Talking About The Igbo of Nigeria
I decided to write this article because of the prompting of the Israel …….. which I liked its page on facebook, and endorsed their work with the comment that I hope that one day they will carry my story, and they wrote back, ‘tell it to us, and we’ll tell it to the world’. This strengthened my resolve to begin to write this article which will be a very long one.
I’m going to start off this discussion with some positions that followed some discoveries which came after some DNA findings about the Jewish people which also attracted a wonderful exposition by prominent Jewish writer Hillel Halkin.
“…..What is evident from these studies is that traditional assumptions are not correct assumptions. As Hillel [Halkin] points out in his article:
"On the one hand, the existence of a kohenite Y chromosome traceable to a single progenitor who lived near the supposed date of the Exodus supports, if not the Bible's account of the priesthood's origins, at least the antiquity of the institution and its hereditary nature. At a time when a radical "biblical minimalism" denying the historicity of the entire Pentateuch has been gaining ground among scholars, the kohenite Y chromosome is thus a striking argument for a more conservative reading of biblical texts."
"On the other hand, there are the Lemba. Out of the blue, as it were--for nowhere in any Jewish or non-Jewish source are they even hinted at--we find an ethnic group near the southern tip of Africa with a genetic tie to Jews elsewhere. Where did they come from? How did they get to be where they are? If they lived totally apart from other Jews for hundreds or thousands of years while retaining a distinct "Jewish" identity, can this have happened in other places, too? Did the Jewish people have another, "shadow" history, inhabited by groups that we know little or nothing about?"
"...the Hammer/Bonne-Tamir report would seem to corroborate the age-old Jewish belief that, allowing for a relatively small increment of proselytes throughout the ages, the Jewish people forms a biologically close-knit family originally hailing from the Fertile Crescent and Palestine. On the face of it, then, these findings refute various "revisionist" theories proposing that, not only in remote regions like Ethiopia and Yemen but even in such great Jewish population centers as Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean basin, much or possibly most of the Jewish community resulted from a massive conversion of non-Jews."
Above, writer Hillel Halkin was reviewing genetic findings indicating that the Jewish people are generally related by blood. Notably Halkin suggested that what happened in southern Africa (the discovery that the Lemba have Jewish genes, and that the Jewish community was totally unaware of it) might have parallels in other places. What I want to do here is to show that Igbo history is part of that ‘shadow’ Jewish history that Halkin says that it might exist.
A comprehensive study of the Igbo people will always prove definitively that the culture of the Igbos is quintessentially Israelite. I have been doing such a study since 2002. I will discuss some of my work in this article which I have indicated that it will have many parts. The Igbo culture, ‘Ome na ana’ which is pronounced ‘Omenana’ can be studied by a scholar that understands the Igbo language very well, knows Igbo history intimately, and has the right background in research of this kind. I say this because the culture is still a living one. The Igbo people still live by their cultural norms and traditions. I will explain what I mean. Even though the Igbo are generally seen as Christians (during colonization by the British, all formal education among the Igbo was handled by Christian missionaries who Christianized the young), because presently majority of Igbos profess Christianity, the Igbos-even those that profess Christianity still practice the Igbo culture. Also many Igbos who did not embrace Christianity remain. They practice ‘Omenana’. A study of their practices and beliefs will yield much information about the Igbo culture. In addition what I am going to say about the Igbo Christian will be quite revealing and interesting. Those that practice Christianity also practice Omenana as I have written earlier. An Igbo Christian undergoes the Christian and the Nigerian statutory marriages, and the Igbo marriage which is called the ‘traditional marriage’ presently. When the Igbo Christian dies, his fellow Christians among whom would inevitably be his own kinsmen attend his funeral, pray for him, and bid him farewell. After they go (with the deceased’s kinsmen remaining behind), the ‘Igbo mourning’ (‘ikwa ozu’) continues. ‘Ikwa ozu’ means to mourn for the dead. Many a time, it must be noted; there is tension about the system that will be accorded more importance. At Igbo meetings, the Christian prayers are said, and then the Igbo prayers are also said. What I just described is what happens everywhere that the Igbos are, which is everywhere. So one can see that the Igbo culture can still be studied from primary sources, from and in many places. A Swiss-Israeli Social Anthropologist, Daniel Lis, who studied the Igbos, visited and interacted with numerous Igbos in Nigeria, and also interacted with Igbos in Europe, Israel, and America, all this while studying and observing. I am Igbo, so though I already I have a lot of residual information, know the Igbo language, is a participant in Igbo community affairs, to make my research richer this was essentially what I did in my comparison of Omenana and Judaism which I have published in the United States as “The Igbos And Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of the Largest Jewish Diaspora”. In this study I not only raised and discussed many Igbo customs that are uniquely similar to Israelite ones, but I also established that the Igbo share with the Jews the observance of many customs that Christians, be they missionaries or otherwise, could not have been aware of, because those cultural practices and beliefs are not presented in details in the Bible, nor was the way they should be practiced described in the Bible. I took special interest in doing this because of the following: some persons who have not studied the Igbos have managed to introduce some confusion into Igbo Studies by alleging that Christian missionary influence may have been responsible for the Judaization, and what they call ‘self-identification’ of the Igbos as Jews. A little illustration will be helpful to clear the air, and prove that the persons who have this opinion did not do research, and accordingly were wrong to issue such suggestions. In the Torah, there were references about the position of children vis a vis their mothers kinsmen among the Israelites, and among the Semitic ancestors of the Hebrews. A Christian would not know by merely studying the Bible that the Bible was sending a powerful message when it narrates how Absalom fled to his mother’s kinsmen to escape from his father’s wrath, nor would he know why he fled to that particular refuge. But an Igbo who knows that a child gets full immunity from mistreatment if it flees to his mother’s kinsmen when in danger would understand what the Torah was getting at, and what ancient Semitic custom also provided for. Jacob fled to Laban, when he feared that Esau would harm him. Also a Jew who came from a community that still adheres to the biblical customs, or that kept careful records of its most ancient practices and beliefs would know what the Torah was doing. A marquee Jewish scholar who reviewed my book while it was still in progress in 2008, admitted that though this custom may have been more rigidly observed by the Igbos, that there are still grounds in Western Jewish culture that should make an observer to believe that a child among its mother’s kinsmen occupies a special and privileged position. In her own words, Igbo culture helps to amplify the Torah for her. In addition, for the most part many of the Israelite traditions that I compared Igbo traditions favorably with were no longer so much in evidence in the Holy Land, and in the parts of the Diaspora where Christianity developed and flourished. We can use as examples some of the practices that are related to the sacrifice and offerings customs of the Israelites. The Bible provides for how some of the meat that become available after some offerings are to be shared. As we know, it was primarily rabbinic Judaism, and not biblical Judaism in which offerings and sacrifices played major and important roles that Christianity met. Even though biblical Judaism still existed when the ‘founders’ of Christianity were still around, by the time that Christianity divorced itself from its mother-faith, and became a new and different religion, what was solidly on ground was rabbinic Judaism. As I noted earlier this section is very important because some persons who do not know the Igbos, and have not studied them have alleged that the Christian missionary intrusion into Igboland in the 19th century could have brought about what I would call the ‘Jewishness of the Igbo’. I also raised and discussed many Igbo traditions which are also Israelite, which no Christian community practiced, and in fact which the Christian missionaries called pagan, and heathen when they encountered the Igbo and saw them practicing those traditions. I deliberately went to great lengths to debunk the inclusion of the Igbo in the group that Christian missionary influence may have been responsible, or may have contributed to their self identification as Jews (if indeed any such thing happened), and to prove that such an assumption is not based on evidence.
Also it is important to mention that what the European missionaries observed was that the Igbo had traditions that reminded them of Judaism. Those traditions were Igbo before the introduction of Christianity, and they remain part of Igbo culture after the Christianization of major parts of the Igbo society. Among the more obvious traditions that they noted was universal circumcision of males by the Igbo on the 8th day. It is also important to stress what I observed and noted; that many of the traditions could not have come from outside the Igbos, i.e, outside Israel. Examples are-
1.The socio-political structure of the Igbo society which parallels Israel at the time of the Judges.
2.The style of the division of the land (Igboland).
3. Communities of Levite-like priests scattered all over Igboland.
4. There is a man called the Nazer/Nazerite in biblical Judaism. The standard of Kosher required of him to keep was considerably higher than what was required of the other Israelites. Samson, the son of Manoah, the world’s strongest man in his era was such a man. In Omenana there are certain men that become ‘Nze’. One of the things that distinguish them from other Igbos is that they are more careful about what they eat, and the places that they eat.
5.The language- In the words of American Jewish student of world Jewish history Avraham Van Riper during an interview by Chika Oduah, Igbo-American journalist, on behalf of the CNN, Van Riper said “…………..Although my Igbo brothers and sisters have a problem with actual documentation, actual paperwork - I've learned that they have a rather extensive mass of circumstantial data to present...if they were to pursue 'official' recognition as Jews. Chika, you're an anthro, not just a reporter. Check out just half of the 'data!' ……………….. Oh, I almost forgot language! There are lots of Asusu Igbo words that can, even now in 2013, be shown to be clearly related to ancient Hebrew……………….”
Yes, I too have come to realize that the Igbo language and Hebrew are uncommonly close in many important ways. A Nigerian scholar that is not Igbo had compared both languages and had arrived at the conclusion that they are genetically related. A Welsh Anglican missionary who lived among the Igbo for twenty years in the 19th century, and who learned and spoke the Igbo language also noted this in his books and gave a few examples which made him to conclude that Igbo ‘runs a close parallel with Hebrew idioms’. There was an effort to compare both languages by an important Israeli linguist. Avraham Van Riper was in the team that made the effort. Significantly important finds were made, but because Igbos who know Hebrew very well have not been found, the work’s progress is slow. But as I continue to dig at it as archeologists would say, I continue to find important things. Recently Will Morell, a Jew who is my friend on facebook shared the following, and my response is the message below his……
‘Prayer - The Hebrew word tefilah (תפלה) comes from the verb pallel (פלל), "to judge."' We use the reflexive verb lehitpallel ("to pray"), which also means "to judge oneself." Thus, the time of prayer is the time of self-judgment and self-evaluation. When a person addresses himself to G‑d and prays for His blessings, he must inevitably search his heart and examine himself whether he measures up to the standards of daily conduct which G‑d had prescribed for man to follow. If he is not one who fools himself, he will be filled with humility, realizing that he hardly merits the blessings and favors for which he is asking. This is why we stress in our prayers G‑d's infinite goodness and mercies, and pray to G‑d to grant us our heart's desires not because we merit them, but even though we do not deserve them. This is also why our prayers, on week-days, contain a confession of sins which we may have committed knowingly or unknowingly. We pray for G‑d's forgiveness, and resolve to better ourselves. Prayers help us to lead a better life in every respect, by living more fully the way of the Torah and Mitzvoth which G‑d commanded us.’
‘The post gives room for me to add more evidence to the fact which is that the Igbo language and the Hebrew language have one spirit. So 'to pray' means 'to judge...' eh. What does 'ikpe' mean in Igbo? It means 'to judge'. If an Igbo wants to say 'to pray' he or she would say 'ikpe ekpere', or 'ikpe ekpele'. So what the Igbos actually say when they say that they want to pray in Igbo is that they want to 'judge themselves'!
By Remy Ilona
Author of “The Igbos And Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of the Largest Jewish Diaspora.”
To be continued: