A Story of the Lemba and Me

“Behold I will save my people from the east country and from the west country; And I will bring them and they shall dwell in the midst of Jerusalem And they shall be my people and I will be their God in truth and righteousness”

Johannesburg South Africa

My interest was first ignited a few years ago when I read an article about South Africa’s “Black Jews” I knew very little except what most others in the Jewish community knew that there were Black Bantuspeaking people in our country who claimed to be descended from Jews lived as Jews and practiced Judaism as remembered and passed down to them orally through the ages Believe my surprise when I received a call from Professor Mathivha resident of Louis Trichardt South Africa last year We had a mutual friend in Washington Dr Jack Zeller a pathologist who is president of Kulanu “all of us” in Hebrew an organization active in 22 countries and for whom I had written a story about my personal life as “a child of the Anusim” (forced converts)

President of the Lemba Cultural Association and former viceprincipal of the University of the North this charming gentleman told me how he identified with many of the things I had written about; the identity problems the rejection and the pain I had experienced and felt growing up without “belonging” This was the beginning Things snowballed after that Another mutual friend an exPretoria medical doctor Shmuel Wapnick now living in New York had visited Professor Mathivha and Ephraim Selamolela last year He started including my friend Sylvia Magid and me in emails A network grew and developed a network of interested Jews researchers historians and anthropologists This network included Tudor Parfitt who was instrumental in the recent newsbreaking discovery of the DNA results proving the relation to Jews of this centuriesold oral Lemba history

Dr Shmuel Wapnick on his way back to New York after four days in South Africa to attend his niece’s wedding hosted a gettogether at a kosher restaurant where my friend Sylvia Magid and I were honored to be It was yet another beginning We met with a number of Lemba people all identifying as Jews One was Dr Rudo Mathivha pediatrician and US trained ICU specialist daughter of Professor Mathivha Also present were Ephraim Selamolela the prominent businessman his two sons a niece whose name means “great person” her mother and the gentleman who is president of the Lemba Burial Society I looked into Rudo’s warm smiling eyes felt enveloped by her acceptance felt humbled that these gracious people were willing to accept me part of the white Jewish community who had ignored their existence and claims for years They asked for nothing Educated charming and economically successful all they had hoped for was acceptance

Dr Wapnick left with the goahead to arrange for a shaliach (emissary) one of our little networks of caring Jews from around the world to come and start the Lemba Educational Center in Louis Trichardt Yaakov Levi’s arrival as that shaliach is now widely known and celebrated

Regarding the results of the news breaking genetic testing David B Goldstein a population geneticist at Oxford University took the discovery one step further Goldstein’s research showed that the proportion of Lemba men carrying the genetic signature of the cohanim (priests) was similar to those found among the major Jewish populations strongly supporting the Lemba tradition of Jewish ancestry The DNA sequences were particularly common among Lemba men who belong to the Buba clan the senior of their twelve groups The Lemba from South Africa and Zimbabwe believe they were led out of Judea by a man named Buba

In a separate study Dr Parfitt who is Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London has discovered the route the Lemba say they used to emigrate He was told they traveled from a place called Senna to Africa Parfitt who has studied the Lemba for ten years and described his work in a recent book Journey to the Vanished City said he found a village called Senna in Hadramawt a former site of Jewish communities in Yemen He believes that is the “Senna” referred to in Lemba oral tradition “It turned out what they are saying about themselves is substantially correct”

Which leaves us the South African Jewish Community with a moral dilemma: What is our responsibility as Jews our future obligation to help those interested back to halachic Judaism? Now that we know can we continue to pretend they do not exist?

Rufina Bernardetti Silva Mausenbaum hosts the popular website: Saudades (http://wwwsaudadesorg ) She speaks and writes widely on her experiences and those of other who have discovered their Crypto Jewish roots

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