaism. For example, he has said that in both traditions, there is no intermediary between an individual and heaven.

However, perhaps the best examples of Maori-Jewish intermingling can be found in the arts. A short roll-call of Maori-Jewish creatives includes director-actor-writer Taika Waitati, visual artists Don Solomon and Lisa Reihana, and the late singer-songwriter Mahinarangi Tocker.

Of this group, Ms Tocker, in particular, explored what her background meant for her identity. One of her albums was even called The Mongrel In Me - a reference to the heritage her sister described as "a bagel short of a hangi with a bit of haggis on the side".

Another example of the Jewish-Maori relationship can be seen in a recent musical collaboration between Jewish composer Jonathan Besser and Maori singer Mere Boynton.

Aroha/Ahava Songs was inspired by the Old Testament's The Book of the Songs of Solomon, along with a mutual love of land, whenua and family, Mr Besser said. "Both peoples share a strong sense of family and historical pasts… We also share certain values like an 'eye for and eye' and 'tapu and noa', or the sacred and the profane."

Sadly, they also share a sense of historical oppression, and loss of land, he added. "Jewish People and Maori have a strong connection with their traditional land. Although I'm not a Zionist, I can appreciate this similarity."

Mr Besser said the result are songs that weave a journey through Jewish and Maori beliefs and expressions of aroha and ahava (love). They are also, perhaps, the perfect example of the special relationship between New Zealand's Jews and its indigenous people.

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