Cliff Hanger

FUNCHAL, Madeira (Região Autónoma da Madeira, Portugal) — “I have some bad news,” were virtually the first words I heard from Dr. Carlos Pestana Pereira, a general surgeon and historian enthusiast.

I thought for sure my one and only contact on this emerald isle was going to tell me the Jewish cemetery was closed.

“The cemetery” …here it comes, I was thinking… “is under renovation. Much of it is covered. I didn’t know this until just the other day,” he said with some regret.

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

I sighed. It was the main thing — nearly the only thing — that I’d come all this way to photograph.

“Can we get in?”

“Yes, I think so,” he replied, “But I think you may have some trouble.”

I insisted we go anyway. What had I got to lose?

The Jewish cemetery in Funchal is the only Jewish cemetery in Madeira, a Portuguese autonomous region located in the east Atlantic Ocean some 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of the Canary Islands and a bit further than that west of Morocco (the island’s proximity to mainland Africa was all the reason I needed to include it in my Jewish Africa project). The cemetery clings to a cliffside 100 meters (330 feet) above the wrath of the sea below. Even before Carlos’ worrying news, I really had no idea how safe it would be to enter. Some graves, I had read, had fallen into the sea due to erosion. Only one grave, however, is confirmed to have been lost.

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

So, as it turned out, the restoration was both good and bad news: the former because I was pleased to learn it is being taken care of, but the latter because, clearly, it interfered with my work though the three workmen there went out of their way to accommodate me. Before leaving me at the cemetery for a while, Carlos explained what I was there for. They didn’t mind a bit. In fact, one of the men assisted by uncovering some of the protected headstones and even washing them off with a blast of water from a hose.

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

With a crane towering overhead, half the tombs covered by scaffolding, others hidden under a protective cover, and one worker literally hanging by a steel thread in a basket over the edge, I spent over an hour figuring out how to photograph the 30 or so graves. Eighteen-fifty-one is stamped into the stone doorframe of the cemetery, but none of the graves I could access and read were older than 1869. It was hot, sticky, noisy, and a little unnerving being on the edge of terra firma with all this dangerous equipment overhead. This was definitely a hard hat zone. I didn’t have one.

Beach below the Jewish cemetery, Funchal

Beach below the Jewish cemetery, Funchal

“You will be the only one with photographs of the cemetery under renovation,” Carlos noted. Perhaps that is so, but it was little consolation.

Joao Goncalves Zarco, Christian convert from Judaism and settler of Madeira island, Funchal

Joao Goncalves Zarco, Christian convert from Judaism and settler of Madeira island, Funchal

MADEIRA WAS SETTLED BY A JEW, Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco (c. 1390 – 21 November 1471). But Zarco was a Converso, a convert to Christianity. In the afternoon, Carlos gave me a mini-tour of central Funchal, the island’s charming capital city. It graces verdant hills that spill from mountain peaks down to the sea. The tour included observing a statue of Zarco high on a perch in the center of town, and a visit to the Santa Clara Convent where he and several of his relatives are buried. Unfortunately, Zarco’s grave is actually covered by a hardwood floor that was apparently installed to protect the graves beneath it. Consequently, one cannot actually view his grave, though a small segment of the floor opens to reveal his father’s grave.

Menorah, chapel ceiling, Santa Clara Convent, Funchal

Menorah, chapel ceiling, Santa Clara Convent, Funchal

Up above, the ceiling of the main chapel is decorated with attractive murals, several of which depict scenes from the Bible, including Exodus, the Ark of the Covenant, the Jordan River, and a Menorah.

TODAY, THERE IS NO JEWISH COMMUNITY whatsoever to speak of in Madeira, though no doubt there are Jewish residents on the island. No wonder the former Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue on Rua do Carmo Street in central Funchal was long ago shuttered. Today, the ground level is divided into a cafe frequented by locals, and an architectural design shop.

Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue (former) (aka Rua do Carmo Synagogue), Funchal

Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue (former) (aka Rua do Carmo Synagogue), Funchal

“I think they are away until the end of the month,” the barista told me about the shop owners next door. “They have the keys.”

Bad timing again, I thought.

I wondered what, if anything, is upstairs. “It’s an empty space,” I was told. But I gave up trying to gain access thinking that it is quite possible the upper floors still look very much like the synagogue it once was when it was built in 1836. It first served Moroccan Jews who arrived in 1819, then refugees who fled the First and Second World Wars.

I left Madeira after only two days surprised that Jews have not been lured back by its beauty in numbers large enough to warrant cleaning out those upper floors of the synagogue. Perhaps one day soon, a Jewish community will resettle on this alluring island.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSIONBIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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Igbo: The Jews of Nigeria

ABUJA, Nigeria — He must have been tired of me and my emails. I had certainly sent plenty of them, the first in June 2013 seeking assistance and permission to photograph the Igbo Jews of Nigeria.

“Your project and program are very interesting. I’ll do whatever I can to assist you,” Remy Ilona wrote back. “Let’s keep on talking.”

And so we did…for the next two years.

When I finally did arrive in Abuja in August 2015 for a 5-day visit, the lawyer and renown author of numerous books and papers on the Igbo Jews of Nigeria was, alas, not there. He was in the United States for a Jewish studies program. In his stead, Izuchukwu Onuchukwu, a 34-year-old architect would be my guide, my minder, my companion, my security detail in Abuja, the nation’s hectically calm (yes, hectic and calm, at the same time) capital city.

I could have used Izu at the airport in Istanbul from where I flew to this West African country. The plane was an hour late, then became an hour and a half late, followed by a rugby scrum to get on board. Passengers stuffed the overhead bins with boxes and plastic bags, whatever held their stuff together. I tried to hold myself together, agitated by the unexplained delay and the pushes and bangs of every other passenger as they slipped by my row 5 aisle seat.

On the other end of the 6-hour flight was something unexpected: quiet, calm at Abuja airport. Granted it was 12:15 a.m. when we touched down, but I was prepared for chaos nonetheless. But, my bag was the third one on the conveyor belt, no one stopped me at immigration or customs, the hotel driver was waiting for me with my name on a sign as arranged, and there were all but about 3 cars on the road to the hotel, 42 kilometers (26 miles) away. There were, however, plenty of police and soldiers with big guns at several check points.

But then there was my hotel room. (Play chilling music from Psycho.) It was just gross, and I had been “upgraded” to an “Executive Suite” complete with a horrid carpet (yikes to hotel carpets), wires protruding from here and there, and a dimly lit room (better to hide the carpet, no doubt). The bed was big, comfy, and fresh, thankfully. I got through the night, willingly “downgraded” my room in the morning, and from then on, all was perfect (not with the hotel, but with everything else).

I was in Abuja to meet and photograph four Igbo Jewish communities (though I’d only get to three). Igbo (pronounced and also spelled Ibo) — a corruption of the word “Hebrew” — are an ethnic group from southeastern Nigeria. Most of them follow Christianity, but upwards of 30,000 Igbo claim to be the descendants of ancient Jewish traders. Today, there are a few dozen Igbo synagogues in the country, mainly in Igbo Land, but also in Lagos and Abuja. For security reasons, I limited my Nigerian visit only to the capital, a relatively calm zone in the country.

DAY 1, Friday, August 21, 2016: I met Izuchukwu, or more simply, Izu, in the lobby at the appointed time of 11:00 a.m. With him was Festus, a member from the same community. I was really pleased to meet them because it was only then that I felt like my Jewish Igbo experience was beginning.

A misunderstanding about my evening plans to visit Chabad-Lubavitch of Abuja meant they had not put anything on the agenda for the day. Instead, we went for lunch, then visited the home of the leader of the Ghihon Hebrews’ Congregation. I gently cooled myself with my Japanese uchiwa fan while we sat in the family room sipping beers. We would all meet again the next day. Though I hadn’t yet taken a single photo, I was pleased with my first day because I felt very welcome.

Rabbi Israel Uzan and his daugher light Shabbat candles, Chabad-Lubavitch of Abuja. Abuja, Nigeria

Rabbi Israel Uzan and his daugher light Shabbat candles, Chabad-Lubavitch of Abuja. Abuja, Nigeria

Before 6:00 p.m., Izu and Festus accompanied me to Chabad, not more than 10 minutes by taxi. I then spent the evening with Rabbi Israel Uzan, his family, and a few members of the ex-pat community comprised mainly of Israelis working for SCC construction company.

Rabbi Uzan, a French national, established the first Chabad outpost in Abuja in 2012. He serves some 400 community members (most of whom apparently work at SCC), including 120 or so children. Being the summer holiday season, however, things were much quieter than usual at Abuja Synagogue, a short walk from Chabad House on the SCC compound.

In fact, I was lucky to meet the Rabbi at all.

“It will be a pleasure to assist you in you in Nigeria but fortunately I will be in Paris in the date. So please to organize you trip after the 5 September. I will be back in Nigeria,” he told me by email a couple of months before my arrival. In the end, he and his family arrived back in Abuja the same day I did.

“Shabbat service starts at 7 p.m.,” he informed me. “After, we do a Shabbat meal. You are welcome.” Fantastic, I thought.

Chabad-Lubavitch of Abuja Rabbi Israel Uzan walks to synagogue with his children. Abuja, Nigeria

Chabad-Lubavitch of Abuja Rabbi Israel Uzan walks to synagogue with his children. Abuja, Nigeria

When I arrived at the house, the Rabbi and his wife were upstairs busy attending to the small children in preparation for Shabbat. While I waited, I took a few photos in the main room where it was evident Shabbat meals and gatherings are held. When I first got there, there were a few candle sticks and a few loaves of challah randomly clumped on the table. Rabbi Uzan came down with his kids by 6:15 and hurriedly assisted in setting up the table before lighting Shabbat candles with his daughter.

“What time does Shabbat actually start?” I wanted to know.

“6:46.”

We walked briskly to the synagogue a few minutes away. En route, I snapped some photos from behind as the kids struggled to keep up with their father. When we got there, I had 12 minutes to photograph the empty synagogue. I set up and worked under pressure. The last click chimed in Shabbat.

There were just enough men in attendance to count a minyan, but the community itself doesn’t count the one local Igbo Jewish man who is clearly devout and very well versed in the prayers. So, technically, we were one shy of a minyan.

After the service, we returned to the house with two others. There were only 4 guests that evening, but interesting people. One of them was a British man who spent his youth in northern Nigeria who only recently returned to do business here. There was a woman who was born in Nigeria, grew up in Nigeria, lives in Nigeria, who is Nigerian, but of Lebanese descent. She hardly fit the “appearance” of a Nigerian. “It confuses people,” she said. “I often get questioned at immigration.” The most interesting people attend Chabad-Lubavitch Shabbat meals.

DAY 2, Saturday, August 22: The Igbo Jews devoutly observe Shabbat. When I arrived at the Ghihon Hebrews’ Synagogue in the Jikwoyi district of Abuja in the late afternoon, I found a circle of community members in the derelict community building adjacent to the synagogue engrossed in conversation that sounded more like an argument than respectful debate. Things became quiet pretty quickly, however, when I sat down with them.

Community members, Ghihon Hebrews' Synagogue. Jikwoyi, Abuja, Nigeria

Community members, Ghihon Hebrews’ Synagogue. Jikwoyi, Abuja, Nigeria

Each of the dozen or so people introduced themselves and welcomed me to their community. We then went inside the synagogue where upwards of 50 people, including women and young people of varying ages, were milling around chatting. The women sat separately in the demarcated ladies’ gallery at the back. Some of them were crowned by beautiful head ties, a head scarf worn by women in Western and Southern Africa.

The men formed another circle and pulled up a chair for me. One person read the weekly parsha which had been printed off the Chabad-Lubavitch website. It was dated August 2003. The reader didn’t miss a syllable, even reading aloud the verse and chapter notes of each section. What followed was a spirited debate about the interpretation of trees planted on the Temple Mount and whether or not they represent anything, or even if their beauty is a distraction from the Torah. By extension, the question was then put to the position of the Nigerian and Israeli flags on either side of the Aron Hakodesh.

“Respect…revere…worship…symbolic…” I heard all these words being tossed around. Some argued for the removal of the flags. Then, one of those lovely ladies in a head tie stood, gestured her hand over the mehitzah at me, and invited me to speak.

“Let us see what our visitor has to say on the matter,” she invited.

“You want me to speak?” I confirmed. She nodded.

The room went silent. “Well,” I said, “I have been in hundreds of synagogues around the world. To the best of my knowledge, the flags merely represent the nation in which the community is located, and an obvious link to the the land of the Jewish people. I don’t think it’s more complicated than that. I don’t think there is any obligation to place either of the flags in the synagogue. I think it is more customary than obligatory.”

That settled nothing.

Later, after the long and thorough Shabbat service, the flock carried on outside with their spirited chatter to the point that it again almost seemed like an argument. I piped in.

“You know how I know you are Jews?” I quizzed them to uncertain faces. “Because you love to argue.”

Post-Shabbat debate, Ghihon Hebrews' Synagogue. Jikwoyi, Abuja, Nigeria

Post-Shabbat debate, Ghihon Hebrews’ Synagogue. Jikwoyi, Abuja, Nigeria

That was received with laughter and I think I assured myself of being an honorary member for the day. I then took advantage of the ebbing day light to photograph the synagogue and the delightful congregation.

DAY 3, Sunday, August 23. Izu came for me at 10:00 a.m. No, 10:40. Nope, he showed up on Africa time: 11:40. With him was Perez.

“Like Shimon Perez,” I said. He smiled. Perez is another community member. In his car, we drove some 45 minutes to reach the Tikvat Israel Synagogue in Kubwa, another district in Abuja. The journeys started to feel the same. We’d start out on a big main road heading out of town only to turn off somewhere onto a pot-holed dirt track with giant rocks. Just as we pulled up at the synagogue, a tire blew beneath the Magen David on the outside wall of the synagogue. Thankfully, we were not stranded in the middle of nowhere.

On this day, there was a general meeting for the leadership of all four Igbo communities in Abuja. Consequently, I met many familiar faces, but good luck remembering anyone’s name. They were there to discuss matters related to forthcoming visitors. I wondered if they’d held a similar meeting in advance of my arrival. It didn’t take long for that spirited, argument-like volume to get turned on, but not before, once again, one by one, each member stood, introduced themselves, and warmly welcomed me.

Community meeting and members, at Tikvat Israel Synagogue, Kubwa, Abuja, Nigeria

Community meeting and members, at Tikvat Israel Synagogue, Kubwa, Abuja, Nigeria

I was invited to snap, as they like to say here, as much as I liked. I took some photos, but then removed myself for a while to photograph the synagogue. It’s somewhat rough around the edges, but there is a kosher Sefer Torah in the Aron Hakodesh. Behind it, there’s a space for several more Torah. For the time being, the space is empty. There seemed to be few straight lines in the concrete/wooden structure.

Outside, goats and chickens roamed the garden, and one friendly, scruffy dog pretended to guard the place while he snoozed. Midst the goats, I found members talking. I joined in and was schooled on the complicated history of the nation. I was impressed by the knowledge and interest in local politics. I confessed that I’m something of a news junky too, just not for Nigerian news. It felt a little weird, even slightly unnerving, talking about Boko Haram in the very country that that cancer rages.

Tikvat Israel Synagogue, Kubwa, Abuja, Nigeria

Tikvat Israel Synagogue, Kubwa, Abuja, Nigeria

I went back inside the makeshift community room and took more photos of the meeting. I think they missed me and were immediately eager subjects. The end of the meeting was signaled by toasting with beers, whisky, and wine and a whole lot of garden eggs, a bland, green fruit they eat by the dozen.

With the tire repaired, we made the journey back to my hotel round about 4:30. It had been an extraordinary time.

DAY 4, Monday, August 24. I had a casual morning with enough time to have a bit of a workout in the threadbare hotel gym. Izu and Perez came for me at 11:00. We set out down that familiar main road before again venturing off onto a rugged dirt track. It wasn’t far before we reached the diminutive Beit Knesset Siyah Yisrael, little more than a room at one end of a larger building. Just their bit was painted in the familiar white and pale blue on synagogues around the world.

I met with only 9 members of the congregation (about half), including Festus whom I’d met on the first day. This is also Izu’s synagogue, and Remy Ilona prays here too. By now, I was accustomed to the introductions procedures, but I was genuinely heart-warmed by the sincerity and gusto offered to me. One by one, each stood — even the ones I’d met twice already — and said a few words. I did my best to reciprocate the warmth by offering my gratitude for the welcome and opportunity to meet and photograph their community.

One person asked about the importance of speaking Hebrew as part of being Jewish. I thought that was a good and interesting question.

“I think reading Hebrew is important for the prayers,” I said, “but I don’t think actually speaking Hebrew is essential as a determining factor of who is or is not a Jew. I don’t speak Hebrew. Most American Jews don’t. I speak Japanese, but that doesn’t make me any more Japanese. I understand why you ask, even worry, about it, however. But not speaking Hebrew doesn’t diminish your Jewishness. It’s what’s in your heart that matters.”

They all seemed satisfied with that.

Another member said in his introduction that he was seeking “truth.” I wanted to know more.

“I was born an Igbo Jew, but I followed Christianity,” he explained. “But I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t feel any connection to God. I found that truth as a Jew and I returned to the community.”

“Religion is something that is imposed upon us,” I replied. “We generally follow our parents, and only when we come of age do we really interpret the significance of faith, or lifestyle, in a meaningful way. So I think it’s good that you found your own way.”

We shared a lot of meaningful conversation. It wasn’t all fluffy introductions and niceties and smiles for the camera. I didn’t start photographing for about an hour until we shared some soft drinks and peanuts. I had my own photo taken with every member there. As I posed with one person, about 4 others were snapping pics on their cell phones. I didn’t know where to look. Finally, I set up my camera on my tripod for a full group photo.

Wearing my okpu, with members of Beit Knesset Siyah Yisrael, Gudaba, Abuja, Nigeria

Wearing my okpu, with members of Beit Knesset Siyah Yisrael, Gudaba, Abuja, Nigeria

When we were done, the community leader gifted me an okpu, a traditional Nigerian cap that the Igbo often wear as a kippa.

“We want you to have this,” he said. “We want you to have something to remember us by. We are really happy you are here.”

I was touched. I accepted the okpu and placed it on my head (removing my hand-knit kippa from the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda).

“Now you are an Igbo Jew,” he said to a chorus of laughter.

I then reset my camera as we posed all over again for another group photo, this time, with me in the center as an honorary Igbo Jew.

DAY 5, Tuesday, August 25. Departure day. I wasn’t flying out until midnight, and wasn’t leaving the hotel till 8:00 p.m. Izu had intimated we may get to one more community, but by late morning, it was apparent that wasn’t going to happen. So I quite happily spent the day at the hotel writing, exercising, and organizing. Izu joined me around 6:00 p.m. and we just hung out until he accompanied me to the airport for my midnight flight out.

While I was in town, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stopped by for a couple of nights too. I heard him comment on the potential of the nation and that prosperity must be cultivated and shared. Somehow, that notion fits the Igbo Jewish community. They are certainly prosperous in heart. They are cultivating a sincere Jewish life. They are sharing their world with visitor. Their vision is to be a recognized member of the Jewish world. Through their eyes and aspirations, I felt that Nigeria holds more promise than I had previously thought.

Lest I forget, I’ve got my okpu to remind me.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSIONBIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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Melilla Judía

MELILLA, Ciudad autónoma de España (North Africa) — In a way, it’s still 1492 in Melilla. There are no mezuzot on the doorframes of the synagogues or the Jewish-owned shops. In fact, there are no markings at all. If you don’t know where they are, you don’t know where they are.

My bird from Madrid to Melilla

My bird from Madrid to Melilla

After the expulsion of Jews from Spain five centuries ago, a few dozen managed to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and take refuge in Melilla and Ceuta, two fortress towns that the King of Spain was establishing in order to protect the southern frontier. Today, the autonomous Spanish cities on the northern fringe of mainland Africa are still jealously guarded. What the Spaniards refer to as “Spanish Morocco,” the Moroccans simply call “Morocco.” The territorial disputes have long been a thorny issue, and it flares up from time to time.

Aerial view of Melilla

Aerial view of Melilla

While Jews on mainland Iberia were forced to convert or be killed, the Jews who settled in Melilla (and Ceuta) were largely left alone by local bureaucrats. The cities became sorts of “religious free zones,” if you will, places where to this day Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews live mostly in harmony.

ES 778. Melilla tourism logo copy.jpeg002In fact, the Melilla tourism incorporates Hindi, Arabic, Spanish, and Hebrew letters for “m” into their official logo.

But those first Jewish arrivals certainly kept a low profile for drawing attention could have had serious consequences. In some ways, that avoidance of attention is part of the psyche here.

Mordejay Guahnich, President of the Socio-Cultural Mem Guimel Association, Melilla

Mordejay Guahnich, President of the Socio-Cultural Mem Guimel Association, Melilla

It is unfair to say or suggest that Jews in Melilla live underground. They most certainly do not. Many, like my contact Mordejay Guahnich, founder and president of Asociación Socio-Cultural “Mem Guímel” which aims to document and disseminate the history of Jewish Melilla, walk the streets wearing kippot or big black hats. The flashless fashions of both the men and women don’t look much different from other observant Jewish neighborhoods around the world. Upon closeup inspection, the beautiful Jewish Community Center building has a mezuzah on its main entrance door as well as a small posted notice clarifying the building belongs to the “Israelita Community,” and Or Zaruah Synagogue is adorned by numerous Magen David. The butcher stores have “kosher” written in Hebrew on their shop signs. Most Saturdays, after morning services, community members gather openly to chat in Hernandez Park, the city’s eminent public gardens.

I MET MORDEJAY outside the Or Zaruah Synagogue at 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday. I had incorrectly assumed that I was going to be photographing the synagogue. When a busload of tourists poured in, I realized it’s open to visitors at that time, most of whom are in town only for the day or a night on a cruise ship port of call.

Or Zaruah Synagogue. Melilla

Or Zaruah Synagogue. Melilla

“I can’t work with all these people here,” I explained to Mordejay. “I need photographs of the shul without people [certainly not a bunch of sloppily dressed, water-bottle toting tourists].”

I decided to make use of the time by attempting to photograph some of the details figuring that I’d save some time when I come back later without the people there.

I would never return.

The city’s principal synagogue, of the six that remain out of as many as 19, is privately owned, as are all the others. Mordejay later gave me some disappointing, if confusing, news.

“The owner does not allow you to take photos.”

“Huh? But all the tourists were there taking photographs earlier. Why am I not allowed to take photos too?” I responded incredulously. “That makes no sense.”

“That is the way [the owners] are,” he said.

1492. There’s that psyche.

MELILLA’S SEPHARDIC JEWISH POPULATION peaked in the 1960s with about 1,000 souls. Today there are some 300~800, depending on whom you ask. Many have left over the years for reasons that are hardly surprising: better economic prospects elsewhere and a rise in anti-Semitism.

“In the past,” Mordejay told me, “it was always peaceful. We never had any problems. But today, the young people are more and more radicalized.”

“That’s sad,” I replied. “Melilla has so much going for it…We are living in uncertain times.”

Though elements of north Africa are all around — some architectural details (though by and large a Spanish Colonial look pervades), mosques, traditionally dressed Muslims and Berbers, and certainly the summer heat — the Jews here are Spanish, i.e. European, to the core. No one here sees themselves as “African.” In fact, most people in north Africa refer to everyone else living in Sub-Sahara as “African.” Indeed, Melilla is culturally and politically Spain and the flag flies prominently above the Old Town.

I included Melilla (and hopefully, Ceuta, too) in my Jewish Africa project for its geographical and historical African connections. The mixture of Melilla’s soul and spirit makes for an interesting contrast, for sure.

I LANDED IN MELILLA from Madrid an hour late, meaning by the time I got to my hotel, I had 40 fast minutes to sort myself out, freshen up, and be ready to meet Mordejay in the lobby at 7:30 p.m. I made it. Barely.

In August, the sun shrines brightly and hot until late, meaning Shabbat itself does not start till late. After a short stroll around the central streets (everything in Melilla is close and reachable on foot), we went to Isaac Benarroch Synagogue, Mordejay’s usual place. I was immediately struck by the dozens of hanging oil lamps. Today, they are filled with light bulbs, but they are still beautiful when alight.

Evening service, Isaac Benarroch Synagogue. Melilla

Evening service, Isaac Benarroch Synagogue. Melilla

My presence, of course, attracted many eyeballs, but everyone seemed welcoming. Once the service got rolling, the prayers were chanted earnestly and in such unison that they almost sounded like hypnotic musical verses or incantations. By the time it was all over, I was very hungry and very tired. My day had started at 3:00 a.m. in Madeira where I had a 5:30 a.m. flight to Lisbon for breakfast, on to Madrid for lunch, before finally dining on tapas around 10 p.m. in Melilla. It had been an extraordinary day. I slept very well that night.

Museum of Ethnography of the Amazigh and Sephardic Cultures. Melilla

Museum of Ethnography of the Amazigh and Sephardic Cultures. Melilla

I WAS IN NO RUSH the next morning. It was a day off to casually explore the town. Then, serendipity: I started at the tourist information office across the road from my hotel. I asked specifically about any Jewish points of interest. The only one the young man could offer — and it was a good one — was the Museum of Ethnography of the Amazigh and Sephardic Cultures. The exhibits were a bit thin, but the fact that there is a museum dedicated to the history of the Sephardic Jews is significant.

Sephared sculpture. Melilla

Sephared sculpture. Melilla

On the way there, just in front of the Old Town walls, I chanced upon a monument to Sefarad (Sephardim). And on the same square, there is also a monument to the memory of Jewish philanthropist Yamin Benarroch. In the Old Town itself there are three former synagogues. They are unmarked, however. Mordejay would like to have plaques put up.

OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, I was constantly in and out of my hotel as Mordejay created time and photo opportunities for me. One interesting part of town he took me to is the old Barrio Hebreo (Jewish Quarter) with its almost whimsically named lanes of Calle Tel Aviv, Calle Jerusalem, Calle Haifa, and Calle Sion (Zion), now home to a Muslim community.

Calle Tel Aviv. Old Jewish Quarter, Melilla

Calle Tel Aviv. Old Jewish Quarter, Melilla

Funnest of all, was an hour we spent the evening before my departure walking from Jewish-owned shop to Jewish-owned shop to photograph the owners. All but one of the ten shops we visited declined (though she did allow photos of the shop itself). After a crash self and project introduction from Mordejay and me, I took aim at the camera-shy side of Jewish Melilla. Reluctant but willing, they stood at their counters — the butcher, the mini-market man, the hotel receptionist, the perfumaria owner, the cafe baristas. But it was in Tiferet, a women’s apparel shop, that the owner actually started to strike model poses. I thought that was sweet.

Owner, Tiferet women's clothing shop. Melilla

Owner, Tiferet women’s clothing shop. Melilla

I didn’t get to photograph, and, therefore, reveal, nearly as much as of Jewish Melilla as I had hoped to, but without Mordejay’s help and enthusiasm, I’d literally have had nothing. I’ll check in again next century. Perhaps by then, that 1492 psyche will itself have become history.

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The Green Cape

PRAIA, Cape Verde — Cape What? Cape Where? Cape Verde. It’s located in the eastern Atlantic Ocean some 570 kilometers (350 miles) west of Senegal. Where’s Senegal? West Africa. Where’s Africa? Mmm.

Cape Verde. See it?

Cape Verde. See it?

The Republic of Cabo Verde — as it is officially known — is comprised of 10 volcanic islands, each unique in shape, size, and texture, and inhabited by half a million hospitable souls.

The Portuguese settled these previously uninhabited happy isles in 1462 and Cape Verde — literally, the Green Cape — became a hub for the slave trade. Later, the likes of Charles Darwin and Sir Francis Drake stopped by. The archipelago gained independence in 1975.

Jews mainly arrived as a result of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions (1478 and 1536, respectively), but many converted to Christianity out of fear for their safety. Jews played a role in early trades, including the slave trade. Later, in the mid-1800s, Moroccan Jews freely emigrated to Cape Verde in search of economic opportunities. They came from places such as Tangier, Rabat, and Tetouan with such Sephardic names as Benoliel, Levy, Pinto, Cohen, and Wahon — names that appear in Hebrew and Portuguese on their gravestones in the 4 Jewish cemeteries that can be found here.

But the Jews who settled in Cape Verde were mainly men who, consequently, took non-Jewish wives which resulted in a rather short-lived Jewish community. Today, there are no practicing Jews there, not to mention no Jewish community, though there are potentially thousands of descendants — most of whom are likely unaware of their Jewish roots.

But not all. In fact, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Cape Verde, Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga (1991~2000), was of Jewish descent. My contact in Praia, the nation’s hilly and comely capital on Santiago Island, was Sofia de Oliveira Lima (Wahnon Veiga), a cousin of the former PM. A lawyer by profession with a passion for historical preservation, I was unaware of her familial connections, however, until after our time together.

Long before I met Sofia, however, it was with the aid of Carol Castiel, a presenter on VOA (Voice of America) radio in Washington, D.C. and president of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Foundation (CVJHF), that my Cape Verde visit was really put into motion. I stumbled across the CVJHF website in a Google search in October 2013 and immediately reached out to her by email. After a couple of false starts getting to Cape Verde — due to travel logistics and then the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — I finally secured a window of opportunity, and with that, essential information and contacts in Cape Verde via Carol.

Through her hard work and commitment to seeing through the restoration of Cape Verde’s four Jewish cemeteries, she and her colleagues managed to accomplish perhaps the most surprising thing of all — funding for the restorations from…wait for it…King Mohammed VI of Morocco — upwards of US$100,000.

“Andre Azoulay, a senior Jewish adviser to the king and a member of the CVJHF advisory board, [said] that the effort is reflective of the king’s “deep commitment” to preserving Jewish heritage in Morocco and elsewhere.” — (Moroccan King Funding Preservation of Cape Verde Jewish Heritage — But to What End?, JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), May 13, 2013.)

DAY 1: Praia, Santiago Island

I slept in just a bit later than normal because I had arrived in Praia from London via Lisbon just before midnight. I had time for a morning stroll before Sofia came to meet me at my hotel at the appointed time of 11:00 a.m. It’s always a pleasure — an honor, in fact — to be welcomed by someone local. Even out there, on the far-flung specs of Cape Verdean terra firma, I was given the rock star treatment.

Long awaited greetings done, our first stop was the Jewish cemetery smack dab in the middle of the sea of crosses of the Varzea Christian Cemetery. In fact, I’d already seen it — sort of. I had a distant balcony view of the cemetery from my hotel. With only 10 graves and cooperative light and weather conditions, my photo work was done in a mere 20 minutes. Had I been on my own, however, I’d likely have lingered a bit.

Jewish Cemetery. Praia, Santiago, Cape Verde

Jewish Cemetery. Praia, Santiago, Cape Verde

From the cemetery, Sofia took me for a spin up and over some rocky, barren terrain down to the coastal village of Cidade Velha. The settlement is home to the Church of Nossa Senhora do Rosario, the world’s oldest colonial church, built in 1495. The jaunt was unexpected (in fact, I was totally unsure what she had in store for me), but it was a most pleasant 30-minute excursion. We didn’t get out of the car until we stopped for a fantastic all-you-can-eat buffet lunch on a sun deck literally hanging over the sea at what appeared to be a newly-built mini-mall. In that short time, I caught a glimpse into the differences between city and rural life.

And that was it photo wise for Santiago Island. No other Jewish remnants to speak of — no old buildings, no monuments, no street names. I knew before landing that the photo ops were going to be limited in Cape Verde. Still, I always hope something unmentioned prior to arrival pops up, just not last minute with no time to fit it in. Not in this case, however.

DAY 2: Sal Rei, Boa Vista Island

My 8:45 a.m. flight on TACV (Transportes Aéreos de Cabo Verde) Airlines wasn’t much more than a puddle jump. Perhaps that is why there was zero security screening at the airport. Having become so accustomed to stringent boarding procedures, I was a little unnerved walking unfettered past the unmanned X-ray machines.

 Jewish Cemetery. Sal Rei, Boa Vista, Cape Verde

Jewish Cemetery. Sal Rei, Boa Vista, Cape Verde

The prop plane landed 35 minutes later on the desert-like isle (hardly a “Green Cape”), and by 10:30, I was settled into my digs for my one-night stay and ready to get out to the cemetery located a 15-minute walk down a road abutted by a stunning stretch of empty beach. At the end of the road, on the doorstep of the 5-star Marine Club Beach Resort, I found the 7 graves that comprise the Jewish cemetery penned in by neatly white washed walls resting peacefully beneath the fluttering shade of palm trees. Believe it or not, I managed to take some 500 images and spend nearly an hour photographing. I’m not likely to make it back to these far-flung corners, so it’s always best to make the most of it.

Praia de David. Sal Rei, Boa Vista, Cape Verde

Praia de David. Sal Rei, Boa Vista, Cape Verde

I also took some photos on the adjacent beach, named Praia de David for Jewish pioneer David Benoliel who is buried there. I took off my Crocs and just enjoyed the silky sand between my toes and the cool waves lapping at my ankles. I then made my way back to my accommodation.

Chapel of Fatima. Sal Rei, Boa Vista, Cape Verde

Chapel of Fatima. Sal Rei, Boa Vista, Cape Verde

On the way there, I remembered there was one other place of interest to photograph — a chapel I had seen in an article about Jewish Cape Verde. Turned out, I was halfway there when I was at the cemetery. The Chapel of Fatima is located about 15 minutes walk on the opposite side of the Marine Club. So, after a bit of a rest, in the late afternoon I took a taxi as far as the hotel (the end of the road), and then took a very pleasant stroll by the rocky seaside to reach the chapel. Built by David Benoliel in memory of his Christian wife, Fatima, it was both fortunately and unfortunately under renovation (the former because restoration is important, but the latter because the scaffolding and work materials made for a terrible photo opportunity).

DAY 3: Sal Rei, Boa Vista Island to Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao Island

There used to be a tiny airport on Santo Antao, but it has been closed ever since TACV flight 5002 crashed into a hillside on August 7, 1999, killing all 18 people aboard when it encountered blinding weather conditions. Today, the island is reachable only by ferry services from the nearby island of Sao Vicente. From Boa Vista Island, however, I had to take two flights — first, a 15-minute hop to Sal Island, then a 25-minute jump to Sao Vicente, where I arrived just before noon. Upon arrival, I told the taxi driver to take me to the ferry terminal.

“There’s no ferry until 5:30,” he insisted. I had been told there was a ferry at 4:30. “The ticket office is not open,” he also asserted. “It only opens about 2 hours before departure.”

“Please take me there anyway,” I instructed. “I need to check for myself.”

And it was a good thing I did. Just as we go there — 10 minutes later — the ticket office opened. Even better? A ferry was departing at 2:00 p.m. So, I bought a ticket and then sat in the cafe inside the terminal. I reached Porto Novo village on Santo Antao Island just after 3:00 p.m. But my destination was Ponta do Sol, a village on the opposite side of the island. With luck, I was offered a ride by a local man I met in the tourist office in Porto Novo ferry terminal who just happened to be going to Ponta do Sol. For half the usual fare, he drove me in his comfortable mini-van the last hour of a long day’s journey to my hotel.

The coastal road was simply awesome, breathtaking, memorable. The terrain was ever-changing. It was first Mars-like, barren, rocky, tree-less. Here, too, I wondered just why this place was named Cape Verde (the interior of the island actually has a lush, verdant micro-climate). Then it became more hilly until it yielded cliffs that thrust straight out of the sea high into the sky above us. We clung to the edge of it all along a very well-maintained road that twirled its way twixt the peaks and villages and vistas that all felt like a fairy tale. En route, we passed two other locations I would have to backtrack to photograph — the villages of Sinagoga and Ribeira Grande.

Jewish Cemetery. Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

Jewish Cemetery. Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

It was 5:00 o’clock when we arrived at the hotel. I was relieved to reach the end (literally) of the road. Yet, with the summer sun loitering until as late as 9:00 p.m., I was determined not to squander the last of the day’s soft light in order to photograph the comely Jewish cemetery pleasantly perched upon a hill just a few meters from a cliff. From its glorious vantage point, the village and the world were at my feet. I stood on a platform before the cemetery into which a menorah mosaic was neatly designed. It was all so unexpected because, frankly, I really didn’t know what I would encounter at the end of any of the roads I was journeying on.

Jewish Cemetery. Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

Jewish Cemetery. Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

There are only 7 graves in the cemetery, but as in Boa Vista, I spent over an hour shooting some 500 images. By the time I was done, I was simply exhausted. I returned to my hotel, showered and tidied up, unloaded and backed up my images, then, around 9:00 p.m., dined al fresco down the street. I pondered the great day it had been. That night, I slept like the rock I was on.

DAY 4: Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao Island

I had a 9:15 a.m. appointment at the Camara Municipal (Town Hall) with Jorge Pires Lima, a local official whom I’d been connected to by Carol. His office was all of but a 2-minute hike from my hotel. When I arrived, he seemed surprised to see me, and, in turn, I was surprised he was surprised because I thought we had confirmed things. Seems he thought I was coming the following day.

No matter. I waited for a bit while he sorted things out. I then spent a couple of hours with his underling, Ivanilda, an amiable and earnest young woman who seemed to know just enough about the Jewish sights I wanted to photograph in the villages of Ribeira Grande and Sinagoga.

View of Rua Direita, the busiest Jewish street, from doors of the Town Hall. Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

View of Rua Direita, the busiest Jewish street, from doors of the Town Hall. Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

First, however, we took a stroll straight out the front doors of the Camara Municipal down Rua Direita, once (and still) the main lane and focal point of trade. It was home to at least a few Jews including Benjamin Cohen, a tradesman. I had a correct hunch the night before that the derelict stone building across from my dinner table was once his residence and shop.

Former home (upstairs) and business of Benjamin Cohen, Rua Direita. Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

Former home (upstairs) and business of Benjamin Cohen, Rua Direita. Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

We then hopped into a van with a driver who took us about 20 minutes to Sinagoga, a picturesque village set in the nooks and crannies of the mountain sides on the edge of the coast. All I had expected to find here were a few houses and a sign for the town. What I did not expect was to actually find a synagogue. In a sense, I did, but I didn’t.

The sad, trash-filled, derelict ruins of what was once clearly a substantial stone building is utterly unrecognizable as a synagogue (or much of anything). Apparently, one corner of it was once the actual synagogue and the other areas functioned as a community center of sorts, perhaps classrooms or temporary accommodations. I had mixed emotions photographing the site. I was, of course, delighted to encounter this totally unexpected synagogue — despite the village’s name. And its setting upon a rocky promontory pounded on two sides by the Atlantic Ocean could not have been more appealing. But it was all just such a disaster zone. I couldn’t understand why there was so much trash, or why a garbage truck was parked in the middle of the place. Turned out, there was some sort of party held there the night before.

Synagogue and social center (ruins). Sinagoga, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

Synagogue and social center (ruins). Sinagoga, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

“That’s awful,” I lamented to Ivanilda. “This is a religious site. It should be respected. In fact, it should be preserved if for no other reason than to develop points of interest for tourists.” She agreed.

We then strolled through the village and I took photos along the way, including several selfies next to the “Sinagoga” sign on the side of the road.

Sign. Sinagoga, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

Sign. Sinagoga, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

From there, we headed back to Ribeira Grande (literally, big river) to photograph the Penha de Franca Jewish Cemetery. Like the other cemeteries I had previously visited, this one, too, was beautifully maintained, and tiny — only 7 souls are interred there. There is a menorah inlaid in the stonework here as there is in Ponta do Sol. With both a driver and a guide waiting for me, I only spent about 20 minutes photographing, but I managed to get all the shots and angles I needed, and the light was just nice.

Penha de Franca Jewish Cemetery. Ribeira Grande, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

Penha de Franca Jewish Cemetery. Ribeira Grande, Santo Antao, Cape Verde

My Jewish photo work done not only in Santo Antao but all of Cape Verde, we headed back to Ponta do Sol. I then spent the afternoon editing and sorting photographs before again dining al fresco at the same table as the night before. This time, however, I knew quite a bit more about the place and those stones across the street.

DAY 5: Ponta do Sol, Santo Antao Island to Praia, Santiago Island

I had a long day ahead of me. I was tired just thinking about it. My destination wasn’t really Praia, but Lisbon, no, Madeira. In order to get there, I had to drive an hour back back to the port for an 8:30 a.m. ferry, then a 12:30 p.m. flight to Praia. This time, we flew on a 737 Boeing Jet, again with no security clearance. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to commandeer a twin prop ATR-42 plane as with my other flights, but a jet? Mmm. It felt kind of like it was all for the taking. Weird. An hour delay meant we landed at 2:30 p.m. I headed back to the same hotel I had stayed in my first two nights for several hours rest and a shower before heading back to the airport for a midnight flight to Lisbon, then a connection to Madeira early the next morning. In fact, Madeira is really not a whole lot further from Cape Verde than a puddle jump. Too bad there are no direct flights.

When I looked upon Madeira on the approach, I could have sworn I had at last reached a verde cape.

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Jewish Africa Dublin

DUBLIN, Ireland — “I am happy to say we would be delighted to accept your kind offer to show some of your work at the Irish Jewish Museum as a temporary exhibit. The members of the committee were very impressed with your work and although we have not traditionally taken exhibits from outside Ireland, we think your work would be a very captivating and attractive addition to our display.” — February 3, 2015 email from Yvonne Altman O’Connor, Irish Jewish Museum, Dublin, Ireland.

Screenshot, Irish Jewish Museum website.

Screenshot, Irish Jewish Museum website.

It’s a small museum, and it only features a small display (25 images) at a small size (A4), but it’s a big deal (to me). I had journeyed from the opposite side of the planet to see my Jewish Africa show (on July 13 ~ September 30). It was pretty cool to see my work on show in what is a far-flung city from home in Osaka. I was also in town to give a presentation about my project. When I noted that “this is my world premier Jewish Africa photo show,” the 30 or so attendees at my presentation applauded.

I started my talk as I always do — by telling my name. “So,” I said, “a couple of weeks ago I rang up the Dolphins Barn Jewish Cemetery caretaker. I introduced myself, clarified my purpose, confirmed permission, then reiterated my name for good measure. JO-NO DA-VID, I said deliberately.”

“Right,” the Irishman said. “Sean O’David.”

“Uh…yeah.”

They laughed.

So, for one evening, I was Sean O’David.

“I’ve got to tell you this other little thing that happened yesterday. I was sharing the breakfast table with a guy at my hostel. I knew from his accent that he was Irish, but I asked where he was from.”

“Tipperary,” he said.

“How far is that?”

“About 2.5 hours,” he replied.

“Oh, not as far as I thought,” I mused, not at all intending to be funny or more likely obnoxious about it.

They laughed again.

At my Jews of Africa photo show, Irish Jewish Museum, Dublin, Ireland.

At my Jews of Africa photo show, Irish Jewish Museum, Dublin, Ireland.

The Irish Jewish Museum (IJM) is chock-a-block with historical goodies displayed on the two floors of what was originally two adjoining terraced houses built in the 1870s. The Walworth Road Synagogue, as it was known, is situated in the heart of a once bustling Jewish quarter. Services were held there for a century before there were not enough congregants to keep it viable. In 1985, the IJM was officially opened by Irish-born former President of Israel Chaim Herzog on June 20, 1985 during his State visit to Ireland.

I was honored and thrilled for the privilege of sharing my work and story with a warm-hearted crowd in such a storied and cozy setting.

“Jewish Africa” will be coming to the Beit Hatfutsot Museum (Tel Aviv, Israel), the Jewish Museum of Australia (Melbourne), the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (Johannesburg, South Africa), and more — dates and details pending.

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Let My People Know

OSAKA, Japan — The Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus are stories from the Old Testament that describe Hebrew servitude in ancient Egypt. That’s an over-simplified summary.

The Book of Madness is from the Newest Testament. It describes the trials and tribulations of a single Jew and his fruitless sojourn in a vast and barren bureaucratic Sigh-Nigh Desert to secure permission to enter Egypt in order to photograph in the Jewish communities of Cairo and Alexandria for his Jewish Africa photographic survey project. This debacle was on again, off again over the span of 40 years. Well, it felt like it. In the Diplomatic Diaspora, where even emails move at a snail’s pace, time slips down the curvature of a 40-year hour glass, seducing one to believe anything is possible only to realize it’s all a mirage.

JEWS HAVE BEEN IN EGYPT for a long time, perhaps longer than any other place on the African continent. (That’s another simplified summary of events.) So, of all the 30 or so countries and territories that I am including in my Jewish Africa opus, it is truly a pity that my wish to include Jewish Egypt is officially not going to happen. There are other conspicuous gaps in the project such as Algeria and Libya, but the risks aside, permission, language barriers, and zero contacts on the inside make those places simply not even worth considering. That does not mean I wouldn’t like to go, however. (In fact, I was in Libya in 2001 and managed to get some photographs of Jewish headstones in a couple of the War Memorial Cemeteries.)

But going to Egypt? That’s easy. Tourists get on planes and land in Cairo everyday. They gawk at the Pyramids of Giza, snap selfies with the Sphinx, get bedazzled at the Egyptian Museum, and flock to Luxor, Aswan, and cruise on the world’s longest river. I did those things in March 1985, long before I ever had an inkling that I’d wind up photographing all things Jewish. I didn’t even think about Jewish Egypt back then.

But I’ve been thinking about it ever since I conceived of this Jewish Africa project in 2010. I even thought I’d begin in North Africa, though I was dissuaded when I realized it made better sense to get my feet wet, make contacts, and build momentum by working Southern Africa first where language is not a barrier, contacts come easily, and permission is warmly granted.

President of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Haroun (uncredited photo)

President of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Haroun (uncredited photo)

I WENT IN SEARCH OF Magda Haroun, head of the minuscule Jewish community of Egypt (there are perhaps a couple of dozen Jews there, many of them aged, and a few dozen more in Alexandria). I simply could not find her contact information. I sent out emails. I posted ISO notices on Facebook. I scoured the internet. Finally, after a few months, I hit upon the contact information motherload: the Bassatine News, the only Jewish newsletter that is reported directly from Egypt. There were telephone numbers, email addresses, synagogue addresses, opening times, plus contact information for the Jewish Community of Alexandria and community president ,Youssef Ben Gaon. Upon closer inspection, I realized I had actually bookmarked the website ages before, but I simply overlooked the contact information. Face palm.

Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, Cairo (uncredited photo)

Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, Cairo (uncredited photo)

When I saw that the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue and the Ben Ezra Synagogue are open daily to visitors, I thought all I had to do was contact Magda directly, introduce myself and my Jewish Africa photo project, and she’ll be happy to welcome me, same for Alexandria.

Oh, how I was wrong.

While the Jewish communities welcome visitors, photographs are strictly forbidden without official government approval. I think, in fact, that the Jewish communities themselves would gladly welcome me for photographs, but the facilities in the Jewish communities fall under the direction of the Ministry of State for Antiquities. But permission must first be granted by the Press Office of Cairo. Without official press credentials, the hurdles would ultimately prove too high. In my first telephone call with Magda, she said as much. “You need to get permission from the Ministry of Antiquities,” she said. “Then get back in touch with me.” I gave it my best shot, however. 

Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo (uncredited photo)

Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo (uncredited photo)

I SPENT MONTHS THINKING of creative ways to get permission from the Press Office. I reached out to a few credentialed people in the press world, including one guy at the New York Times. I wrote emails to editors I had worked with directly basically begging for them to provide a letter of support stating that I was on assignment for them on a feature on Jewish Egypt. All but one responded with reasons why they couldn’t do me the favor. The one who agreed graciously pasted a pre-written letter that I provided onto their letterhead. They did this twice. Neither was ever actually used because I never got to the application stage despite being very close. I pulled back when I realized another key document was even more improbable to obtain: a guarantee for my camera equipment from a bank. Yeah, I know…a letter of guarantee?

Bassatine Jewish Cemetery, Cairo (uncredited photo)

Bassatine Jewish Cemetery, Cairo (uncredited photo)

Next, I reached out for help at the Embassies of Egypt in Pretoria, South Africa (because that is country where the magazine who provided the letter of support is based), London, England and Washington, D.C. (because of my passports), and Tokyo, Japan (because I reside in Osaka). But I only fell deeper into the vortex of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo.

By this point, my heart had pretty much surrendered, and my mind had resigned itself to this dismal outcome: Jewish Africa would be Egyptless.

I called Magda Haroun again several months after my first call.

“What if I come as a tourist and meet with your privately? Perhaps I can get a few photos of some synagogues and meet with a few people,” I inquired very gently. But she wouldn’t allow it. “I only meet with official press,” she said.

“I understand,” I replied, and wished her and the community long life. Alas, I know there isn’t much life left there.

I then sent emails to five current and former Ambassadors of Israel to various countries, all of whom I had met or had direct contact with, inquiring if they had diplomatic channels connecting to Egypt, plus a minister in the government of South Africa. The three leads I got lead to dead ends.

I even had the very long-shot idea of inquiring directly with the President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, so I sent an email to the Embassy of Egypt in Tokyo (the last of dozens from a back-and-forth that ultimately got me no where) asking how I can post a letter to the office of the president.

Mr. Visa Section (that’s how the emails were always signed, “Regards, Visa Section”), replied, “I consulted the Consul and he regrets that we can not provide you with President Sisi’s contact details for privacy issues. Please kindly search the internet for the contact of the government.”

That’s odd, I thought. I wasn’t asking for his personal contact details. I did search the internet, but I found no specific office for the president.

What a pity, I thought, not so much for me and what I am trying to achieve, but for the people of Egypt and the government mess and distrust they hold.

Maimonides Synagogue (aka Rav Moshe Synagogue), during restorations, Cairo (uncredited photo)

Maimonides Synagogue (aka Rav Moshe Synagogue), during restorations, Cairo (uncredited photo)

It’s a particular shame because there have been recent glimmers of hope for relations between Egypt and Israel. In June 2009, the Egyptian government officially sanctioned a US$2 million restoration of the Maimonides Synagogue (aka Rav Moshe Synagogue), a historic synagogue site in the Jewish Quarter dating to the 10th century (the current building dates to the 19th century). Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s antiquities czar at the time, commented, “It’s part of our history. It’s part of our heritage.” (A Synagogue in Cairo, by Andrew Baker, NY Times, Opinion pages, March 3, 2010.)

Scene from The Jewish Quarter TV mini-series.

Scene from The Jewish Quarter TV mini-series.

The Jewish Quarter, Cairo (uncredited photo)

The Jewish Quarter, Cairo (uncredited photo)

More recently, “The Jewish Quarter” (“Harat al-Yahud” in Arabic) was a popular topic of conversation in Egypt and even the Palestinian territories. It’s a TV mini-series shown during the Ramadan holidays. The show featured…gasp…a Jewish-Muslim romance and, for the first time in years, portrayed Jews as…wait for it…people, not animals.

So why not let a photographer guy on a personal mission who’s not officially press credentialed in and take some pictures? Let my visit be another bridge to cultural acceptance, no matter how small that bridge may be.

Egypt, you once let my people go, now let me let my people know.

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Stepping Into 7, Striding Into 8

OSAKA, Japan — As I completed putting the puzzle of Jewish Africa leg #7 together, a picture came into view that I had not really expected to see: Leg #8. Significance? Realizing that I am turning my sights to the last stage of my project is thrilling because I am actually going to pull this giant, audacious (and expensive) project off. But the realization of that picture is also a bit disappointing because the ride has been a joy from the start. I don’t want to get off. It’s nearly time to move on, however.

Even before snapping in those final pieces of the itinerary for leg #7 or had any idea of where I needed to go for leg #8, I was, in fact, long focused on the afterlife of Jewish Africa. I’ve been working on securing photo exhibitions and seeking a publisher for many months already. Lately, I’ve had a lot of balls in the air. Good thing I taught myself to juggle when I was about 10 years old.

The end of the photo stages is actually the beginning. When I conceived this Jewish Africa photographic survey project sometime back in 2010, I started with the end: What are my goals? What is my purpose? Above all, Who are the Jews of Africa? As I head into the final two legs, I am feeling pretty confident that I will have answered those questions.

My goal was to create the largest Jewish Africa photographic survey of its kind for the purpose of documenting and sharing a vast Jewish world that is by and large little-known in general Jewish circles beyond the geographical limits of Africa. I believe that my images have captured the breadth and scope of communities across Jewish Africa by reflecting their dynamic ways of life and commitment to the Jewish faith (though their stories will be better and more coherently told in both a book and exhibitions) thus answering the question, Who are the Jews of Africa?

But the job is not yet complete. The story is not yet fully told. Though I know clearly what my final two legs have on the itinerary, I have to get there and get the images.

Irish Jewish Museum, Dublin

Irish Jewish Museum, Dublin

Leg #7 kicks off with my arrival on July 30 not in Africa, but in London, England and Dublin, Ireland before heading to Cape Verde, Madeira, Melilla, Nigeria, and South Africa. I feel overdue for a visit to the “Motherland” so I am heading to London for a week of downtime (sort of) before launching into a hectic flight schedule. During that week, I’m taking a side excursion to Dublin for two nights to see what is, in fact, my world premier Jewish Africa photo show held at the Irish Jewish Museum from July 6 through September 30. It’s a small show featuring 25 images from 16 countries, but it gives a good glimpse into Jewish Africa — and what I’ve been doing since August 2012.

Packing up the images and texts for shipment to the Irish Jewish Museum.

Packing up the images and texts for shipment to the Irish Jewish Museum.

I got word of confirmation by email on February 3, 2015: “I am happy to say we would be delighted to accept your kind offer to show some of your work at the Irish Jewish Museum as a temporary exhibit. The members of the committee were very impressed with your work and although we have not traditionally taken exhibits from outside Ireland, we think your work would be a very captivating and attractive addition to our display,” wrote my contact. Wow, I thought. I’m honored.

FROM LONDON VIA LISBON, I THEN GO TO CAPE VERDE, (officially the Republic of Cabo Verde), a group of 10 islands off the west coast of Africa, some 490 kilometers (300 miles) from Senegal. I’m including this far-flung archipelago in my Jewish Africa project for its geographical proximity to Africa more than for its political or historical past, though there are plenty of ties, most notably, the slave trade. Long before winning independence from Portugal in 1975 (a colony from 1463), the country also had a storied past as a lair for pirates. Visitors of note include Sir Frances Drake (1580s) and Charles Darwin (1832).

Jews first arrived in Cape Verde between 1460 and 1497 as settlers under the Portuguese flag. A number of Moroccan Jews settled in Cape Verde in the latter half of the 1800s. They were primarily involved in merchandising.

Today, there is no Jewish community, but there are four recently restored cemeteries that are of great interest: one in Praia, Santiago Island; one in Sal Rei, Boa Vista Island; and two on Santo Antao Island, one each in Ponta do Sol and Ribeira Grande. Also on Santo Antao, there is a village called Sinagoga. So, I’ll be doing some island hopping during my week-long stay. Interestingly, due to its Moroccan connections, King Mohammed VI of Morocco financially assisted the cemetery restoration project. (Learn more by visiting the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project.)

THEN IT’S ON TO THE PORTUGUESE ARCHIPELAGO OF MADEIRA for two nights, also included in my project for its geographical proximity to Africa more than for its political or historical ties. I’m not expecting to get much photographically as there is only a small, mainly derelict cemetery (as far as I can tell) and the facade of the former Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue (built in 1836, it is apparently now shops). Jews arrived in Madeira from Morocco in 1819 and worked in the garment industry. By the end of the Second World War, there were few Jews left, and today there is no Jewish community at all.

August flight schedule

August flight schedule

FLYING ONCE AGAIN VIA LISBON with a connection in Madrid too, I then go to mainland Africa, no, Europe. No, wait. Africa. Well, both…at the same time. Huh? No, I don’t possess a superhuman power (though I do send my hologram to work). The Spanish enclave of Melilla is geographically African yet politically European. Some call Melilla “Spanish Morocco.” Moroccans surely don’t. As one might expect, they consider the autonomous port city on their north coast as disputed territory (along with Ceuta, another “Spanish Moroccan” autonomous port city also on the northern coast of Morocco where I hope to go on my final Jewish Africa leg. In fact, several peñón, or island forts, off northern Morocco, are controlled by Spain).

Melilla became a place of Jewish refuge in 1492 to flee the Spanish Inquisition (both Melilla and Ceuta were only indirectly influenced by the Inquisition). By 1535, at least 1,500 Jews had settled there, and a Jewish presence has been unbroken ever since. Evidence of a long-time Jewish presence is found in the expansive Jewish cemetery with graves dating to 1565. At one time, there were some three dozen synagogues in the fortified town, several of which are still open and operational today.

Over the years, Jewish numbers swelled and deflated with political circumstances and even took in a number of refugees fleeing Nazi advances. Today, some 800 Jews reside in Melilla (and some 300 in Ceuta).

WITH FLIGHT CONNECTIONS IN MADRID AND ISTANBUL, it’s into the heart of a more “African destination” — Nigeria. Admittedly, I feel a measure of trepidation traveling there (there are few places I feel that way about anymore). Its reputation for violence and outrageous attacks by Boko Haram proceed itself. But I am taking an “acceptable” risk.

Let me clarify where I am going and why. I am only going to Abuja, the capital. As it says on the wikitravel Abuja page (and as I’ve heard from various contacts), “Abuja tends to be a sharp contrast against the background of the rest of Nigeria. While car hijackings and armed robbery are high in Lagos, and kidnapping of foreign oil workers is prevalent in the Niger delta, Abuja in sharp contrast, is one of the safest metropolitan cites in Nigeria.” Even the Japanese clerk at the Embassy of Nigeria in Tokyo told me by phone, “Oh, Abuja. Safe. Safe. No problem.” And, with all due respect to Japanese, Japanese are perhaps the most nervous travelers out there.

I am keen to include Nigeria in my Jewish Africa project for one simple reason: the Igbo Jews. Unfortunately, however, I am not willing to travel to Igbo Land in the southern region of the country because the risks are “unacceptable”. But there is a contingent in Abuja. So, limited as it might be, I am going to meet and photograph their community in the capital.

One may also be able to measure the sense of safety and security of Abuja by the presence of Chabad-Lubavitch, which has an active Center that serves the religious and social needs of some 400 expat Jews (including some 120 kids, and some 1,200 Jews in Nigeria over all, not including the Igbo communities).

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the world is a safer, kinder, gentler place than it is in news reels. But I am no fool and I have done my homework on safety and security. In fact, I am more concerned about reckless drivers as a more realistic direct personal danger than Boko Haram.

FINALLY, I HEAD “HOME” TO SOUTH AFRICA which I sorely missed on leg #6. I’ll be in Johannesburg for a week and four days in Cape Town from where I’ll make the long journey back to Osaka via Johannesburg and Istanbul. Though I have yet to fill up the South African calendar with any photo appointments, I do have several social calls to make, including a meeting with a publisher (but that’s a story yet to be written).

Upon my return to Osaka, exhausted, I will be stepping out of 7 and striding into 8.

### end

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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.

### end

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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?

### end

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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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Click for JEWISH AFRICA PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS.

FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSIONBIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER /INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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