Zimbabwe’s Lembas reconnect with the Jewish community
February 19, 2013 | Suri Epstein - Correspondent
An ancient African tribe made a very 21st century-style appearance in Toronto recently.
A live broadcast from New York’s 92nd Street Y brought a young leader from Zimbabwe’s Lemba community to audiences in six locations across North America, including Toronto's Temple Sinai.
Modreck Zvakavapano Maeresera, a member of the Lemba community, discussed the cultural and religious practices that come from Jewish law.
Numbering about 150,000, the Lembas reside in Zimbabwe and South Africa and trace their lineage back to ancient Israel.
“Our oral tradition began 2,000 years ago, soon after the destruction of the second Temple,” Maeresera told the small audience (the event was held during the recent massive snowstorm).
It was during their migration from Israel to Africa, via Yemen, that their ‘book’ – believed to be the Torah – was lost. Since that time the strength of their oral tradition has maintained their religious practices.
Maeresera described Lemba circumcision, dietary laws, marriage, and education.
“We only eat meat slaughtered by a circumcised Lemba,” he said. “It must be prepared in clean pots and utensils.”
The Lembas refrain from tilling their land from sunset on Friday to sundown on Saturday and they also recognize the lunar month.
“When the new moon first appears that day is marked by blowing the shofar with three blasts,” Maeresera said.
Maeresera’s talk was organized by Kulanu (Hebrew for ‘all of us’), a New York City-based organization that strives to support isolated and lost Jewish communities who are trying to reconnect with the mainstream community. Sandy Leeder, Kulanu’s Lemba coordinator, moderated the program.
“Why haven’t we Jews heard about the Lemba?” Leeder asked. “Because they've been hiding out, doing traditions secretly. Even today they guard their secrets.”
According to Maeresera, outside pressure has helped shape the traditions practised by the Lemba.
“Unlike other African tribes, the Lemba resisted converting to Christianity, hence the persecution from Christians,” he said. “That’s why we practise in secret.”
Persecution specifically altered circumcision.
“We used to circumcise our boys after eight days, like Jews everywhere,” Maeresera said. “We no longer do so. We have shifted from eight days to eight years.” To this day, circumcisions take place in secluded forests and mountains.
Faced with a growing migration from the villages, as well as a lack of educational and religious facilities, the community is attempting to build a synagogue as well as study Judaism via the internet.
“Then we go to our respective villages to teach our fellow members about Judaism.”