Asmara: A One-Man Jewish Community

ASMARA, Eritrea — A funny thing happened on the way to Eritrea. My plane took took a turn to Taif, Saudi Arabia. I only found out the flight was due to make a stop in Al-Mamlakah al-Arabiyah as-Sa’ūdiyah a couple of days before I was due to fly.

“Why,” I tried in vain to ascertain at the Turkish Airlines’ customer service counter in Istanbul airport, “was I not provided this information so that I could make a fully informed decision about whether to take this flight or not?”

I was not pleased. I was not only mentally ill-prepared for the journey, I felt forced to go somewhere I never wanted to go — even if it was only for an hour, and even if it didn’t require disembarking the plane.

“I don’t think a Saudi would be too pleased to find out last minute that the flight stops in Tel Aviv en route to Istanbul,” I said. That got a few curious looks in response.

True to customer service on any airline, I got no satisfactory explanation.

In a way, however, I shouldn’t have been too surprised or even put out by this diversion. Getting to Eritrea is hardly straight forward. There had been several diversions. There’s a complicated (usually) visa to obtain, and few flights seem to either fly direct to Asmara or even at an hour of the day that does not disrupt one’s body-clock. Most difficult of all, it took me a solid couple of months via this way and that way and emails and phone calls here and there to reach Sami Cohen, the last Jewish resident of Asmara.

Some things are worth the effort and jumping the hurdles for: Jewish Eritrea is one of them. Breathing an hour’s worth of Saudi air, therefore, somehow seems to fit.

Sami stands alone in front of the Aron Hakodesh in Eritrea’s only synagogue, the Asmara Synagogue (built 1905), checking and arranging the two well-dressed Torah, just one of literally every conceivable tasks required to keep a Jewish community going. If there is such a thing as a one-person Jewish community, Sami embodies it.

Sami Cohen. Asmara, Eritrea

Sami Cohen. Asmara, Eritrea

“The last family left about 10 years ago,” he laments, leaving him with what is surely a difficult moniker: The Last Jew of Eritrea.

“I really cannot say what this means or feels like,” the sprightly 67-year-old tells me across the dining room table of the home in which he was born, family photos covering the walls and cabinet tops. “It’s all in the hands of the Almighty.”

Asmara Synagogue. Asmara, Eritrea

Asmara Synagogue. Asmara, Eritrea

He says that a lot. Perhaps some things are left to fate, but it doesn’t have to be this way, I think, and I ask if there are any plans in place for the day he is no longer the last Jew here.

“I don’t want the books or other things removed,” he insists. “Eritrea is a changing place. Who knows? Perhaps a market economy will open and Israelis and other Jews will come to do business. They will need a place to pray.”

I am not sure I share Sami’s optimism. Eritrea has a political system that does not favor nor encourage much foreign enterprise or investment. Tourism is virtually non-existent.

Driving around the palm tree-lined streets of Asmara, Sami points out building after remarkable Art Deco building sometimes for its architectural beauty, but other times to tell a story.

“Oh, we had fun,” he says of his youth. “See the top of that old hotel? There was a bar and a nightclub…It seems to still be open,” he muses as we drive past.

“From the sounds of it, Sami,” I reply, “you were quite the party-goer.”

He smiles coyly, then redirects my attention:

“In this house, I used to spend time with my friends…In that building on the top floor there was a very nice family…Here’s the butcher…There’s my father’s store…”

Home (former), Shoa Menachem Joseph (now, Pension Milano). Asmara, Eritrea

Home (former), Shoa Menachem Joseph (now, Pension Milano). Asmara, Eritrea

Sami’s nostalgic tales flow like water down a dry river bed coaxing life into what once was. For three days, he filled my mind with images of a once vibrant and close-knit community.

“We had everything here,” he says. “We had a teacher in the Hebrew school [in the synagogue] who was wonderful. We had a social club. There was nothing we needed.”

His family house (built 1929) was a focal point of many social events.

“Anyone visiting was invited for Shabbat meal. It seems there was always someone in the house.” In the lush garden beneath a canopy of Jacaranda trees in full bloom, he pointed to a vacant spot: “That’s where the sukkah used to be.”

Sami Cohen home. Asmara, Eritrea

Sami Cohen home. Asmara, Eritrea

Many times, my eyes were directed by Sami’s index finger to a vacant spot that I was supposed to see in my imagination. In a way, I was in an illusory world, but, of course, I was in Sami’s memory.

Asmara is arguably the uniquest city in Africa. It is replete with some of the most remarkable and abundant Art Deco architecture. On every corner, down every block, architectural treats can be found and admired. The Italians colonized Eritrea in one of the last gasps of the Scramble for Africa. During the 1920s and 1930s, brilliant architects designed and built a veritable Art Deco garden that is unrivaled anywhere else on the continent, and, for the time, it was home to the most advanced architecture of the period. I was pleased to find out that Sami and I share a favorite building: the Fiat Tagliero Building (1938).

Fiat Tagliero Building, Asmara, Eritrea

Fiat Tagliero Building, Asmara, Eritrea

When the British arrived in 1944, they demolished many buildings, particularly in the seaside town of Massawa. Thankfully, Asmara remained largely untouched, however.

Sadly, many of the buildings are neglected and are in dire need of restoration, Sami’s home included (though it and the surrounding garden are still divine). But, the poorly condition of many of Asmara’s colonial buildings is far better than what an independent Eritrea originally had in mind. To rid themselves of their colonial past, officials had planned to demolish everything and start anew. The authorities were persuaded to appreciate the architectural gems and the delightfully calm city was spared the wrecking ball.

In my Eritrean visa application, I had to include a statement of purpose for my trip. I seized upon the architectural uniqueness of their capital: “I would like to visit Asmara to admire its well-preserved modernist architecture. I have long been an enthusiast of building design, whether from ancient times or more recent eras. Asmara’s architectural footprint is arguably the most beautiful in all of Africa. I would also like to delight in the city’s wide palm tree-lined boulevards and take in the ambience of local cafe and restaurant life. I have heard wonderful things about Asmara and I would thoroughly enjoy a short visit there.”

Asmara Synagogue. Asmara, Eritrea

Asmara Synagogue. Asmara, Eritrea

The Asmara Synagogue is one of the architectural jewels. It is, in fact, the oldest house of worship of any religion in Asmara (built 1905) and is located in the geographical heart of town. At its peak, it served the religious and social life needs of the community’s 500 or so members.

The first Jews to settle in Eritrea were Adenites from Yemen who came in the 19th century to establish trade. Italian and other European Jewish immigrants came in search of economic opportunity and to escape the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. The Jewish community boomed and then bust relatively quickly as a result of both Israeli independence (1948) and, later, political unrest leading up to the Eritrean War for Independence (1961). By 1975, the community had shrunk to about 150, including the departure of the Chief Rabbi. With independence (1993), all remaining Jews, except for Sami, left, leaving him the “Last Jew of Eritrea.”

“I don’t have any feelings about it (being the last Jew of Eritrea),” Sami shrugs. “It’s up to the Almighty.” That’s a phrase he used many times during my short visit.

—–

Sami’s grandparents arrived in the early 20th century from Aden, Yemen and initially settled in the seaside town of Massawa before settling in Asmara. They imported raw clothing fabrics that were fashioned mainly into ladies dresses and other outfits.

“Our clients were the crème de la crème,” he explained proudly. “These were wives of diplomats and wealthy business people. They would come and say, ‘I want a dress that only I will have,’ so we only ordered materials in 3-meter lengths…Sometimes they would come with their tailor who would make the dress for them.”

The family business later included importing of various goods including stationary and beverages.

When war erupted between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the late 1990s, Sami’s wife and children left for Italy. Today, Sami divides his time between Rome, Tel Aviv, and Asmara. He seems to return to the place of his birth out of a sense of duty as much for the fact that Asmara is home.

“I am not Eritrean (he has British citizenship),” he explains. “But like anybody, I feel this is my home. I was born here. I grew up here. I like Eritrea very much.”

Still, some would ask why he remains. Even before I arrived, I wondered about that question too. But it soon became apparent that it is entirely the wrong question. The question is, Why go? If our lives really are a collection of memories, Sami is living what was, what still is, and what he hopes it will be again.

I asked what he would most like the world to know about Jewish Asmara or if he had a particular message to share. He hesitated briefly, raised his shoulders, and said, “I hope for the day there is again a minyan in the synagogue. That is all I want.”

That is not too much to ask, I thought, but it is everything.

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Time Check: Ethiopia

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Haile kept confusing me with the time.

“I’ll meet you at 7 a.m.” he would say. And I’d say, “No way. That’t too early.”

“I mean, p.m.” he’d self-correct.

“But, Haile,” I’d plead, “that’s too late! What time are you talking about? You keep changing the time and the a.m. and the p.m.”

“I mean Ethiopia time,” the amiable 25-year-old school teacher and member of the Beta Israel Jewish Community of Addis Ababa would say.

Me: Speechless. Or, “Huh? Ethiopia time?”

Ethiopia moves not merely to its own rhythm, but to its own time. Literally. On the world clock, the country is on East Africa Time (EAT) which is Universal Time (UTC) +3 hours, so 3:00 p.m. in Addis Ababa is noon in London. Traditionally, however, Ethiopians use a 12-hour clock with a cycle from dawn to dusk (7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.). So, when Haile says 7:00 in Ethiopian time, he means 1:00 p.m. EAT.

And if all of that isn’t enough, it is 2007 in Ethiopia. Yep, you read that correctly: 8 years and 6 hours behind the rest of the world. According to the Coptic Church calendar, there are twelve 30-day months plus…wait for it…five or six epagomenal days (days within a solar calendar that are outside a regular month) which comprise a thirteenth month.

Got it?! I didn’t think so.

What’s more (if there could be more), many people born in villages, such as my guide in Gondar, don’t know their exact date of birth.

“I feel like I’m 35,” Lij told me. Wow, I thought. In Ethiopia, one even gets to choose their age.

No wonder all the clocks here seem to be wrong. In the hotels, for instance, clocks behind the reception desks show the correct time for New York, London, and Tokyo. It’s the clock showing the local time that seems to need a new battery. In Ethiopia, I’m not sure if I am twice as old or half my age, or older or younger than my own parents. But I do know that trying to keep it straight is an exercise in a mind-bending time warp. More than this, ask when something will take place, and invariably one will be promised, “in 5 minutes,” which really means, “when it happens,” which translates to anywhere from now to eternity.

In Ethiopia, I’m not sure if time is gained, lost, frozen, or forgotten altogether.

Whatever the time and however old it might be, it seems there has been a Jewish presence in Ethiopia for most of that period, at least back to the 4th century CE. Some people believe the Ethiopians are the descendants of an Israelite tribe who journeyed to this dusty land with Menelik I, said to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In fact, legend tells that Menelik, accompanied by thousands of Israelites, brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem (which is supposedly housed in the Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum; the problem is, the keepers of the Ark and Church will not allow anyone to view it, never mind open it, which only leads to skepticism about the Ark’s authenticity). Others believe the Falashas migrated south from Egypt, some coming via Yemen, following the destruction of the First Temple, as descendants of the Tribe of Dan.

The Beta Israel (House of Israel) once numbered well over 100,000 and resided in some 500 villages across a wide swath of North and Northwest Ethiopia, mainly around Lake Tana, the nation’s largest lake. Though some believe there are still tens of thousands of descendants in the country today, there are but a fraction open, active Jews. They live mainly in Addis Ababa (the Semien Shewa Beta Israel, aka Bale Eje), and in Gondar City (the Hatikvah Jewish Community), while still others in the hills of the North Shewa region practice Judaism in secret synagogues for fear of oppression by their Christian neighbors.

Most Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s during the height of a plague of famines in Operations Moses (1984), Joshua (1984), and Solomon (1991). The Ethiopian population in Israel today is some 130,000. This number includes thousands of descendants of Falash Mura, members of the Beta Israel community who converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries due to Mission pressure. In 2003, the Israeli government recognized them and granted Right of Return provided they have a maternal lineage. Israeli citizenship may be obtained if they convert Orthodox (a controversial plan because some see it as tantamount to forced conversion).

Haile came to my hotel at 1:00 p.m. (Universal Time). We had shared so many Facebook messages over the months prior to my arrival, it was nice to finally have face-to-face face-time over traditionally prepared cups of Ethiopian coffee.

The following day, he guided me to the few Jewish sights of Addis Ababa. We first visited Beta Selam Synagogue, the prayer house of the Semien Shewa Beta Israel (aka Bale Eje), signaled by a sort of stovepipe turret topped by a Magen David.

Beta Selam Synagogue (Semien Shewa Beta Israel, aka Bale Eje). Addis Ababa

Beta Selam Synagogue (Semien Shewa Beta Israel, aka Bale Eje). Addis Ababa

The synagogue is located in the Kechene neighborhood down a road of rather threadbare houses that are really not much more than mud huts with tin rooftops. Though it is built of concrete, the makeshift synagogue in the front room of a house isn’t much more substantial.

Members, Beta Selam Synagogue (Semien Shewa Beta Israel, aka Bale Eje). Addis Ababa

Members, Beta Selam Synagogue (Semien Shewa Beta Israel, aka Bale Eje). Addis Ababa

What it is, however, is an active house of prayer and social gatherings of devout Jews. Unfortunately, my visit did not coincide with either a service or a social event. Consequently, I met only a few of the community’s members. This ill-timed visit left me with fewer photographs than I had traveled a long way to take.

A short drive away, we visited the Shalom Shelemay Yemenite Synagogue. From the Magen David adorned gates, I could immediately see that this synagogue is more established. Inside, it was bright and airy despite its diminutive size.

Shalom Shelemay Yemenite Synagogue. Addis Ababa

Shalom Shelemay Yemenite Synagogue. Addis Ababa

With Purim celebrations just a few days before, there were remnants of a festive gathering, notably, children’s drawings of Hebrew letters and pictures of Mordechai and Esther. What I could not really ascertain, however, is just how many people attend the synagogue with regularity. There are apparently regular Shabbat services at both Shalom Shelemay and Beta Selam Synagogues.

Most interesting and surprising was the Yemenite Jewish Cemetery. I had been told there was no Jewish cemetery in Addis, but that defied logic to me. It was only after I actually arrived in town that, low and behold, Haile confirmed there is indeed a Jewish cemetery.

Yemenite Jewish Cemetery, Addis Ababa

Yemenite Jewish Cemetery, Addis Ababa

The cemetery is not far from the Shalom Shelemay Synagogue. The big metal gates with a prominent Magen David make it hard to miss. I was immediately struck by three features: beautiful, tall, swaying, rustling trees standing like sentries over the souls; an Israeli flag flapping in the breeze atop a lofty pole; and the many graves covered by individual metal, house-like shelters. I had never before seen the latter two in any of the hundreds of Jewish cemeteries I have visited. The caretaker told me there were 3,400 graves, but unless there are multi-level burials, I think 340 is far more accurate. I spent about an hour wandering around taking photos.

The next morning, Haile and I stopped in at Chabad-Lubavitch of Addis Ababa which is nothing more than a space at the home of Rabbi Eliau, his wife Dvora, and their children (they are looking for a bigger, more appropriate space, they told me). Despite being secured behind a high wall topped by barbed wire, the yellow Chabad flag flapped in the breeze for all to see. What I thought was going to be a quick 30-minute visit turned into a 2-hour, relaxed chat complete with an early light lunch. Rabbi Eliau’s main task is overseeing matters at the Shalom Shelemay Synagogue.

To my surprise, it was Haile’s first time to meet them. I had wrongly assumed his community may have some contact at least with the Rabbi. But it seems there isn’t much of an overlap with the Shalom Shelemay community either. This lack of connection certainly did not prove an obstacle to access for my photo mission. I sensed that Haile felt a bit intimidated or uncertain how to speak to the Rabbi.

“How are the Orthodox and Chabad different?” Haile asked.

“They’re the same,” replied Dvora.

That befuddled Haile. Later, over some fresh juices at a petrol station, I explained that I was not sure they understood the question clearly and not to worry about not understanding the response. I tried to clarify that there are different manifestations of “Orthodox” as there are differences between Jewish communities.

“At the core,” I said, “we are all as Jewish as each other. Some Orthodox Jews may not say that, including Chabad followers. In my view, some people just practice and follow the religion more closely. But I don’t make distinctions between Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox as being ‘more or less Jewish’, just more or less observant.”

I swooped into Gondar at 9:00 a.m. (UTC) on a 45-minute flight from Addis (this beats a 9-hour drive in a private car or a 12-hour bus ride). I was greeted by Lij Meseret, a local guide who specializes in treks in the Semien Mountains. This was his first-ever Jewish photo trip. He was recommended to me by Irene Orleansky, a friend who worked with him a couple of years ago to visit some of the secret synagogues and their community members in the North Shewa region of the Semien Mountains for a documentary film she was making, “Bal Ej: the Hidden Jews of Ethiopia“.

Those were places I really wanted to go to, but I knew they were off-limits because gaining access first requires gaining the trust of the community. And gaining their trust requires at least one visit without taking a single photo. They also live a full day’s trek in the hills, so my Jewish Africa project will simply not be incorporating the secret synagogues or their members.

I settled into my hotel and relaxed till after lunch. The afternoon was hectic and thrilling.

Synagogue, Felasha Village (Gondar)

Synagogue, Felasha Village (Gondar)

Just outside town is the Felasha Village, the closest notable former Jewish village to the city. Today, no Jews reside there (though there is one Jewish woman who lives across the road), but their old mud hut synagogue, library, and houses remain. To my dismay, but certainly not to my surprise, the residents who moved into the village after the Jews left some 30 years ago have totally commercialized the place. I suppose this is just a form of preservation (of themselves and of times past).

Felasha Village (Gondar)

Felasha Village (Gondar)

The roadside is littered with colorful “Felasha Village” signs and touristy handicrafts. Clearly, a stop here is on the itinerary of any tour group. Nonetheless, I found it all of great interest and I excitedly photographed away with an entourage of village kids in tow who tried their best to make a sale.

At 5:00 p.m., we pulled up to the compound of the Hatikvah Jewish Community of Gondar. I was not aware of their existence until that very moment, nor were they of me. With a bit of explanation about who I am and what I am doing, I was warmly welcomed to join and photograph the early evening service (after dark, it is really dark and not ideal for everyone, especially the children, to be out and about, so they hold ma’ariv and Shabbat services while it is still light).

Hatikvah Jewish Community of Gondar

Hatikvah Jewish Community of Gondar

There must have been 200 people there (with room for at least twice that) with the women’s side substantially more full than the men’s. The open-walled synagogue is covered by a corrugated roof and surrounded by corrugated fences painted sky blue and white over which a couple of armed guards pointed their rifles (apparently, the local Christians have been known to hurl rocks once in a while). The spiritual leader took a few minutes between prayers to show me the mikveh and some classrooms.

At the end of the service, he suddenly called me to the front to say a few words. He translated my comments into Amharic. When I said I was honored to be so warmly welcomed without any advanced notice, they all applauded loudly. They clapped again when I told them about my Jewish Africa project. Moments like that are really special.

Abantonios Beta Israel Cemetery, Robit (Gondar)

Abantonios Beta Israel Cemetery, Robit (Gondar)

Unfortunately, the following days were less than busy. In fact, they were quite uninspired in terms of the number of photo ops because Lij had simply over-budgeted the amount of time required to take in the remaining Jewish sights which only comprised of a number of cemeteries and one synagogue all located in different villages near Debark, a dusty town about 90 minutes drive north from Gondar City. I realized that I should have been more specific in questioning the itinerary and budgeted for 4 or 5 days instead of 9.

I hate having too much time on my hands on the road. Busy is best. But in Ethiopia, just what is time, anyway?

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Kaleidoscopic Morocco

CASABLANCA, Morocco — When I started thinking about this Jewish Africa photographic survey project in 2011, I thought I’d begin in Morocco. I figured that its rich Jewish history was a logical place to start. But I quickly came to the realization that I’d likely face logistical obstacles and challenges that might just put me off getting to a second leg. So I started in South Africa (which was incorporated into the first 5 legs of this odyssey).

Finally, nearly 4 years after first thinking about it, leg #6 (of 8) landed me in the Maghreb (also, Maghrib). It was a wild 25-day ride that resulted in 6,852 archived images including some three dozen cemeteries, a couple dozen synagogues, and dozens more miscellaneous items such as old Jewish schools, mellahs (Jewish Quarters), shops, and Purim holiday events in Casablanca.

Purim party, Chabad-Lubavitch of Casablanca

Purim party, Chabad-Lubavitch of Casablanca

My time in Morocco was intense in a few ways: the hectic pace (for most of the time), the amount of driving (including being hit by a construction digger machine), and an inordinate amount of stress I faced in dealing with the person with whom I was traveling for the first 18 days. Per the last of those things, I will leave it at that except to say that I very nearly had to quit after the first week. I persevered simply because there literally was no one else who could guide me on such a journey.

The crash, complete with blown-out driver and backseat windows

The crash, complete with blown-out driver and backseat windows

Jews have been in Morocco for thousands of years. Today, there are an estimated 5,000 Jewish souls remaining. For those in Casablanca (where the majority reside), at least, life appears to be dynamic and vibrant. There are a goodly number of active synagogues, Jewish schools, social clubs, functions, and Jewish businesses including kosher butcheries and bakeries, not to mention Jews who are active in government and international business. I found all of this bustle inspiring.

But the most common sound I heard in Morocco (besides the muezzin’s tinny loud-speaker calls to prayer from the minarets) was that all of the Jewish activity is in peril.

“There’s no future,” some would say. “Who’s going to look after all the Jewish cemeteries and synagogues?” others would ponder.

The community is simply not sustainable on its current demographic trajectory. The bulk of the community across Morocco is getting on in years (in Meknes, for instance, there are only about 40 Jews remaining, all of them elderly), and not many of the youngsters see much of a future here. They are enticed by the prospects of a life in Israel, Europe, and the United States and many already have relatives in those places who can facilitate a move.

On the one hand, I was surprised by the vibrancy of the community today, but not at all surprised by its apparent fate. Just how long a meaningful Jewish community will endure in Morocco is anyone’s guess. But I doubt it will fall into oblivion in my lifetime as has happened in neighboring Algeria.

Shalom Botbol, caretaker, Talmud Torah Jewish School and Synagogue, Meknes

Shalom Botbol, caretaker, Talmud Torah Jewish School and Synagogue, Meknes

For most of my Moroccan journey, I was removed from community life. In fact, it wasn’t until my third week that I finally photographed a living, breathing Jew (Shalom Botbol, the caretaker the defunct Talmud Torah Jewish School and Synagogue in Meknes).

South-central Morocco

South-central Morocco

I was on the road, crisscrossing what I have long considered the second-most beautiful country in the world (the first being Namibia). The topography rotates like a world-sized kaleidoscope with twists of desert and the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. The scenery is simply awesome, the colors rich, the moods palpable. The Jewish communities, past and present, are equally alluring.

Midst all the geographical treats, Jewish communities of varying sizes thrived all across this impressive land. They were traders, craftsmen, and smelters among other skilled work. Today, the remnants of that life is found mainly in decaying cemeteries (though, with rare exception, they all had well-maintained walls and a local guardian, some of whom live on site).

Aerial view approaching Agadir

Aerial view approaching Agadir

Many villages and towns still have synagogues that are rarely, if ever, used today. In some seemingly random places, the synagogue has been recently restored by a former resident of the town or a descendant of a relative from the town or village. In almost all cases, the cemeteries and synagogues are looked after by Muslims who are paid a meagre stipend by the Moroccan Jewish Community in Casablanca for the task.

Under used Synagogue at Talmud Torah Jewish School, Sefrou

Under used Synagogue at Talmud Torah Jewish School, Sefrou

My driver/guide did his best to insure that each day included anywhere from 2 to 5 sights for me to photograph, not to mention some days with long drives. Our days usually started at 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. and lasted till late afternoon. But for me, that was only half a work day. My evenings on the road are filled with editing the day’s photos. Daily editing is essential to keep things in order, or it can all quickly become overwhelming. As such, my day didn’t really end till as late as midnight. It was the most intense burst of Jewish photographing that I can recall, though some work in South Africa comes pretty close.

Easily, the most intense day was a 20-hour marathon that took me to my first-ever Hiloula, a celebration of a “Jewish saint”. I had been given this golden opportunity on the invitation of Vanessa Paloma, a dynamic and driven woman who is, among other things, a polyglot, a musician/singer and the founder/director of KHOYA Jewish Moroccan Sound Archive. I had made contact with her via Facebook a few months prior to my arrival. Also in the car were her brother-in-law and a young woman who makes independent documentaries.

Hiloula of Rabbi Isaac Ben Walid, Tetouan

Hiloula of Rabbi Isaac Ben Walid, Tetouan

The day started at 4:30 a.m. in Casablanca with a 5-hour drive to Tetouan. By 3:30, I thought I was going to be on my way back to Casa when we took a turn to Tangier to drop Vanessa off there (she was flying out from there to the US the next day). We didn’t get there till nearly 5:30. But, oh, what a treat it turned out to be.

Jewish Cemetery, Tangier

Jewish Cemetery, Tangier

Vanessa was staying the night at the beautifully (and enviable) restored home of a friend of hers on the edge of the Medina (old town) which overlooked the impressive Jewish Cemetery. Despite my exhaustion and my eagerness to get on the road to Casa, I was exhilarated at both the cosiness of the house and the views from the rooftop. No way did I even consider entering the cemetery as exhausted as I was (and entry at that time of day was probably out of the question anyway). But that didn’t stop me from taking some photos from the rooftop terrace. If I do get back to Tangier on my second Morocco trip next year, I certainly am not going to have access to that vantage point again. So I fired away. Finally, by 6:30ish, we started the 5-hour drive back to Casa where we arrived by 11:30, completely and utterly spent. I needed another hour to wind down to sleep.

With all that photo work and milage behind me, however, I merely scratched the surface of Jewish Morocco. While some might think 6,852 photos is a lot, it doesn’t feel like much from my point of view. It is said there are some 300 cemeteries and 200 synagogues in the country. At most, I photographed just 10% of those numbers. From the outset of my project, I planned to make two journeys to Morocco: one to cover the southern-central regions, another to cover more of the northern areas and to get more people/social images. I also hope to include the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the far northern reaches of Morocco.

After completing my Morocco trip, I realized just how spot on my planning and projections have been in approaching my project. For the most part, everything has worked out and fallen into place. I still have many destinations to get to on the last two legs (from one end of Africa to the other), but in my mind, the plans seem right and reasonable.

I hope you’ll continue to join me for the ride.

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Ama Juda eAfrika?

OSAKA, Japan — When I dreamed up this Jewish Africa photo survey project thing back in 2010, it seemed rather fanciful. I was grasping for something new and bold to fill a gaping hole that had suddenly opened beneath my feet. When I kicked the project off in August 2012, it seemed extremely audacious. In fact, it still does. Africa is geographically big, and everything else about it is diverse and dynamic. Now, with just over a calendar year remaining on the projected timeline I set out for myself to complete this gig, I’m not just nearly there, I’m out in front for the next stage: photo exhibitions.

On November 6, 2014, I received a rather unexpected email. A good email. A great email.

“Our museum is interested in exhibiting your photos at the end of the year 2015,” wrote the project manager of the Beit Hatfutsot Museum in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Wow. I had to rub the sleep out of my eyes to make sure I had read that correctly.

Spiritual leader Alex Armah leads morning services, House of Israel Jewish community, New Adiembra, Sefwi Wiawso, Western Region, Ghana.

Spiritual leader Alex Armah leads morning services, House of Israel Jewish community, New Adiembra, Sefwi Wiawso, Western Region, Ghana.

 

The Museum of the Jewish People (as it is called in English) is a perfect fit for my work because our missions are similar: documenting the Jewish world at large. In fact, a few years ago, I met with several members of the staff to introduce myself and my work.  Before I received their offer for a show, I had reached out to my contacts to inquire about the proper procedures for submitting a formal exhibition proposal. I never imagined their reply would skip the application and leap to an offer.

But was it the right offer? I dreamed of a major show, the first one being held in Africa, and certainly not before I actually completed the photo stages of my project.

So much for dreaming.

I took a deep breath before responding. I sought the opinions of a few inner circle members in my life. The consensus was clear: “Go for it…Take this opportunity now…You don’t know what could happen between now and later.” Comments like that.

So I did go for it. So I am taking it. Deferment would be foolhardy.

Private family Hachnasat Sefer Torah, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Private family Hachnasat Sefer Torah, Johannesburg, South Africa.

An exhibition at a museum is a big deal. It’s the real deal. In the Jewish world, anyone working for a Jewish museum anywhere in the world will know the Beit Hatfutsot. It is, in my view, the single-most central Jewish museum in the world — perhaps not for its number of visitors or its rank of sophistication or even its location in Israel, but because it is inclusive of all Jews everywhere. It is not a niche museum with a particular angle on a particular theme. By its nature, the Beit Hatfutsot Museum tells the story of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. For this reason, there is no more appropriate place for my Jewish Africa photo survey project to be on display.

“Thank you very much for your most interesting and exciting email,” I wrote back. “Having my work on display at the Beit Hatfutsot Museum would be a tremendous honor and a thrill.”

My response was an understatement but it was enough to set the exhibition application ball rolling.

Beit HaTefilah Israel, Shabbat service, Ambohitrarahaba, Antananarivo, Madagascar.

Beit HaTefilah Israel, Shabbat service, Ambohitrarahaba, Antananarivo, Madagascar.

My recent return from a New Year trip to the US has walloped me with an unusually bad bout of body clock upheaval. I’ve turned jet lag into an instrument of good: consciousness during quiet hours with nothing to do but everything.

In just one noiseless night, I prepared ten applications (with at least that many still to do, and not only for Jewish facilities, but African museums and cultural centers too). In each, under “Forthcoming Exhibitions,” the Beit Hatfutsot Museum is listed, dangling like bait for others to nibble. I’m hoping the interest from one museum will be a hook for more.

So, Ama Juda eAfrika? You better believe it. (If you’re not sure what that’s about, stick around.)

And, oh, I need to start searching for a publisher too.

Breakfast time, Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa, Kinshasa, D. R. Congo.

Breakfast time, Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa, Kinshasa, D. R. Congo.

—–

Leg #6 (of 8) of my Jewish Africa photo survey project kicks off on February 9, 2015. I will first be heading to Morocco where I will spend three weeks working mainly in the southern-central areas (I am planning to cover central-northern areas on a second visit to Morocco on leg #8). I will then head to Ethiopia for two weeks, Eritrea for four days, and Israel for the final week and a half. The last night of the journey will be spent with friends round the Seder table.

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The Scramble for Africa

Osaka, Japan — Between 1881 and 1914, Africa was invaded and occupied, colonized and annexed by European imperialism. This era was called the Scramble for Africa (aka, the Partition of Africa and the Conquest of Africa).

The Scramble for Africa

The Scramble for Africa

I’ve been making my own scramble for Africa this past month and a half as I try to pin down an itinerary for leg #6 of my Jewish Africa photo survey project slated for February/March 2015. Just when I thought I had nailed it, boom goes the dynamite again, generating destination tectonic shifts and tearing asunder my penciled in travel calendar. I have, in fact, considered no fewer than 18 potential countries. Not so fast.

I thought I had it all figured out even before I came home from leg #5 in mid-September. In my mind, I was headed to Senegal, and from there, over to Cape Verde before skipping back to Nigeria for a brief, below-the-radar stop in Abuja (I don’t want Boko Haram to know I’m in town). From there, I thought I’d spend a few weeks in Ethiopia, a few days in Eritrea, and so long as I was in the neighborhood, I thought I’d wind things up with another week in Israel.

But that was all pre-Ebola outbreak and a beheading in Algeria (yup, that was on the list too…the country, not the beheading. I am not losing my head over this Jewish photo thing I do).

I keep two distinct folders for the organizing process: Destinations and Future Legs. I’ve been swapping country names back and forth between the two like pulling Scrabble letters out a pouch, then shuffling them this way and that in order to make up a coherent itinerary. So let’s see. Some of the swaps went something like this:

Region. I need to keep somewhat in the neighborhood. Africa is, after all, considerably larger than most people realize.

Just how big is Africa? Bigger than the US, China, India, Eastern Europe, and most of Western Europe.

Just how big is Africa? As big as the US, China, India, Eastern Europe, and most of Western Europe combined!

A smidgen of West with a dash of East. Mmm, no, perhaps something wilder, like another bite of Southern with a sprinkling of West Coast islands (Cape Verde, Canary Islands, Madeira). Nah, too much flying and hardly time or cost effective. Ok, forget the sprinkles. Maybe an East-Southern combo. Oh, but to fly via Johannesburg or Istanbul, especially if I want to wind up in Israel at the end of the trip. Mmm.

Ethiopia (everyone says I must go, so I am), Eritrea (oh, if only I get a hold of the last Jew there), South Africa (my Southern African base), Mauritius (only if I can combine another visit there with Reunion), Reunion (darn, the new Jewish center will not be ready in time for leg #6), Lesotho (political unrest means elections just exactly when I hoped to go, and hence, the King Letsie III and Queen Masenate Mohato Seeiso cannot receive me; no joke, that was exactly who I was going to meet by way of an introduction from Raherimasoandro Andriamamonjy, a descendent Malagasy prince and my contact when I was in Madagascar). Mmm.

Ok, how about Gabon, then? Complicated, perhaps not worth the expense. Well, I’ll stick to Northern Africa. Perhaps the Canary Islands too. Nope. Received a rare chilly response to my permission request (they don’t like being in the “media”; they don’t seem to understand that I neither work for a media organization nor the scope of my project). Madeira Islands? Can’t come up with solid information about Jewish remnants there. No community there today to speak of, I know. But there is a Jewish cemetery. That’s enough to go for in my book. But, alas, Google has let me down and information is scant. I’ve tried working on a contact via local government offices there. No luck yet.

Cape Verde? Easiest way to get there is from Senegal, but Cape Verde has imposed an entry denial policy if one has traveled to the Hot Zone, including Senegal and Nigeria, within 30 days of arrival. Aarrrgh. So I postponed Nigeria and Senegal. Make more sense to go to that region all at once rather than in separate trips, not to mention that I could end up on a sort of travel quarantine black list if I go near the region.

Egypt and Tunisia. There’s a neat little combination for a couple of weeks each. Problem is, I can’t get a reply out of the Tunisian Jewish community, and though after months (yes, months) of searching for a direct contact to Magda Haroun, the head of the Jewish community of Egypt, my serendipitous telephone chat with her (I finally found a Jewish community of Cairo contact number and I recognized her voice from a couple of interviews I saw of her on Youtube) resulted in her confirming what I had suspected all along: I need permission to photograph not so much from the Jewish community itself, but from the Ministry of State for Antiquities. Paperwork. Bureaucracy. Not helping me confirm an itinerary anytime soon. All Jewish sights are under their jurisdiction. I have tried to start the application process, but I’m in the dark about either how long it’s going to take or how much it’s going to cost me. So, Egypt is off the list for leg #6.

South Sudan. The world’s newest country. There’s a novel idea. A friend in Johannesburg thought I could perhaps visit her friends working there for IsraAid. Even if I could get in for two or three days, I thought it would be a great opportunity to go somewhere I never thought I’d even think about going, much less have a specific reason to go for. After an email or two, the person in South Sudan was not going to be there when I was hoping to go and following up seemed kind of tricky.

So how about going back to Zimbabwe to visit the Lemba? Who? Well, finding a reliable contact to get me access to this seemingly elusive Black Jewish tribe has gone on since before the start of my project in August 2012. But when I met a member of the Lemba in Cape Town in August, I thought my luck had finally changed. It did, but slowly. While I finally found an opportunity to include the Lemba, I realized I can’t do it in leg #6 because I am not likely to go to Southern Africa if I am not combining a trip in that region with visits to Lesotho, Reunion, and Mauritius. All of those destinations must be packaged in one trip. In fact, I can probably cover all of them in about 2 weeks — so long as all of them synchronize their availability.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has remained a constant midst all of this scrambling. And I finally made contact with the last Jew of Eritrea. Whoohoo! When I called him, he was exceptionally gracious and welcoming. Another whoohoo! But I only need at most 4 days there and about 2 and a half weeks in Ethiopia. That still leaves me with a considerable chunk of time open on my February-March trip. How to fill it became an an unsettling question as I am determined to stay on course to complete this Jewish Africa photo gig on time in April 2016. So, my mind suddenly lurched to the country that I had mentally pencilled in for leg #8, the final jaunt of this entire Jewish Africa survey project: Morocco.

Jewish Morocco is big. With over 200 synagogues (of which only a fraction are open and functioning) and some 300 Jewish cemeteries, there is a huge photographic job to be done. In my scramble to fill up the itinerary, I reached out to Raphael Raphy Elmaleh, the sole Jewish tour guide in the country. I had first contacted him in May 2011 when I was considering kicking off my project there before coming to my senses and realizing I needed to work the Jewish African crowd at the bottom end of the continent first because that is where the majority of Jews live, some 70% actually.

0090Alas, Raphy informed me that, one, he is not personally available during the dates I specified, and, two, that I must obtain permission to photograph from the…something like…Jewish Museum. On the up side, he seemed to think he could fix me up with someone else to guide me. And as far as I could figure, cracking the Moroccan Jewish museum nut would most likely be easier than a Ministry of Anything in Egypt. But I’ve been wrong about so much before.

By and large, things have played out very much as I had anticipated. Southern Africa, just as I predicted, has been the easy part of this journey. I worked Johannesburg and Cape Town, made connections, got my name spread around, and was able to catapult my way around the Southern African region quite easily because of the contacts I made (primarily, due to one man’s help: Rabbi Moshe The Traveling Rabbi Silberhaft in Johannesburg, who connected me to just about every one of his people near and far).

My scramble for Africa has exhausted me, frazzled me, and I haven’t even left home yet (which is when I settle down, actually). I’ve got to confirm the plans. I get antsy when things are so up in the air. I hate being at the mercy of others for the plans. Yeah, so my trip isn’t for another 4 or 5 months, and that kind of turns potential helpers off because they think there’s plenty of time. Not from my point of view. With visas to obtain, flights to book, accommodations to find and reserve, and a host of other logistics to shore up, I can’t afford to wait.

africarap

Africa 2014

It’s nearly November. I’m still sitting at my desk pecking away at my keyboard. In the end, things usually do work out. Usually. With luck, the pieces will be in place within a week. The scramble for Africa might just be over: A few weeks in Morocco, nearly that long in Ethiopia, four days in Eritrea, and a week in Israel (including celebrating Passover) before returning home from there.

The nub of my eraser remains on standby.

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Not Just Jewish Africa

Osaka, Japan — In some ways, perhaps in many ways, Africa is a conundrum. Africa is so much more than “Africa”. For the geographically challenged, “Africa” is merely a word that disregards the dignity of its people and overlooks its dynamism. For everyone else, those three syllables encompass a tapestry of life and cultures, languages and traditions, economies and political boundaries, flora and fauna, peace and war, extreme wealth and abject poverty. Africa has all the yin and yang you care to add to that list. I fell in love with Africa a long time ago, and not just for its wonder or magic, but for its potential…for my potential. There is nary a dull moment on that great land, and serendipity usually lurks around every corner. Go to Africa, anywhere, at any opportunity because Africa’s majesty far outweighs even its worst — Ebola does not begin to define the continent so colored by the rich amalgam of breathtaking landscapes or the extraordinary people and all their manifestations of life. While the scourge of this dreaded disease ravages west Africa and threatens to expand, I want to share the joy that the African conundrum gives me because I don’t want the stigma of Africa’s worst to ever eclipse its understated best. May all those battling this frightful disease be well, and may Af-ri-ca and all its people reach their potential in peace and in good health.

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Madagascar: Land of Long Names and Long Ancestral Lines

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — I made no attempts to say anyone’s name in Madagascar, never mind try to remember them. Malagasy names are long, really long. Just reading them feels like having a mouthful of marbles. Thankfully, however, Malagasy have recognized this fact as all the people I met seem to have clipped their names into a manageable two or three syllable. Even the traffic-clogged capital city of Antananarivo is affectionately — and simply — called Tana.

Raherimasoandro Hery Andriamamonjy

Raherimasoandro Hery Andriamamonjy

My point man on this fabled land was Raherimasoandro Andriamamonjy (yeah, good luck with that!). Thankfully he too has pruned his 28-letter name to four and a manageable two syllables: Hery. He is, in fact, a prince, descendant of…wait for it…d’Andriamlaramanjaka, Roi de Kaloy et de Ratsitohinimanjaka, mere d’Andrianjaka Roi d’Antananarivo. Well, that’s what it says on his very tiny business card (seriously, the smallest I’ve ever seen, though a few days after receiving it he insisted I take his newer, larger card, so now I have both).

Hery is not Jewish but he has an affinity for Jews. He is the President of the Shalom Club of Madagascar, an international group that liaises with Israeli officials in dealing with mainly cultural and informational arenas. By profession, Hery is an official in the Department of Commerce. It is through his work that he once traveled to Israel and thereafter maintained his Jewish-Israeli ties. In the Shalom Club’s manifesto, The Appeal of the Jewish Community of Madagascar, it states: “The Jewish Community of Madagascar exists, in spite of thousands of kilometers which separate it of the mother country…”

Hery works closely with Communaute Juive de Madagascar and an informal association called “Diaspora Jiosy Gasy (Malagasy Jewish Disaspora” comprised of a number of “devout members [who] had realized that, from the same root, and one faith, that Abraham’s (sic), so in March 2012, an association called 2M2F was created by a group of persons professing the original faith of Abraham, Itsaak and Yakov, aiming to teach Torah…” The community is comprised of a scattered 1,500 people whose goals are: “to teach the Hebrew bible; provide a social education according to the Torah; helping relationship; together without distinction all Malagasy citizens in the Jewish faith community.”

I first contacted Hery in March 2013 but it would not be until August 2014 that I would finally land on the world’s 4th largest island, a splinter of rugged landscapes off the southeast coast of Africa. Plans to go there were postponed by seasonal weather conditions and timing clashes with other trips. I knew so little about Madagascar itself and even less about any Jews or Jewish connections to the country that, in the end, I just threw caution to the wind and let Prince Hery arrange everything for me. He gained my confidence when he emailed on May 7, 2014, “I am very aware for your mission, that of promoting the Jewish photo project in Africa, therefore, where we will see this Jewish community. Yes, there is not much but I assure you that you will not leave empty-handed by[e]. Friendly Shalom.”

When I showed up at Beit HaTefilah Israel community for Shabbat services, I was surprised to encounter such a vibrant Jewish group, I was met primarily by Andriaoelimisarisoa and Andrianaivoarimisa (because they were the only ones of the 50 or so in attendance to speak a workable level of English). To my relief, these 20-something-year-old sisters too go by names that more easily fit in my mouth: Elsie and Joele, respectfully. Their grandfather went to Israel in 1961 as a government official to learn about kibbutz with the intention of implementing a similar social network in Madagascar. His efforts were met with limited success. Still, his granddaughters proudly showed off a number of black and white photos from his stay in the Holy Land.

Flag of the Royal Household of Madagascar feature a Magen David and olive branches

Flag of the Royal Household of Madagascar features a Magen David and olive branches

“We have always considered ourselves Jews,” Elsie told me. Perhaps she has good reason to do so. Some claim, though with dubious evidence and tenuous tales, that the Malagasy are largely descendants of a Lost Tribe of Israel. Circumcision has long been practiced on the island and people don’t eat pork, but these practices are not unique to the people here and those habits alone hardly suffice as evidence of Israelite descent.

Adam Rovner wrote about this subject in his article, “Almost Jewish Madagascar” (Moment Magazine, May-June 2009): “As early as 1658 the island’s French governor, Etienne de Flacourt, affirmed the Malagasy’s Jewish origins in part because he witnessed tribes practicing circumcision, a custom that remains nearly universal here. Englishman Daniel Defoe, best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, helped popularize the connection between Jews and Madagascar. As the ghostwriter for the popular 1729 “Madagascar: Or, Robert Drury’s Journal, During Fifteen Years Captivity on that Island”, Defoe outdid Flacourt, suspecting that “the Jews derived a great deal from [the Malagasy], instead of they from the Jews.” He went so far as to claim that the priestly garments used in Solomon’s Temple were merely “improvements” on Malagasy customs. Some 19th and 20th century British and French scholars continued to maintain that the Malagasy descended from biblical era seafaring Jews. A Lazarite missionary, Joseph Briant, published a 1946 monograph purporting to find traces of Hebrew in local languages. Starting from the notion that the Malagasy are crypto-Jews, it’s easy to conclude that Madagascar is itself the promised land.”

Prince Ndriana Rabarioelina

Prince Ndriana Rabarioelina

Prince Ndriana Rabarioelina, PhD, claims to be a direct descendant of Aaron the High Priest. He specializes in the history of Madagascar and its Jewish ties (he’s publishing a 1,000-page, 3-volume book on the topic in late 2014). In a somewhat stately room at his family-owned hotel, he told me many stories about the links and lineage of the Malagasy to a Tribe of Israel. He explained that the word Madagascar is derived from Hebrew and he even says that the gold employed in King Solomon’s Temple was mined in Madagascar.

I was truly impressed, but I wasn’t. I don’t mean that disparagingly, but with caution. If I am to believe all stories of Tribes of Israel descent, I’d see virtually the entire world as Jewish (even a sect of Shinto in Japan are said to be of a Lost Tribe). It seems far-fetched and far-flung. But then, I am excited by the prospects and I’d certainly be delighted to learn of irrefutable evidence that supports any such claims, so I remain open-minded on the matter.

Beit HaTefilah Israel, Shabbat service

Beit HaTefilah Israel, Shabbat service

When I arrived at Shabbat services at Beit HaTefilah Israel, I had no idea that I was, in fact, the guest of honor. Hery made no mention of anything that was about to happen. In fact, it was only when I inspected the two-page weekly service brochure that I saw my name imprinted on the front. I was incorrectly billed as being from the African Jewish Congress (AJC). Not wanting to disappoint, I did not clarify that fact when I was formally introduced to the group though I did make that clear when I spoke to people individually. I think Hery got the impression I was affiliated with the AJC because I was introduced to him by Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the Traveling Rabbi from Johannesburg, South Africa who is the organization’s President. There seemed to be a slight disappointment when I said I was merely an independent photographer, but that was offset when I told the group that part of my mission is to share their story with the Jewish world through my photos in the hopes they connect with outside communities that will eventually aid their quest for full Jewish conversion and acceptance.

Beit HaTefilha Israel, Kiddush

Beit HaTefilha Israel, Kiddush

I never expected to find tallit-shrouded, kippot-capped people here. I was immediately struck by the earnest manner of their prayer — oft closed eyes and raised open hands, something more akin to a church service and likely a holdover from their prayers as former Christian-somethings. Other aspects were all too familiar: noisy kids running around; women to one side, men to the other; a service that seemed to go on forever despite the pangs of hunger; and a large table covered by an impressive kiddush buffet that was soon devoured by a famished community, myself included. Instead of blessing wine and bread per the usual custom, the spiritual leader raised a plate of macaroni, thanked Hashem several times, and said a few amens. It all felt familiarly unfamiliar.

The Jewish community that I unexpectedly encountered somehow fit neatly within my image of Madagascar as a curious land of contrasts and, well, the unexpected. After all, this place is one of the most bio-diverse spots on the planet, so it only stands to reason that there would be a place for a socially-diverse element too. The land of lemurs may have claims to Lost Tribes, but the Malagasy are far more Indo-Malayan than they are “African” (many Malagasy don’t regard themselves as African). Many of their ancestors were seafarers. Lemurs apparently arrived by rafts, too. This island, itself a veritable raft, was ruled by a line of kings and queens before the French colonized the place (1897~1958), leaving their language, architecture, baguettes, croissants, and coffee culture behind.

A high school sign board featuring %22shalom%22, a Magen David, and olive branches

A high school sign board featuring “shalom”, a Magen David, and olive branches

Today, the largely agrarian population still tills the land without aid of modern mechanized farming equipment. As the world’s 9th poorest country with a GDP per capita of US$972 (2013, IMF), the vast majority of Malagasy are bound by a meagre US$2 a day. Upward mobility is not the dream here, survival is. Perhaps upward spiritual mobility is more realistically attainable as I realized in the Beit HaTefilah Israel community. Though my sojourn scratched merely the surface of this dynamic country, it was clear to see that the spirit of the land, the legends, and the people — no matter what their ancestral lines — are buoyant.

Perhaps the most surprising Jewish connection to Madagascar is the Madagascar Plan, one of several resettlement plans in the late 1800s/early 1900s for European Jews. The Polish government first considered the idea in 1937 but scrapped it when it was determined that it was unsustainable. The Nazis reconsidered the plan in 1940 before coming up with the Final Solution.

FOOTNOTE (added, September 18, 2014): A message received from a member of the Beit HaTefilah Israel community (copied and pasted here verbatim) —>

Shalom Jono
You know, it is not easy for us to discover and to arrive in JUDAISM but on full time when we are thinking about the bible and there is some questions which you don’t find a response , you search , look for….we are not satisfy and finally you find ALL the response in JUDAISM ! and when we discovered it in first, I cry to find it , all the questions we asked for us and no response everywhere when we are in christianity we find the response in JUDAISM, we are so satisfy, happy in our heart ….now, it’s true, JUDAISM is true.
Christianity is a politic brought by France in Madagascar in colonization, and France knows exactly that the origin of malagasy people is jewish, so to bring christianity in Madagascar is for them a success for the colonization (in TORAH Adon says that you must not to have another Adon ONLY HIM) and France knows it and all people believes in Jesus and christianity, so I think that’s a reason malagasy people is so poor , we have a great task to do to make known JUDAISM for malagasy people but we try to make some conferences….

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Why Class

A380, Thai Airlines TG 623, Osaka to Bangkok

A380, Thai Airlines TG 623, Osaka to Bangkok

Osaka Kansai International Airport, Japan — I was looking forward to the first leg of the long schlep to Johannesburg if for no other reason than because it was on the new Airbus A380 — the double-decker behemoth. I hadn’t yet flown in one. As I boarded through the front main door of Thai Airlines TG623, I expected seat 31H to be “to the right.”

“31H?…go through…to the left.”

Flight map.

Flight map.

Wait. What? To the left? I’d been accustomed to turning right into economy class. But on this plane, economy was the entire lower deck plus about twenty rows at the back of the upper deck.

As I settled into my preferred bulkhead aisle seat, I realized the only person in front of me was the pilot. The friendly flight attendant greeted me in traditional Thai style, the wai: a gentle bow with palms pressed together in a prayer-like position.

Seat 31H.

Seat 31H.

“That’s first and business class,” she gestured up the stairwell. “Here is Y class.”

“Y class, as in, ‘Why can’t I sit upstairs?’ or ‘Why are these seats as narrow as they’ve always been?’”

She laughed. I laughed.

With no one in front of me, beside me, or even around me, I felt like I had a veritable private room. I was in heaven — well, I was 35,000 feet closer to it, anyway.

We lumbered down the runway then lifted off with the ease of a ballerina in pirouette. Impressive, I thought.

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

I unfurled the video monitor and settled on Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. It was only fitting as I was on my way to South Africa. I’ve been known (only to myself, perhaps) to succumb to a lump in the throat on flights. (Perhaps it’s that proximity to heaven.) This film moved me.

It was interrupted briefly with “spicy chicken or Thai Curry?” I opted for the latter, though I nearly reconsidered when it was placed in front of me.

“STD.”

“STD? What’s that?” I asked. “Do you know what STD means?”

STD lunch.

STD lunch.

“It means ‘standard lunch’,” came the reply.

When I explained the other meaning of STD, the flight attendant’s eyes widened. “That’s not really a good label,” I said. Not what I need to think about just before tucking in.

My friendly flight attendant invited me to have a look upstairs after takeoff, “…but from the back to the economy class area.” So I did. When I reached the top of the spiral staircase, there was a menacing black and yellow strap across the last step. Then two sets of forbidding eyes glared down upon me.

“Can I help you?” inquired one of the flight attendants with a tone that suggested I bugger off.

“Well, uh,” I trembled as if kneeling before the Wizard of Oz, “the attendant downstairs said I could…well, you see, good and merciful sir, have a look around.”

“Oh, she did, did she?” (added for dramatic effect).

The gate was drawn back. I poked my head in. I nodded graciously, wordlessly. I retreated back down the stairs. I returned to my assigned seat.

About 10 minutes before touchdown, my amiable section attendant made an intriguing offer. “After we arrive in Bangkok, would you like to go upstairs with me?”

“Now that’s an offer I can’t refuse,” I said with a grin and laughter. She realized how that sounded. “If only you had asked me at the beginning of the flight, I would have been so much more comfortable.”

So, once the first class section had emptied (all 12 passengers), she took me by the hand (no, I’m embellishing that part) and gave me a personal mini-tour of the upper deck.

The first class area looked quite nice with a very large toilet area. “The business section is too busy, too crowded,” she said.

I thought so too.

Why is that?

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#5

OSAKA, Japan — It’s that time again: I’m heading back to Africa for leg #5 of my Jewish Africa photo survey project. With this trip, I’m two years in, less than two years to go, and crossing the halfway line. Leg #8 doesn’t seem all that far, or more importantly, all that unobtainable.

Southern Africa including La Reunion (just south of Mauritius)

Southern Africa including La Reunion (just south of Mauritius)

I know it now that this trip is less about the numbers of images than it is about incorporating a few small corners of Jewish Africa life and history that are little known. Frankly, much of what I will photograph is uncertain. While Madagascar, La Reunion, and Angola are hardly known for anything Jewish and offer little to actually photograph, I’d be remiss not to incorporate these locations in my Jewish Africa opus. Besides, when else am I going to go to these places?

First up, the long journey from Osaka via Bangkok, Thailand to a night in Johannesburg, South Africa, then to MADAGASCAR for 8 adventurous days. That fabled land will be the 100th country/territory incorporated into my Jewish Photo Library archives. But only one day, and even then, only a few hours of that one day, will be set aside for photographing things Jewish there. We’ll all have to wait and see just what I set my lens upon for I really have scant idea. I have entrusted both my Jewish and tourist plans to a man with the longest name of anyone I’ve known (or more precisely, about to know): Raherimasoandro Andriamamonjy. Luckily, he’s boiled those 28 letters down to 4: Hery. I can neither spell (without copying) or pronounce his full name correctly, but Hery’s proven himself remarkably dependable, enthusiastic, and accommodating in our emails.

He says things like, “Tomorrow is Yom Haatzmaut and I congratulate this independence of the State of Israel and its people through you. I am always available for questions relating to your trip. Friendly Shalom.” (May 5, 2014 email.)

He certainly understands the aim of my visit: “I am very aware for your mission, that of promoting the Jewish photo project in Africa, therefore, where we will see this Jewish community. Yes, there is not much but I assure you that you will not leave empty-handed. Friendly Shalom.” (May 7, 2014 email.)

Madagascar visa (redacted)

Madagascar visa (redacted)

So what am I doing the other 7 days in Madagascar?

“It is clear to your need in nature (lemurs…) cultural activities, tourism and more. I ask you a little time to see what are the best; I would like to comparisons and especially to also see the side safety. I will send you the details of that I had the plan. Already, welcome my friend.” (April 30, 2014 email.)

That’s right. Madagascar for Madagascar sake: charming lemurs, abhorrent Madagascar hissing cockroaches, majestic baobab trees, and a serendipitous sojourn. Nothing could be finer.

From there, it’s only an hour flight to LA REUNION island, an overseas department of France. Politically European but geographically African, I felt compelled to include the few photos I’ll acquire there. My friendly contact Jean Akoun has not merely responded graciously to my inquiries, she’s offered her home to me to stay for the three nights I’ll be there. How nice is that?

“There is about 1,000 Jewish on the Island,” she wrote when I first connected with her in May 2013. “Only 200 really practice Judaism. There is two places for office. On Shabbat there is from 12 to 20 people in each. There is no Jewish cimetery. Since 5 years, we have a place for the new tombs. There is no old syna[gogue] or cimetery. And not too much to catch for a photographer.”

I wasn’t dissuaded to go by that last line because I determined that I’d regret not incorporating it into my project and, again, when else am I really going to go to La Reunion?

From there, I’ll sojourn one night in Johannesburg in a guesthouse near the airport before connecting to jigsaw-puzzle-piece-shaped ANGOLA. Just getting my visa was a journey. While most embassies accept applications by post, Angola does not because they require all visitors be pre-finger printed (scanned electronically, actually). So, I took a day off work (and scheduled makeup classes) and rocketed up to Tokyo on the shinkansen (bullet) train, an expensive way to obtain a visa (though I took advantage of the day to lunch with a friend I had not seen in three years and to visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, something I missed on prior Tokyo visits). I was not able to do the day trip until I had all my necessary paperwork in place, however.

Embassy of Angola, Tokyo

Embassy of Angola, Tokyo

The real application hurdle is obtaining a “letter of invitation” from someone within Angola. I don’t know anyone in Angola, but Jewish geography connected me to an extraordinarily trusting and generous Israeli soul who does business there (both his name and business shall remain withheld for the moment). Not only was I required to submit an official letter of invitation, but any non-Angolan foreign national who provides the letter must also submit a copy of their passport and Angola residence visa. So this kind man sent me, an utter stranger, the letter along with a copy of his passport and visa. That sort of trust is remarkable. I surmised that my contact in D. R. Congo who put me in touch with him vouched for me. So, the jigsaw puzzle came together and my Angola visa was finally approved after several weeks of uncertainly on my part (and, I’m sure, my many annoying emails pushing to get the letter just right — it took a couple of drafts for it to state all the details the embassy requires).

Angola visa (redacted)

Angola visa (redacted)

Angola, too, offers little in the way of Jewish stuff to photograph. In Luanda, the capital — the most expensive city in Africa (it’s full of diamond, gold, and other mineral rich business people) — there are but a few Jewish graves in a centrally located cemetery. I know neither if they are all together, scattered, or even if they are still there. Details are sketchy. As Raphael Singer, Ambassador of Israel to Angola, wrote to me on May 16, “Wow, I live next door – didn’t know.”

I’ll find more to photograph (but not by much) in the central coastal towns of Catumbela and Benguela, an hour flight south of Luanda. There are small Jewish cemeteries in both towns.

“Don’t worry, I will help you when you arrive [in Benguela],” wrote Jaime Azulay on May 19. I was email introduced to him via the Israeli ambassador. “I’d like to secure that even if I go out from Benguela someone will take you round everywhere you would like to go and help you. Don’t worry about it.”

But just how the Jews in those cemeteries ended up there (apart from actually dying), I am not at all sure. Internet rarely fails to turn up what you’re looking for, but in this case, it pretty much has. I hope to ascertain a more precise understanding of the Jewish history of Angola once I am there.

Just when I thought I had all my Angola Jewish photo ops lined up, I hit upon something most unexpected: another Jew living in Benguela.

In searching for accommodation there, I found Nancy’s English School and Guest House. I  perused the website and sent an email to inquire further. My booking was confirmed, and then I did a double-take at the name in the return email: Nancy…wait for it…Gottlieb.

Gottlieb? Gotta be Jewish, I thought.

“Forgive me if I am being forward, but are you Jewish?” I wrote. “I was just considering your name. I am an independent photographer specializing in Jewish documentation. I am working on a project on Jewish Africa.”

Nancy’s reply came back quickly. “I want to also say that I clicked on the little icon that showed up along side the email in my gmail account – the Jewish Photo Library, and got a bit fascinated! I also ended up watching the first part of an interview with you I found on You Tube. So, Just to let you know, I am one Jewish person living in Angola!  And, I am guessing you are coming because of your photo work…”

She got that right.

The Jewish world reaches far and wide. In addition to the aforementioned destinations, I’ll be sharing some of my Jewish photographer experiences as a presenter at Limmud South Africa in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban between August 22 and August 31. I presented in Jo’burg last year. I guess they liked me enough not only to invite me back, but to include me in all Limmud events this time round.

From there? A week in Israel; my first visit since February 2012.

Leg #5 kicks off on July 29 and keeps on kicking through September 14.

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D’R We’ll See

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — There are some places one just doesn’t associate with Jews. I think the Democratic Republic of Congo, more commonly called the DRC (or sometimes DR Congo, Congo-Kinshasa, Zaire-Congo), is one of those places. What first springs to mind for most people is something more like political unrest, malaria, even Ebola hemorrhagic fever. But “Jews” should be part of the mental image of the DRC, particularly among Jews, for there has been a Jewish presence and influence here for about a century. In some regards, that influence has been disproportionate for their minuscule population (currently estimated at 200 in the capital Kinshasa, 12 in Lubumbashi, capital of the southern Katanga Province, whose governor, Moise Katumbi Chapwe, is Jewish on his father’s side).

Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa (the Jewish Community of Kinshasa)

Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa (the Jewish Community of Kinshasa)

The vibrancy of Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa (the Jewish Community of Kinshasa) today belies the community’s diminutive size and fractured nature for all but a few of the people who comprise the community range from transient, temporary, to-and-fro, fleeting, to curious visitors like myself. A mere handful of people could be described as local.

I couldn’t quite figure out just what was what or who was who before I got here as details were sketchy. Internet searches turned up very little in the way of specifics and the contacts seemed reluctant to correspond with me. It only all made sense once I finally arrived.

There are really two distinct halves of the community, particularly in Kinshasa: the Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa, presided over by Aslan Piha, and Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa, directed by Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, who runs Yeshiva Ohel Moshe. The twain are almost, but not quite, like oil and water: they mix but they do not quite stay blended.

Aslan Piha, President, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

Aslan Piha, President, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa

Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa

What is regarded as “the community” has its offices, classroom, synagogue, and functions at a single complex. Both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila have their offices here, but the community and Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa operate as separate entities, though they have combined certain logistical forces. At least, that’s how I understood things to be.

I arrived in Kinshasa from Lubumbashi a day late due to a flight delay, uncertainty, and ultimate cancellation on Korongo Airlines (more aptly named, Koro-no-go Airlines). In fact, I eventually flew on a Safair Airlines plane leased by Koronogo which blew a wheel upon landing in Lubumbashi causing the problems. I didn’t feel “safe-er” on Safair. I was just glad to be on the ground (finally) in Kinshasa. Their tag line is, Experience, Expertise, Excellence; it felt more like Confusion, Consternation, Chaos.

Safair Airlines...Safer?

Safair Airlines…Safer?

The delay left me with a day and a half to get my photo work done. Like so many times before, things just seemed to work out and I found myself busy from start to finish. I was also warmly welcomed.

Arrival wasn’t quite so pleasant, however. I was slightly alarmed when no one was at Kinshasa airport to meet me as I thought had been the plan (at least it was the day before when someone was waiting for my non-arriving flight). It was a stroke of good fortune when the person I asked for help was not merely familiar with the airport and where someone meeting me might be waiting, he let me make a couple of calls on his cell phone. When I couldn’t reach my contacts, he offered a lift to my hotel in town. Turned out this Belgian guy grew up here and had recently returned. As we drove into town, he pointed out “that’s where I used to live” (pointing to a dilapidated building) and “that’s where I used to play” (pointing to the old port).

Once settled in my downtown hotel, I was able to reach Aslan. Twenty minutes later, his driver came to fetch me and take me the two or so kilometers to the community center. From then on, everything worked like a charm.

After meeting with both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila, I spent an unhurried afternoon photographing Beit Yaacov Synagogue, the mikvah, and various parts of the building, including an inner-courtyard lined with pillars that resemble giant Olympic torches

Courtyard, Jewish Community of Kinshasa

Courtyard, Jewish Community Center of Kinshasa

Perhaps the coziest, most colorful, and cheeriest place in the complex is the classroom. Under the direction and commitment of Myriam Bentolila, the Rabbi’s wife, she’s meticulously created a happy space for teaching the youngsters “our holy heritage,” as Rabbi Bentolila put it. She wouldn’t allow me to take a photo until everything was just so. I liked that.

Classroom, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

Classroom, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

I also photographed evening services and a study session at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa. Yes, there is a yeshiva in the DRC. Located a few blocks from the Community Center, it houses 8 young men at a time. They come from various places including the USA, Canada, and Israel, and they generally study here for about a year.

Evening study session at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

Evening study session at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

Between the service and the study session, Rabbi Bentolila invited me to dine with him and his wife Myriam and a few other guests in their home which is on the upper floor of the Community Center.

What started as a day of complete uncertainty — from my uncertain flight to my lonely arrival — turned into a hectic, busy, interesting, and photographically productive day.

I was up early the following morning to photograph the 8:00 a.m. service. That over, I headed back to the yeshiva for a bit of breakfast with the boys. Though they have people to prepare their food, they usually help out, so it created a bit of action in the kitchen for me to photograph too.

Breakfast time at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

Breakfast time at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

From there, it was back to the Community Center. By this point, I had really completed my photo work. The only details remaining were chats with both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila about a few things pertaining to the community and to get brief video commentaries from them. Aslan wasn’t due in until mid-afternoon. Rabbi Bentolila, meanwhile, disappeared. Several hours of waiting later, he reappeared from his abode, having taken a long nap due to not feeling so hot.

I spent the time rephotographing the synagogue, this time with the lights off. The big chandeliers combined with a yellowy ambient light and daubs of natural light all created a challenging luminescence that resulted in some overexposed light fixtures. Hence, I retook many of the same angles from the previous day. The results were remarkably different. I filed both “lights on” and “lights off” versions of Beit Yaacov Synagogue.

Evening service, Beit Yaacov, Kinshasa

Evening service, Beit Yaacov, Kinshasa

After finally catching up with Aslan at nearly 4:00 p.m. and recording a video commentary, I returned to my hotel for a while, then came back yet again a few hours later to have dinner with the Rabbi and his wife. Before calling it a night, the good Rabbi recorded a video comment for me.

HISTORY. A meaningful Jewish presence in the DRC goes back to about 1904 when, under King Leopold II (1835~1909), the 2nd King of the Belgians and founder and controller of the Congo Free State (1885~1908), Jews arrived from Belgium and South Africa. They were Ashkenazi hailing mainly from central Europe, Lithuania, and Russia. A second wave of Jewish arrivals came in 1923 and they were predominantly Sephardim from Rhodes Island. With the building of a railway from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa and the Atlantic Ocean, Jewish businesses of all sorts cropped up along the line, even in remote areas, but eventually, the Jewish communities grew in the main towns of Elizabethville (today, Lubumbashi), Luluabourg (today, Kananga), and Leopoldville (today, Kinshasa). Some of the early Jewish pioneers included Solomon Benatar, Ruben Amato, Nelson Hazan, Simon Israel. Other Jewish names include Surmani, Habib, Blattner, Alhadeff, Cohen, Piha, and Mizrahi.

These Jewish pioneers faced many challenges including the threat of malaria (the disease is still today a huge risk in the DRC). While they helped establish the Belgian Congo, the 1929 stock market crash left many in the Congo in bankruptcy forcing them into a sort of economic exile. The majority of the Ashkenazi Jews started anew in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Zambia. The resulting mainly Sephardic community enticed Rabbi Moses Levy, from the Rabbinical College of Rhodes, to the Congo where he presided as the community’s Chief Rabbi for more than half a century (1937~1991).

The Communauté du Congo Belge et du Ruanda-Urundi, the Jewish community center, was established in 1911. The first synagogue was consecrated in 1930 in Elizabethville (Lubumbashi); the second synagogue — Beit Yaacov — would not be built until 1987 in Kinshasa.

Lubumbashi Synagogue, consecrated 1930

Lubumbashi Synagogue, consecrated 1930

Beit Yaacov (Kinshasa), consecrated 1987

Beit Yaacov Synagogue (Kinshasa), consecrated 1987

Prior to independence, approximately 3,000 Jews lived in the Congo; 50% resided in Elisabethville and about 70 Jewish families were based in Kinshasa. Jewish children were provided classes in Hebrew and Judaism. In 1960, the Republic of Congo established diplomatic relations with Israel. Zaire broke relations with Israel under Arab pressure in 1973. A decade later, Zaire was one of the first to reestablish relations with Israel. Today, Israeli expatriates make up the majority of the Jewish community of the DRC.

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