Beliefs and Concepts Community Features History

Ghana’s House of Israel, descendents of lost tribes?


Filmmaker Gabrielle Zilkha with Rahel, a young member of Ghana’s House of Israel. Filmmaker Gabrielle Zilkha with Rahel, a young member of Ghana’s House of Israel.

 

Of all the exotic markers dividing Ghana’s Jewish community from their Western counterparts, the most important may lie in the mundane art of record-keeping.

“Jews are record-keepers, the People of the Book,” said Toronto-based filmmaker Gabrielle Zilkha, “but Africans [have] an oral tradition.”

The scant historical record for Ghana’s House of Israel creates suspense for Zilkha’s documentary project about the group, but it also makes it more difficult to check the group’s bona fides.

Its oral history stretches back more than 200 years, and some historians, said Zilkha, believe its residents could be descendants of the Lost Tribes who migrated from North Africa to West Africa and then south.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “there’s little proof, but you have to take a point of view, and that’s the point of view I’ve chosen to take in the film.”

Located in Sefwi Wiawso, a rural village three hours away from the nearest city, Kumasi, the community has guarded its traditions. Sefwis rested on Saturday. They eschewed pork consumption. Males were circumcised at a young age.

In Ghana, though, two traditions hold sway – evangelical Christianity and Islam – and neighbouring communities haven’t always welcomed religious diversity. Harassment by an area chief in the 1970s pushed many Sefwis to the rival religions.

In 1976, a member of the community named Aaron Ahomtre Toakyirafa experienced a vision, and he urged the community to “go back to its roots,” said Zilkha.

Aaron died in 1991, but the community survives. About 200 people live there – most of them children, according to Zilkha – and if you visit on Saturday, you will find their synagogue in use, though “not so many in the morning; they really like havdalah.” Last week, on Chanukah, the candles were lit by Alex, their current leader, who is studying at a yeshiva in Uganda with the Abayudaya community of converts.

High Holiday services attract a larger crowd in Sefwi Wiawso. Zilkha first visited the community on Rosh Hashanah two years ago, at the urging of her mother, who had heard about the group and thought her daughter’s non-profit work shouldn’t interfere with her Judaism.

“I didn’t believe it,” said Zilkha, “because it didn’t make sense in my head. I thought it was Jews for Jesus or something.”

Now, Zilkha is raising money for the first stage of filming, which will begin in January. Funding website Kickstarter has a page for the film, with $15,000 as the target amount. (Kickstarter works on an all-or-nothing premise: if a project doesn’t reach its target, all funds are returned to donors.)

Eventually, Zilkha plans to produce a feature-length film, which will document the group’s life and history – and follow eight of its members as they visit Israel for the first time.

“I’m not religious,” said Zilkha,” but I find their story so compelling. We are a very sparse and disconnected people and always have been… but I’m looking at others and seeing what we have in common.”

To donate to the film, visit  http://kck.st/U0BhF5 .

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