ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — I made no attempts to say anyone’s name in Madagascar, never mind try to remember them. Malagasy names are long, really long. Just reading them feels like having a mouthful of marbles. Thankfully, however, Malagasy have recognized this fact as all the people I met seem to have clipped their names into a manageable two or three syllable. Even the traffic-clogged capital city of Antananarivo is affectionately — and simply — called Tana.
My point man on this fabled land was Raherimasoandro Andriamamonjy (yeah, good luck with that!). Thankfully he too has pruned his 28-letter name to four and a manageable two syllables: Hery. He is, in fact, a prince, descendant of…wait for it…d’Andriamlaramanjaka, Roi de Kaloy et de Ratsitohinimanjaka, mere d’Andrianjaka Roi d’Antananarivo. Well, that’s what it says on his very tiny business card (seriously, the smallest I’ve ever seen, though a few days after receiving it he insisted I take his newer, larger card, so now I have both).
Hery is not Jewish but he has an affinity for Jews. He is the President of the Shalom Club of Madagascar, an international group that liaises with Israeli officials in dealing with mainly cultural and informational arenas. By profession, Hery is an official in the Department of Commerce. It is through his work that he once traveled to Israel and thereafter maintained his Jewish-Israeli ties. In the Shalom Club’s manifesto, The Appeal of the Jewish Community of Madagascar, it states: “The Jewish Community of Madagascar exists, in spite of thousands of kilometers which separate it of the mother country…”
Hery works closely with Communaute Juive de Madagascar and an informal association called “Diaspora Jiosy Gasy (Malagasy Jewish Disaspora” comprised of a number of “devout members [who] had realized that, from the same root, and one faith, that Abraham’s (sic), so in March 2012, an association called 2M2F was created by a group of persons professing the original faith of Abraham, Itsaak and Yakov, aiming to teach Torah…” The community is comprised of a scattered 1,500 people whose goals are: “to teach the Hebrew bible; provide a social education according to the Torah; helping relationship; together without distinction all Malagasy citizens in the Jewish faith community.”
I first contacted Hery in March 2013 but it would not be until August 2014 that I would finally land on the world’s 4th largest island, a splinter of rugged landscapes off the southeast coast of Africa. Plans to go there were postponed by seasonal weather conditions and timing clashes with other trips. I knew so little about Madagascar itself and even less about any Jews or Jewish connections to the country that, in the end, I just threw caution to the wind and let Prince Hery arrange everything for me. He gained my confidence when he emailed on May 7, 2014, “I am very aware for your mission, that of promoting the Jewish photo project in Africa, therefore, where we will see this Jewish community. Yes, there is not much but I assure you that you will not leave empty-handed by[e]. Friendly Shalom.”
When I showed up at Beit HaTefilah Israel community for Shabbat services, I was surprised to encounter such a vibrant Jewish group, I was met primarily by Andriaoelimisarisoa and Andrianaivoarimisa (because they were the only ones of the 50 or so in attendance to speak a workable level of English). To my relief, these 20-something-year-old sisters too go by names that more easily fit in my mouth: Elsie and Joele, respectfully. Their grandfather went to Israel in 1961 as a government official to learn about kibbutz with the intention of implementing a similar social network in Madagascar. His efforts were met with limited success. Still, his granddaughters proudly showed off a number of black and white photos from his stay in the Holy Land.
“We have always considered ourselves Jews,” Elsie told me. Perhaps she has good reason to do so. Some claim, though with dubious evidence and tenuous tales, that the Malagasy are largely descendants of a Lost Tribe of Israel. Circumcision has long been practiced on the island and people don’t eat pork, but these practices are not unique to the people here and those habits alone hardly suffice as evidence of Israelite descent.
Adam Rovner wrote about this subject in his article, “Almost Jewish Madagascar” (Moment Magazine, May-June 2009): “As early as 1658 the island’s French governor, Etienne de Flacourt, affirmed the Malagasy’s Jewish origins in part because he witnessed tribes practicing circumcision, a custom that remains nearly universal here. Englishman Daniel Defoe, best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, helped popularize the connection between Jews and Madagascar. As the ghostwriter for the popular 1729 “Madagascar: Or, Robert Drury’s Journal, During Fifteen Years Captivity on that Island”, Defoe outdid Flacourt, suspecting that “the Jews derived a great deal from [the Malagasy], instead of they from the Jews.” He went so far as to claim that the priestly garments used in Solomon’s Temple were merely “improvements” on Malagasy customs. Some 19th and 20th century British and French scholars continued to maintain that the Malagasy descended from biblical era seafaring Jews. A Lazarite missionary, Joseph Briant, published a 1946 monograph purporting to find traces of Hebrew in local languages. Starting from the notion that the Malagasy are crypto-Jews, it’s easy to conclude that Madagascar is itself the promised land.”
Prince Ndriana Rabarioelina, PhD, claims to be a direct descendant of Aaron the High Priest. He specializes in the history of Madagascar and its Jewish ties (he’s publishing a 1,000-page, 3-volume book on the topic in late 2014). In a somewhat stately room at his family-owned hotel, he told me many stories about the links and lineage of the Malagasy to a Tribe of Israel. He explained that the word Madagascar is derived from Hebrew and he even says that the gold employed in King Solomon’s Temple was mined in Madagascar.
I was truly impressed, but I wasn’t. I don’t mean that disparagingly, but with caution. If I am to believe all stories of Tribes of Israel descent, I’d see virtually the entire world as Jewish (even a sect of Shinto in Japan are said to be of a Lost Tribe). It seems far-fetched and far-flung. But then, I am excited by the prospects and I’d certainly be delighted to learn of irrefutable evidence that supports any such claims, so I remain open-minded on the matter.
When I arrived at Shabbat services at Beit HaTefilah Israel, I had no idea that I was, in fact, the guest of honor. Hery made no mention of anything that was about to happen. In fact, it was only when I inspected the two-page weekly service brochure that I saw my name imprinted on the front. I was incorrectly billed as being from the African Jewish Congress (AJC). Not wanting to disappoint, I did not clarify that fact when I was formally introduced to the group though I did make that clear when I spoke to people individually. I think Hery got the impression I was affiliated with the AJC because I was introduced to him by Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the Traveling Rabbi from Johannesburg, South Africa who is the organization’s President. There seemed to be a slight disappointment when I said I was merely an independent photographer, but that was offset when I told the group that part of my mission is to share their story with the Jewish world through my photos in the hopes they connect with outside communities that will eventually aid their quest for full Jewish conversion and acceptance.
I never expected to find tallit-shrouded, kippot-capped people here. I was immediately struck by the earnest manner of their prayer — oft closed eyes and raised open hands, something more akin to a church service and likely a holdover from their prayers as former Christian-somethings. Other aspects were all too familiar: noisy kids running around; women to one side, men to the other; a service that seemed to go on forever despite the pangs of hunger; and a large table covered by an impressive kiddush buffet that was soon devoured by a famished community, myself included. Instead of blessing wine and bread per the usual custom, the spiritual leader raised a plate of macaroni, thanked Hashem several times, and said a few amens. It all felt familiarly unfamiliar.
The Jewish community that I unexpectedly encountered somehow fit neatly within my image of Madagascar as a curious land of contrasts and, well, the unexpected. After all, this place is one of the most bio-diverse spots on the planet, so it only stands to reason that there would be a place for a socially-diverse element too. The land of lemurs may have claims to Lost Tribes, but the Malagasy are far more Indo-Malayan than they are “African” (many Malagasy don’t regard themselves as African). Many of their ancestors were seafarers. Lemurs apparently arrived by rafts, too. This island, itself a veritable raft, was ruled by a line of kings and queens before the French colonized the place (1897~1958), leaving their language, architecture, baguettes, croissants, and coffee culture behind.
Today, the largely agrarian population still tills the land without aid of modern mechanized farming equipment. As the world’s 9th poorest country with a GDP per capita of US$972 (2013, IMF), the vast majority of Malagasy are bound by a meagre US$2 a day. Upward mobility is not the dream here, survival is. Perhaps upward spiritual mobility is more realistically attainable as I realized in the Beit HaTefilah Israel community. Though my sojourn scratched merely the surface of this dynamic country, it was clear to see that the spirit of the land, the legends, and the people — no matter what their ancestral lines — are buoyant.
Perhaps the most surprising Jewish connection to Madagascar is the Madagascar Plan, one of several resettlement plans in the late 1800s/early 1900s for European Jews. The Polish government first considered the idea in 1937 but scrapped it when it was determined that it was unsustainable. The Nazis reconsidered the plan in 1940 before coming up with the Final Solution.
FOOTNOTE (added, September 18, 2014): A message received from a member of the Beit HaTefilah Israel community (copied and pasted here verbatim) —>
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