To reach Ghana’s Jewish community, you need to fly to Accra, the capital. Then you would snag a TroTro – the local term for a shared-taxi minibus – for the five-hour jaunt to Kumasi. Next you have a choice: either bus or TroTro, to Dwunasi. That trip takes three-and-a-half to five hours, depending. Fifteen more minutes – by taxi – and you will have arrived at your destination: the village of New Adiembra.
The Sefwis – the larger region is called Sefwi Wiawso – attend synagogue. They rest on Saturday and especially relish the closing Havdalah ceremony. The High Holidays draw the largest crowds. In physical appearance, they are indistinguishable from their Christian and Muslim neighbours. They eschew pork and circumcise their males on the eighth day. They number, at most, 100.
All of which gives pause: who are the Sefwis? Where did they originate? And are Ghana’s Jews even Jewish?
Gabrielle Zilkha first asked these questions in 2010, when she worked for a women’s rights organization in the West African nation and sought Rosh Hashanah services. Now the documentary account of her investigation, Doing Jewish: A Story from Ghana, premieres at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.
Like other remote communities, the Jewish Sefwis and their story stir a centuries-old wish.
“Part of their oral tradition has them coming from descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel,” said Zilkha. “In 722 BCE, Jews were exiled from Israel to the four corners of the Earth. You have these people popping up with Hebraic, pre-rabbinic customs in different parts of the globe.”
Some scholars, though, remain skeptical, and suggest a later source for the group’s Jewish self-identification.
“The Lost Tribes are a deep, profound myth,” said Zilkha, “that was internalized by various communities as part of a project of colonialism.”
Foundation narratives aside, what Zilkha really seeks is the pivot from Sefwi novelty to Jewish identity.
“[The film] is very similar to other stories about Jews in unusual places,” she said. “The subtle difference is my take on it: why are we shocked to hear about Jews in Ghana or Jews that look a certain way, and why don’t we question ourselves? What makes them Jewish is their very profound love and respect for the Torah, and how they want to grow their relationship with God, and here we are asking, ‘Are you Jewish?’”
To plumb the Sefwi experience, Doing Jewish canvasses Jewish experts in Toronto, Montreal and New York for universal lessons.
“What I loved,” said Zilkha, “is that they all came at the subject with compassion, intelligence and articulation.”
The documentary, produced by Jenn Mason, is the first feature-length work for the Toronto-based Zilkha, who has also released short films and transmedia projects. More than 10 per cent of the $145,000 budget was crowdfunded through Kickstarter.
Doing Jewish affected her, though, in ways that previous projects had not.
“I was a little more vulnerable, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be on camera. But as time went on I wanted to own my perspective. It had such a profound impact on me as a Jewish person that I wanted to show my personal view – and it was also more authentic.”
As a result, viewers experience the clash between pluralism and exclusiveness that animates much of Jewish society.
“It was an opportunity to explore questions I hold about boundaries and Jewish identity,” said Zilkha. “I grew up believing that you’re Jewish because your mother is Jewish, but there are a variety of perspectives about what it means to be Jewish. I hope that the film pushes people to think critically about how they perceive Jewish identity.”
Doing Jewish: A Story from Ghana plays at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 10 and May 15. For more information, click here. A shorter version of the film will air on VisionTV on May 30.