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"Being welcomed by and embraced by Igbos, who take Judaism so seriously ... it raises the question of what it means to be a Jew," says William Miles.
Three years ago, Miles, a self-proclaimed semi-practicing Jew, decided to celebrate Hanukkah in Africa's most populous country. He wrote about his experience in a new book called Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey. He tells NPR's Tell Me More host Michel Martin that he found "a very Jewish community, but also a very African community."
The Igbo are an ethnic group in the southeast of the country. Miles explains that a long oral history connects them to one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. "The tribe of Gad made its way all the way to West Africa, and they have been preserving ancient Israelite Hebrew traditions ever since, and so they claim they are just rediscovering their old roots," he says.
But based on his experience, Miles explains, there is more to the recent embracing of their beliefs.
"Even though they claim that they're going back to their ancient roots, it's only in the last couple of decades that they are actually practicing as Jews in a way that is recognized in global Judaism," he says.
Miles describes the Jewish Igbo as the "world's first Internet Jews." Through online research, they learned more about how Judaism is practiced throughout the world and started to master Hebrew. "It's really tough to learn Hebrew on your own," Miles points out, but "they are masters at it."
Miles says their celebration of Hanukkah would be "very familiar to any American Jew who plops down in Abuja." The main difference is their access to Jewish ritual objects to celebrate with. For example, instead of lighting candles at home, they lit a makeshift menorah at the synagogue. "Picture this: Coke bottles, which they painted ... a wooden box to put them in, and then put whatever candles they have."
"I have to say, Nigerians take religion very seriously," he says. Miles describes meeting Jewish Igbos who had made some significant sacrifices for their faith. One told him, " 'My wife ... insisted that we should go back to Christianity. Look, I said, I have found the faith of my forefathers, there's just no going back. So we parted, just like that, because of the religion.' "
The Jewish Igbo are not yet recognized by Israel's rabbinate, but Miles says that does not matter to them. "They are happy to be acting, practicing, worshipping as Jews," he says.
It's this commitment that Miles feels should raise questions for him and others in the Diaspora who "don't really feel that it's that important to practice Judaism." He claims that "if any Jew has the privilege to spend time with this Igbo Jewish community ... they would acknowledge that they have a lot to teach Jews around the world what it means to be Jewish."