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It turns out that there are thriving communities of Jews among the Igbo population of the African country of Nigeria. Who knew?
Well, filmmaker Jeff L. Lieberman, for one. His documentary Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria delivers a primer on this fascinating subculture of people who believe that they are descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel who made their way to their country through Ethiopia and the Sudan. Numbering several thousand, they maintain dozens of village synagogues and happily subscribe to such Jewish rituals as keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and circumcision.
“Being Jewish is in the mind,” proclaims one of them, and whatever the veracity of the Igbo people’s claims about their heritage—several scholars are seen expressing severe skepticism—there’s no doubt that they are deeply committed to their beliefs, no small matter in a region marked by religious and ethnic strife.
Lieberman has cannily chosen his principal subject, the highly photogenic and charismatic Shmuel Tikvah (born Samuel Chukwuma), who testifies about his religious conversion—he was raised as a Roman Catholic—and says that his biggest desire is to attend New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary and become a rabbi.
The film often wanders to various diverse subjects, sometimes to its detriment. These include the religious history of the region, which found itself virtually invaded by Pentecostal missionaries in the 1980s; the tragedies of the slave trade and the 1960s Biafran War that claimed the lives of over one million Igbos; and the rebellion of Igbo slaves in Georgia that resulted in the formation of their own community. Fun fact: such figures as actor Forest Whitaker and star preacher T.D. Jakes have been genetically proven to have Igbo roots.
The film is most effective when it simply chronicles the day-to-day lives of its highly enthusiastic subjects, who have adapted their Jewish traditions in ways reflecting their African heritage. Less happily, they have been less than embraced by the worldwide Jewish community, including Israel. A notable exception is American Rabbi Howard Gorin, who has spent much of the last decade helping the Igbos achieve their Jewish aspirations. It’s a mitzvah.
Opens May 17 (Re-Emerging Films)
Director/screenwriter/producer/director of photography/editor: Jeff L. Lieberman
Composer: Jeremiah Lockwood
Not rated, 93 min.
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