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Yet Another Year
Interesting and Challenging

As has become my custom, as each new birthday approaches, I introspect how the year ending has effected me, hopefully for the better. In addition to informing you, my dear readers, of my adventures, my thinking and my philosophy, this exercise allows me to summarise for myself where I am, perhaps even who I am, today and where I may be headed. This in spite of the findings of recent research that most people score poorly in predicting where they will be in ten years time, let alone further into the future.

Though this has been a most interesting twelve months, I have written very little; perhaps subconsciously as compensation, I have photographed extensively, over 10,000 frames, many of which still await processing and seeing the light of day.

There is much for which to be grateful and I thank haShem for the wonderful year that was, this my 61st year.

The year commenced on the right (assuming left-handers are to use this term) foot; the day after my birthday, our grandson, Yehuda Yair, was born. The following months saw the arrival of Inbal, Alma Hana and Alon Shalom.

Jill and I also travelled a bit during the year, covering Addis Ababa -- for just a few hours -- Uganda, Kenya, Jordan, Hong Kong, Macau, mainland China, Tibet, Thailand, Spain and Portugal. What is ready of the thousands of photographs from these trips, is as usual viewable on my website. A majority of the photographs I shot in 2012 also still await processing, but heck, I'll eventually get there too. This processing consumes much of my time, though of course is much faster than it was in the darkroom, where I was happy to spend an evening producing just four or five enlargements. I do however need a new workflow. Perhaps the new professional photographers group, whose inaugural meeting I attended last week, will help me find workable solutions.

This year I broached new photography technologies, both software and hardware. I now always shoot in RAW format which gives me latitude with which to work. I use DxO's wonderful lightroom software which have opened undreamt of new possibilities. I can no longer, and happily so, make the claim I made at the time I published my first book in 2006 that I only did with software what I could have done in the classic darkroom.

I embarked on mirrorless technology, shooting with FujiFilm's Leica lookalikes. My new X-E1 camera produces photographs on par with, and in some cases better and sharper, than the Canon 5Ds I have been using for the past seven years. The Fujis are both a third the cost and the weight of the big SLRs. While there are still many things for which I continue to use my "older" equipment, I believe in a couple more iterations of the new technology, the SLR will go the way of the dinosaur.

This year has been a very productive year too in terms of what I have learnt, in many different fields. I continue to study daf yomi, a page of Talmud each day. After years of hesitation, I finally took up this habit eighteen months ago with the commencement of the new seven year cycle. I am learning a lot, though it is but a quick surf in the Talmudic ocean. I am disappointed that Koren never produced, nor seem to be doing so, their promised iPad version. I honestly only bought my iPad in expectation of this app -- I love that word; it's amazing how language changes; apps are no different from what I have called a [computer] program for the last forty years! I do much reading on this device, both with Kindle and iBooks -- it's a great place to read academic papers -- and I surf, listen to music and other useful, though I admit sometimes time-wasting, activities. So I am restricted to the printed version of the Talmud, with all its shortcomings. With the lack of an app, I don't have a dilemma learning on shabath! I still confidently await a halakhic solution, something that some orthodox scholars have already hinted as a possibility.

I am grateful to Rabbi Shimon Golan for his always interesting daily Mishna class which sometimes I do cartwheels to attend, Rabbi Meir Alfasi for hinting at the world of the secret Torah, and to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin for his friendship and guidance, especially in the realm of spreading haShem, the concept one God and Ruler, and His Torah, to the wide world. Each of these wise teachers continues to influence the way I relate to my world, and I thank haShem for having allowed me to enter into their shadows.


Our friend Tarphon from the Putti Abayudaya community in Mbale, Uganda, announced that he was to marry his childhood sweetheart, Ruthie, who though from Nairobi, attended high school with the Abayudaya in Uganda. Rabbi Riskin and an entourage from Israel, the U.S. and Canada flew in to attend the celebration.

Various preparations were necessary before embarking on this trip, which was to include some conversions. Though the Abayudaya have been practicing Judaism for close to a hundred years, they have not [yet] been orthodoxly converted. (Some 80% of the community have accepted Conservative conversion, starting in 2002. This action created a schism in the close-knit community, with the Abayudaya of Putti, and recently an increasing number of others, opting to only accept what they call "real Judaism", viz. an orthodox conversion.)

In order to facilitate these conversions, we organised, prior to our arrival, the building of a new mikve. It is unlike any that most have seen. One of the first Torah commandments Semei Kakungulu, the founder of the Abayudaya, accepted upon himself, was circumcision. As his descendants and followers have diligently continued this tradition, it was not necessary to circumcise the male converts.

These conversions also meant we had another wedding to perform.

Personally, I felt that many more than the handful that were converted on this trip should have been converted, but the Rabbis felt otherwise, though promising to return to complete the task in the near future. I await the return trip. Nearly a year has transpired and we have not yet been back. In the past months, another two communities of Abayudaya have started defining themselves as orthodox, though again, they still lack formal conversion.

Following our few days in the Mbale area, Jill and I flew to Nairobi where we spent shabath. Here we met old friends from my first trip. Each and every shabath, Friday night and Saturday morning, some fifteen local people attend prayer services. Nothing seemed to have changed in the intervening nineteen months since my previous visit. Some "white" members of the community accept the "outsiders" while others ignore them, not wanting to involve them in any other of the shul's activities. This is sad and selfish, as some of the locals act more "Jewishly" than many established members.

The story of one man was related to us. He wasn't present on that shabath as he lives well over an hour's walk away and will not desecrate the holiness of the day by taking a bus. He is currently suing the government over the fact that his children's school is forcing them to attend Christian scripture classes, which he claims is religious coercion, as his children are Jewish! It's a strong matter of principle with him -- I don't know how he affords the legal costs.

I must note that this man is not "yet" formally Jewish. He would love to convert, but the lack of a rabbi in this tiny, nominally orthodox, community makes this difficult if not impossible, not just in order to perform the conversions, but to provide a Jewish infrastructure for these people to be part of. It is unfortunate the congregation has been so long without a spiritual leader. I think it would be difficult for anyone now to satisfy their needs.

After shabath, we were off for a safari in the Maasai Mara. Photographs still to come -- it was a fascinating vist. Our guide for four days was an interesting man whom we called Edward. We met this concept in China too. As people have names that the tourist industry is certain Americans can't pronounce or relate to, they make up "American" names. Everyone in Hong Kong Disneyland for example has such an English name -- and no two are given the same! In Beijing, our guide's name was Jet.

On our second outing -- we safaried each day, from before sunrise until after sunset, with a 4 hour break for lunch and rest -- Edward sheepishly asked, " Are you Jewish?" "Yes", we replied. He was overjoyed, bouncing around in the driver's seat. "I knew it", he said. "I've never heard Hebrew before, but I was sure that's what you were speaking". The next morning he told us how overwhelmed his brother was to hear that Edward was guiding a Jewish Israeli couple.

He explained that he was a member of a church, which has a number of branches in Kenya, whose members keep the sabbath as a full day of rest on Saturday. Amongst other things, they observe Torah dietary laws. They meet for prayers on Friday nights, and then return to church the next morning, spending the entire day in prayer and eating preprepared meals together. This new knowledge added an interesting dimension to the safari. As we met various animals, truly wonderful creatures, he would now proclaim, "How wonderful are your creations, oh Lord". Pointing to the animals in the reserve, he would say, "We can eat that", or "We are not allowed to eat that".

Sometimes I would beat him to the mark. For example, when he pointed out a guinea fowl, I was able to say, "We can eat!" I, an avowed vegan, knew this from Ari Greenspan who met an old North African Jew, who was able to verify that his community used to eat this particular bird. Knowing this tradition is a necessary condition for a bird's kosher status. Only as a result of testimony, Jews are permitted to eat guinea fowl. Edward was thrilled at the news, though I fear it may be a protected bird in Kenya. Those we met running around the game reserve certainly were. I also explained to him that a giraffe was a kosher animal. He wondered how it could be ritually slaughtered. This though is out of the question, as the giraffe certainly is a protected animal in Kenya and Tanzania.

We had many interesting discussions with Edward over our few days together. At one stage I began to fear that he and his people may be interested in converting to Judaism. I was sensitive to this prospect after Nairobi. I say "feared" tongue-in-cheek as, in the back of my mind, I wondered how Rabbi Riskin would react when I returned home with the news of yet another African group waiting to embrace Judaism.

The Jewish World on the Periphery

This didn't happen, not at least on this visit. However since meeting Edward, the Rabbi and I have expanded our contacts with African groups, some of whom do indeed wish to convert, some even claiming Jewish or Israelite origins, accompanied by a desire to return to the ways of their forefathers.

I am currently in contact with the Lemba, a group claiming Jewish descendent, who hve sojourned in southern Africa for some 700 years. Their narrative is interesting. They claim that their forefathers were sea traders, originating in what is today Saudi Arabia or Yemen. We know that many Arab traders plied the calm waters of the east African coast at this time. Swahili, the official language of Kenya, though basically a Bantu language, contains many Arabic elements, in vocabulary, pronunciation and even scripting. Mombasa, the port, architecturally resembles moslem cities.

The Lemba claim that on return to shore from one business trip, their ancestors were greeted with the news that moslem tribesmen had sacked their village, killed the menfolk, raped the woman and sold everyone remaining as slaves -- and they awaited the mens' return to pillage and murder them too. Perceiving little other choice, they returned to Africa, eventually arriving to the area they occupy today, principally in today's postcolonial nations of Zimbabwe and South Africa, with smaller numbers in neighbouring Mozambique and Malawi. The Lemba are largely invisible to their neighbours, practicing their religion n secret. Some of these customs may have Jewish origins, including a special form of slaughter using a very sharp knife without any nicks; only eating animals with split hooves and chewing their cud; restricting themselves to birds which have a crop and gizzard, meaning grain-eaters, and with separated toes; they drain all blood; they only eat four specific categories of vegetarian locusts and crickets; they circumcise their males at around eight years of age.

Perhaps most intriguing is their genetic connection, which backs their narrative. While their mitochondrial [female line] D.N.A. places them firmly within Africa, their male Y-chromosome not only indicates origins in our area, but a higher percentage of their priestly caste possess the Cohen Modal Haplotype, the so-called "cohen gene", than do the Cohanim in the general Jewish population.

During the year, the Rabbi and I also had the privilege of meeting Prof. Tudor Parfitt, an English academic who has been researching "Jews on the periphery" for over 40 years. He was the scholar that carried out the Lemba research, and also similar research with the Bnei Yisrael of India, verifying their doubtful pedigree. He also found the cohen haplotype there. The Delhi Times mistakenly headlined the news, "Moses Gene Found in India", though of course it was Aharon's.

Prof. Parfitt introduced me to the possibility that Iberian Jews, escaping persecution in the fifteenth century crossed the Mediterranean, continuing to West Africa, today's Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana. This was the centre of the gold trade, as well as being the terminus of the African arm of the Silk and Spice Roads. In October, this revelation took me to Spain and Portugal to learn about the forced conversions and expulsions. Amongst other research on this topic, I am now studying Benzion Netanyahu's book, The Origins of the Spanish Inquisition. This visit and Prof. Netanyahu's detailed work, has totally changed my perception of the demise of Spanish Jewry.

I had, prior to meeting the professor, been in contact before with a man in Cameroon. We invited him to Israel to study in the yeshiva. We are still waiting for the Israel Interior Ministry to overcome its racist attitude to Africans, even those converted to Judaism, and issue him a visa. The Law of Return recognises the right of converts, even reform, to come "home" to Israel. My friend has been converted, though not to our satisfaction, but to a level which is supposedly acceptable under our law. Were he white, he would already be here.

We commenced our correspondence after I heard that he and a small group in Yaoundé have been keeping the Torah as orthodox Jews for a number of years. Their story, similar to that of Kakungulu in Uganda, is that their families had been converted by Christian missionaries, the hallmark action of European imperialism, but that some in this generation realised things lacking or contradictory in the New Testament. So they rejected it, eventually realising that they had arrived to Judaism by default. As they learnt more Jewish customs and laws, they noted that their forebears had been practicing some of these in various formats. Have these people just returned to their lost roots? I hope to visit them this year, to interview them and especially their elders, and to view these customs and observe how they are practised.

I have also become aware of research into what happened to Jews from much earlier times, for example before and immediately following the destruction of the second Temple. Could some have ended up somewhere in Africa, eventually assimilating into the background communities, though retaining some of their old practices?

Eldad haDani, who it seems was a real person, travelled around Jewish communities in North Africa during the ninth or tenth centuries. He claimed to be a member of the tribe of Dan then dwelling in Africa, amongst "four tribes: Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher living together in the Land of Chavilah where the gold is found", near to the "the sons of Moshe who dwell over the Sambation River".

His story falls into the same mythical narrative as does that of Prestor John, about whom many legends abounded in Europe between the 12th and 17th centuries. John was supposedly the leader of a Christian nation lost amidst moslems and pagans in the Orient. He somehow later also pops up in Ethiopia. DO these fables, both Eldad and John, represent wishful thinking for a utopian society, contrasted against the misery of European and North African life at the time, perhaps a vision of messianic times? To draw any historic conclusions from these seems to me to be futile.

There is certainly historic evidence of Jewish soldiers garrisoned in southern Egypt at the end of the first Temple period. The question must be asked, where did these people go afterwards, when their military service was no longer required, when the governing nations once again changed? They could not return to Israel which by then had been sacked by the Babylonians, its Jewish population exiled. Eldad gives a glorifious answer to this question, though he places the origins of his Israelites south of Egypt, far earlier than the first temple period; 370 years earlier, to the tragic split which resulted in two Israelite kingdoms, one in the northern under Yerovam, and a southern state, continuing to be ruled by the House of David. The soldiers of the tribe of Dan, according to Eldad, were the fiercest warriors of all, and Yerovam wanted them to lead his war against Rehavam, king of Yehuda. Refusing to battle their brothers in the south, they instead moved off to Ethiopia, though they did consider Egypt and Moav first, rejecting these options as Moses had been told that the Israelites were not to disposes these peoples.

Questions remain open in my mind. Were all members of the northern tribes exiled to the north (Kuta, Assyria etc) and all Judeans to Babylonia? What of those who remained in Yerushalayim until the assassination of Gedalya, the Babylonian-appointed Jewish governor? Many population shifts. Could some tribes, clans or even just families have settled in sub-Saharan Africa? If so, do they maintain to this day, in addition to their D.N.A., customs which we can recognise as Jewish or Israelite? And if so, what is our obligation in terms of the return of Israel's exiled? The Rabbis of the mishna argued whether the ten tribes are lost forever, or will eventually return. I think, given today's familiarity with all regions of the globe, we are unlikely to discover tribes living together in an isolated valley, continuing their Mosaic traditions as they had in the Land of Israel prior to exile, and refraining from intermarrying with other non-Israelite peoples.

Eighteenth century Kabbalists, as well as Christian missionaries, believed (hoped) this might the case. Both groups saw importance to locating them as a prelude to the messianic age. Did this wishful thinking create the tribes who today claim Israelite descent?

It is clear that the best we can hope to find are remnants of customs and genes. Many prophetic passages in the Bible speak of the return and reunification of all the tribes. Could it merely be, as some of the Mishna's rabbis claim, that a few members of all tribes drifted into the Jewish people, already during the Babylonian exile, and it is through them that the prophesies will be fulfilled. I for one find this extremely unsatisfying!

Zera Yisrael

Today we refer to the lost Israelites as zera yisrael, "seed of Israel". While certainly not halkhically matrilineally Jewish, sometimes with a gap of generations or even hundreds or thousands of years, these folk are [partial] descendants of our antecedents, in other words, they posses some "Jewish blood". Very often it was not by choice that they lost their connection to us. It may have been by force or by uncontrolled circumstance.

Once upon a time, Israeliness was defined by patrilineal descent. Jewishness today is defined solely by matrilineal descent. We see the former tradition in the Torah in the laws of inheritance, for example in the case of the daughters of Ts'lofhad's daughters. The tribe to which you belonged was that of your father not of your mother. We retain this transmission today with the priestly Cohanim and Levi'im, though we additionally require a Jewish mother.

But what if some of these groups split off from the mainstream at an earlier time, when descent was solely patrilineal? Can we justifiably apply our current matrilineal rules to them?

Given our limited resources, I sometimes question the ideal target for our best efforts. The groups with whom we are largely dealing in Africa, China, Afghanistan and India to name but a few, are very remote re their connection to the Jewish/Israelite nations, both in respect to time and genes, especially mitochondrial D.N.A.

Are there not are others that deserve more of our attention? who are also zera yisrael? What about people known as anusim, conversos, marranos or crypto-Jews, our brethren forced by their governments in Spain and Portugal to accept the cross or be brutally massacred, without the possibility to leave? Some did manage to escape, but many were trapped, some continuing to practice Judaism in secret. Those who did eventually find a way out, returned to their Jewish roots and practice in the places such as Amsterdam. After decades of openly living Christian lives, many found this return difficult (cf. Spinoza?). Sadly, many remaining in Iberia became good Christians, forgetting their Jewish roots within a generation or two, melding into background communities; though the Church continued reminding them of their Jewish roots, always keeping an eye out for apostasy. They were referred to as "new Christians" by State and Church. This continued for generations, the Spanish Inquisition was only officially rescinded in time for the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992.

One case where return at a community level did occur was in Belmonte, Portugal. These people, whom I recently visited, maintained their religion in secret for five hundred years. They believed they were the only Jews remaining on earth, the only people continuing our tradition. Yet they knew only one Hebrew word, the name of God, sang, in Portuguese, a version of Yigdal, Rambam's thirteen articles of faith, observed Yom Kippur and the Fast of Esther two days before or after the actual date, and lit shabath candles on Friday night, but only when they could be absolutely certain no-one would see. Their womenfolk maintained the tradition, faithfully transmitting it across the generations. They only married amongst themselves. Even though over a hundred years had expired since the official end of the Portuguese Inquisition, they still feared acknowledging their Jewishness outside their closed circles. And even when they were discovered around 1920 by a Polish engineer, Shmuel Schwartz, they for a long time rejected recognition, continuing their secret practices, still fearing the long arm of the Church.

How many anusim remain hidden today, not just in Iberia, but throughout Latin America, in former Spanish and Portuguese colonies including Texas, New Mexico and Florida. Many "escaped", expecting religious freedom in the New World, only to find the Church and its inquisitors following them at every turn. Yes, more and more of these people are today rediscovering their "roots". How should we be helping them?

And while we're in the U.S.A., how many millions -- I have seen estimates as high as thirty -- of descendants of Jewish immigrants have intermarried, a phenomenon as old as the arrival of the first Jews to American shores? Mixed marriages, with only one Jewish partner, in some U.S. locations now reaches 90%! Are all of these not zera yisrael . . . and close to us in time -- less generations, less dilution?

Or lets look at Poland and Hungary, and other parts of Europe, where Jews hid to save their lives, or gave their children to Christian families for safekeeping, or those who just assimilated into safety or convenience of the non-Jewish world? Many here are also "coming out of the woodwork", daily. But a great majority are still lost to us. These people too are zera yisrael; indeed many are halakhically "real" Jews, the daughters and granddaughters of Jewish women lost to us today.

Coming closer to home, back in the 1920's Ben Zvi and Ben Gurion questioned the fate of Jews who remained here in Israel at the end of the first millenium. While most Jews gradually left into exile to various European destinations, they did not all leave. They theorised that some must have stayed where they had always lived, here in the Land. Eventually they were forcibly converted to Islam, during a millenium in which almost no Jews dwelt here. Today genetic testing corroborates this theory, as do Jewish symbols found on houses, graves and even items found inside Arab homes. Ben Gurion in the early days of the State desired to help these people "come back" to our nation. But unfortunately with the problems involved in setting up a new nation, with a massive new flow of immigrants, with daily terrorist attacks, it didn't happen. Some of these "Palestinians" today call this a lost chance, an opportunity they would have gladly answered sixty years ago, but now say is too late! Too late to return zera yisrael, again including many halakhic Jews? And while we're talking about conversion to Islam, we should mention the Pathan tribes in Afghanistan who converted recently in historic terms.

Rabbi Riskin answers my concerns by saying that we should only be dealing with zera yisrael who desire to return. In fact the same is true of people of non-Jewish descent that want to join our mission, preempting the coming of the Mashiah, our future king from the Davidic line, one of whose responsibilities will be to return the world to the belief in one God. Rav Riskin, and Rav Amsalem who wrote a book called Zera Yisrael on this topic, believe that "Jewish blood" has a preference over "regular" converts.

But I don't know. I am certain that even in messianic times, the people of the world will come to a realisation that there is but one God, and, as prophesied by Zekharia, they will choose to ascend to Yerushalayim to worship Him.

I pray fervently for that day to arrive.

P.S. Over the last year I have been receiving many questions, largely from Africa, pertaining to practicing Judaism. These fall into a number of categories including Jewish law and practice, and Biblical commentary and understanding. I am often pleasantly surprised by the depth of the questions I receive and the logic behind them. I have decided to publish them on the Web so others with similar questions may benefit, and also learn to ask. It is the best way to learn, especially given the lack of teachers in these communities.

I am calling the work, Shots from Africa, which I find an interesting wordplay on the Hebrew acronym for "question and answer". It is a very refreshing task, and as any teacher tell you, "from my students I have learnt the most".

P.P.S. Another trip during the year took us back to China. This time we covered a lot of ground: Hong Kong, for maybe the twelfth time, the former Portuguese colony of Macau for the first time, though I have many times wanted to take the one hour ferry ride south from Hong Kong, Shanghai, water towns, Guiling, Yangshou, Li Jiang, Shangri-la and lastly Tibet, which is arguably not China at all, unless of course you are Chinese. While there we reached a rarified altitude 4,950 metres. The views of the mountain lakes up there are nothing short of spectacular.

We were fortunate this trip to meet many members of minority groups in China. Every day of the trip was truly amazing. There's a lot see and much to learn in all of these places -- and many others too. As Edward continuously pointed out, HaShem has created a wonderful and fascinating world.

Menachem Kuchar, 31st December, 2013    

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