SASKATOON, Sask. — Is there more to Judaism than following customs and saying the Shema?
It’s a question Akosiererem Sokaribo faced when she moved to Saskatoon from Nigeria in 2009 at age 19 to attend the University of Saskatchewan.
“Being Jewish for me back home was [just] a religion,” says the microbiology student. “When I came here, I found that it wasn’t just a religion – it was an identity.”
Her parents are originally from Rivers State in the predominantly Christian part of southern Nigeria and moved to the country’s main commercial centre, Lagos. The pair of middle-class businesspeople converted to Judaism, said Sokaribo, around the time she – their eldest daughter, out of six children – was born.
Most of the African Jews in her immediate community of about 100 people, she said, are either converts or the children of converts and don’t have an ancestral connection to the faith.
“[In Canada], you have your grandparents being Jewish, your parents being Jewish, so even if you don’t go to synagogue or anything, you’re still Jewish,” said Sokaribo.
Her family observed most Jewish holidays and prayed together on Shabbat. Yom Kippur was especially important to her father, who she said would wake up the kids at around 4 a.m. so they could go to the synagogue early and spend the day with the rest of the community.
“The reason we stay together is so that you don’t do things that are prohibited,” she said.
Still, Sokaribo attended a mainstream government high school.
“There’s really no Hebrew school there, partly because there is nobody to come and teach,” she said, adding that there were siddurs and one small Torah in her local synagogue.
It was only after coming to Saskatchewan, she said, that people started asking her about her Jewish heritage.
Last December, she went on a Birthright trip to Israel and a deeper understanding of Judaism began to take shape. She remembers how she felt emotional at the Mount Herzl cemetery and appreciated seeing people of all backgrounds speaking many languages at the Western Wall.
“Previously if you would have asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ I would just say, ‘I’m Nigerian,’” she said.
“But now I can say I’m Jewish.”
Her guide even provided a symbolic bat mitzvah for her and others among the group at their hotel, something she never had the chance to experience in Lagos due to a lack of Jewish educational resources.
The Jewish community in Saskatoon has also provided Sokaribo with a warm social environment in a cold climate.
“I had never been away from home before, and it was obviously going to be difficult being on my own for the first time,” she said.
She has yet to return to Nigeria for a visit since first arriving in Saskatoon on a scholarship from the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency, though her 23-year-old brother Yahdein did join her last year to study at the U of S.
One festive event that Sokaribo has fond memories of from Nigeria is the Passover seder, which she said is another time for the whole community to gather.
Some of their customs include roasting a lamb and finishing it the same night, eating a Nigerian vegetable known as bitter leaf for maror, and dancing to music at the end of the meal.
“It’s massive fun,” she said. “I usually miss that time of the year a lot.”
Despite the surface-level differences between Nigeria and Saskatoon, there are important similarities.
Sokaribo said she has grown comfortable among the city’s moderate-sized Jewish community, and has stayed on to complete her master’s degree after finishing her undergraduate program on the scholarship.
“I like Saskatoon,” she said. “It’s just the right size for me.”