Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Lost tribe fever

In the fourth and last of her series on "Exotic Jewish communities," Gabriella Licsko focused on the many tribes around the world that either claim descent from one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, or had definite Jewish ancestry in the past, or have at some point in time converted to Judaism.

There has always been a historical fascination to try to find the so-called "ten lost tribes," who had been the inhabitants of the northern state of Israel, who in 720 bce were conquered by the Assyrians and taken into exile. Actually there were about nine and a half lost tribes, since some of Shimon and Benjamin as well as Levy and Judah remained in the southern State of Judah (or Judea to the Romans). They were in turn conquered later by the Babylonians and were exiled from 597 bce, but were allowed to return to the land of Zion in 538 bce. But, the tribes that were taken by the Assyrians vanished from history. In the Talmud they are described as living beyond the Sambation River.

In 1650, Manassah Ben Israel, a Dutch Rabbi, published a book entitled "The hope of Israel" that appealed to the British protestants and that postulated that until the Jews were spread all around the earth the Messiah could not come (or return as the Christians believed). Since Jews were excluded from Great Britain, Manassah met with Oliver Cromwell and persuaded him to admit the Jews (see "Cromwell and the Jews," 14/11/13). Then many people began to search for the lost tribes in newly discovered lands. In the 19th century it was a popular belief that the American Indians were descended from the lost tribes. The Mormons also considered themselves a "lost tribe."

Here are a few of those who claim descent from one or other of the lost tribes: Ethiopian Jews, one theory of their origin is that they are descended from the tribe of Dan (see "Ethiopian Jews," 8/11/13); Bnei Israel, from north-west India, claim to be descended from the tribe of Zevulun, because their ancestors were sea-men (see "Indian Jewish communities," 26/11/13); Bnei Menashe, are a tribe of Burmese origin living in north-east India, that claim to be descended from the tribe of Manassah (see "Indian Jewish communities," 26/11/13).

We do not know what happened to the ten tribes, they could have either inter-mixed or remained intact. Since they were taken to central Asia, it is not impossible that traces of their presence remains. There are reports that the Pashtun, a large tribal group of many millions located between Pakistan and Afghanistan have several remaining Jewish customs and have a tribal belief in descent from the Jews, but this is certainly unproven. Also, since the Taliban, the most fearsome Islamic warriors, come from the Pashtun, it would be extremely dangerous to acknowledge this connection.

There are several groups around the world that claim descent from Jewish ancestors:
The Lemba; A tribe of ca. 50,000 Black Africans living in Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, who have many Judaic customs and claim to be descended from the Cohanim. They keep kashrut and Shabbat, do not intermarry with other tribes and are circumcised. It is not inconceivable that they had Middle Eastern origins. In genetic tests their leaders were found to carry the Cohanim gene markers.
Chinese Jews of Kai-feng, were undoubtedly descended from Jewish traders along the silk road, who settled in Kai-feng, China. They were not persecuted but over centuries they intermarried with the Chinese so that they became indistinguishable. They had a synagogue in 1136 ce and had only 9 specific surnames. They suffered in the "cultural revolution" under Mao. There are a few survivors, maybe 900 in China who identify as Jews and ca. 100 living in Israel, where they must convert. Although they had a hard time in Israel some of them are employed as translators and guides for Chinese tourists to Israel.
Igbo of Nigeria; These are Nigerian Blacks who claim to be of Jewish descent, probably from Judaized Berbers who crossed the desert fleeing from the Muslims and settled in Nigeria, where they established a Kingdom in the late middle ages. There are about 20,000 of them

Also, around the world there are several groups that at one time or another converted to Judaism, although their practices are not always what we would call "normative Judaism." Among these are:
Subbotniks; A group of Russian peasants whose forebears rejected the idea of the trinity in Christianity and chose Unitarianism in which Jesus is regarded as a man without Godly powers. They emphasized the Old Testament and switched from Sunday to Saturday worship and were circumcised. Some then further converted to Judaism beginning about 200 years ago and intermarried with Ashkenazi Jews. They were persecuted and exiled to Siberia by the Czars and then persecuted by Stalin and the Nazis. Some made aliyah and for example Gen. Raful Eytan, the Israeli Chief of Staff in the Yom Kippur War was descended from Subbotniks.
Szombatosok, were a group of Hungarian Christians who became Sabbatarians (worshipping on Saturday not Sunday) starting in 1588. They were from remote villages in Transylvania whose ancestors developed Unitarianism, denying the trinity and many of them adopted Jewish customs, although at first they were not circumcised. Eventually many of them converted to Judaism in 1868 and many were murdered by the Nazis, but some of their descendents now live in Israel.
Bnei Moshe; these are the so-called Inca Jews, a community of Peruvians who from the 1960s adopted Jewish practices under the influence of two brothers named Villanueva in Trujillo, Peru. They adopted the Old Testament and Hebrew and have a synagogue. In the 1990's they officially converted and some made aliyah, mainly to the territories. There are about 1,000 of them and they are devoted Orthodox Zionist Jews

Another group of Jews are the "Secret Jews" (Marranos or Bnei Anusim) who were forcibly converted to Christianity and then persecuted by the Inquisition. Many fled to the periphery of the Spanish-Portuguese empires, to Mexico, South America and elsewhere. For example, there are believed to be millions of their descendents living in Brazil. In one specific case the King of Portugal, after the massacre of Jews in Lisbon in 1505, took thousands of Jewish children and sent them to the Atlantic islands of Sao Tome and Cape Verde, where their ancestors live today, still practicing a form of Judaism.

In addition to the above, it is quite likely that there are many Arabs, especially Palestinians, who could claim descent from local Jews who were conquered and converted to Islam after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in 637 ce. There are other groups, such as the Black Hebrews of Dimona, Israel, but space prevents an adequate description of all of these groups. It should be noted that Michael Freund and his organization Shavei Israel, has been working to bring some of these groups, particularly the Chinese Jews and the Bnei Anusim back to Judaism.


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