The “Lost Jews” Of Zimbabwe


Eugene Ulman explores the culture of the Lemba, whose distant ancestors are said to have migrated from Yemen:

The Lemba priestly clan, called the Buba, has, according to the genetic studies, a particular prevalence of the Y-chromosomal Aaron, nicknamed "the Cohen Gene," which is common to all descendants of the Kohanim, the ancient Israelite priestly caste…. [C]ertain practices seem to be common to most of the Lemba. They eat meat only from animals slaughtered in the kosher way, they circumcise their boys, and they play shofars made from kudu horns, just like the Yemenite Jews. Some Lemba celebrate Passover; others keep the ancient Temple-era practice of the priests shaving their heads and blowing shofars to mark the new moon.

Jon Cohen got his DNA tested and flew to Africa to meet a "genetic cousin". Not all Lemba are thrilled with the attention:

Alex Makotore of Harare, son of a late chief of the Lemba, says that the tribe does not claim to be Jewish. He accuses scholars of trying to impose a foreign identity on them. "We don't want to look like people who are looking for an identity," he said. "We've got our own African identity, we are not looking for our roots. "They call us black Jews, but it is them [the scientists] that call us that. If we are linked to the Jews, then fair and fine, but we cannot rightly say that it is only the Jews that [have those customs]."

(Photo: Lemba people attend a meeting on January 28, 2012 in Gutu, 250 kms southeast of the capital Harare in Zimbabwe. Yarmulkes bob as voices rise into a sacred song carried from ancient Judea to the scenic fields of a far-flung southern African village that is home to a 'lost tribe' of Israel. By Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)