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The lost Jews of Ghana

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JESSE KLINE ILLO

Out in rural Ghana, far from any major population centre, a small group of Africans stop work on Shabbat, refrain from eating pork, circumcise their newborn sons and adhere to the laws of ritual purity.

They’ve been doing so for generations, but until 1976, they had no idea the traditions related to a religion called Judaism. For the people of Sefwi Wiawso, the practices were merely “the laws of the land” that they and their ancestors have been following since they made Ghana, on Africa’s west coast, their home some 200 to 300 years ago. Before that, their oral tradition tells them, they wandered Africa, crossed the Sahara desert and lived for a time in Niger, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire.

Michael Owusu Ansah is a spokesman for the community, which numbers about 70 people. They call themselves Tifereth Israel and, although they believe they have been practising the religion of ancient Israel, he said that their “greatest hope in the future is to gain recognition and be accepted as Jews all over the world.”

Speaking on the phone from Sefwi Wiawso, a village in western Ghana, he described the community as mostly poor farmers who enjoy the right to practice their religion as they see fit.

Surrounded mostly by Christian tribes, the Tifereth Israel practice the laws of the Torah, he said.

“We are the only tribe that has a link to the Torah,” said Ansah, “and we are told that we are not from here.”

Michael Owusu Ansah

In 1976, one of the members of their tribe, which is known as the Sefwi, “had the vision to be told the real meaning of our customs. However, the entire people on Sefwi land were observing the Torah-related laws and custom(s) prior to 1976. In other words, the name ‘Judaism’ was realized in 1976, as a results of the vision,” Ansah stated.

Toronto filmmaker Gabrielle Zilka documented the Jews of Ghana in a film called, Doing Jewish: A Story from Ghana. The film was screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and will be shown again on Nov. 12 at Toronto’s Borochov Cultural Centre, in an event sponsored by Kulanu Canada and Na’amat Canada Toronto.

Zilka will be on hand to discuss her experiences in Ghana. Unique and colourful challah covers, produced by the Jews of Ghana, will also be available for sale, said Andria Spindel, founder and spokesperson for Kulanu Canada.

Kulanu Canada is a local affiliate of Kulanu Inc., a U.S.-based group that supports diverse and isolated Jewish communities around the world. Funds raised from the sale of the challah covers will go to Ghana, to restore a guest house for visitors to the community, Spindel said.

Other programs sponsored by the organization have gone to assist small Jewish communities in Suriname, Italy, Guatemala and Jamaica, she said.

For his part, Ansah is grateful for the help provided by mainstream Jewish communities. The American Kulanu organization has shipped Jewish textbooks to Ghana, while some volunteers have visited their village, to bring them up to speed on modern Judaism.

Some have visited for a couple of weeks, others for months. Some have helped educate them about Judaism, while others just came “to observe how we practice our religion,” he said. “A lot have already come and left.”

Ultimately, the Tifereth Israel would like to send someone to Israel, to learn on their own, but the community is so poor that it can’t afford to send anyone, he said.

In the past, one member of the community moved to Uganda to study there, but when he returned, he moved to Accra, the national capital on the south coast, where there are more than 300 Jews. Those people had practiced Christianity until a couple of years ago, when they converted to Judaism, and are not connected to the Tifereth Israel, who hail from a tribe called Sefwi, he added.

READ: AFRICAN JEW FINDS HER CULTURAL IDENTITY ON THE PRAIRIES

His people believe they are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. “The other Jews in the other African countries also claim to be one of the lost tribe(s) of Israel, but I don’t know the various tribes they belong to,” Ansah stated.

The lost tribes of Israel refers to refugees from the ancient northern Kingdom of Israel, who were dispersed following the destruction of the kingdom by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE.

Ansah acknowledges that there is no written record to substantiate the claim to being one of the lost tribes of Israel, other than the community’s oral history.

“Even though the Sefwi Jews claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel, but till date, no one has been able to trace which of the 12 tribes of Israel we originate from.”

Kulanu and Na’amat’s program, Doing Jewish: A Story from Ghana, will be held at the Borochov Cultural Centre, 272 Codsell Ave. in Toronto, at 7:15 p.m. on Nov. 12.

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