Jeff Lieberman's new documentary, RE-EMERGING: The Jews of Nigeria, follows the quest for knowledge of Igbo roots in Judaism through Schmuel (Schmuel Tkvah ben Yaacov), a charismatic and eloquent young leader in the Nigerian Jewish community. Schmuel grew up Catholic, although his parents weren't particularly fervent about religion in general. During his childhood, the naturally inquisitive Schmuel was taught that Jews were doomed because they didn't believe in Jesus. He later realized that his faith in Jesus was more about feeling safe from eternal damnation than anything else. His interest in Judaism peaked after graduation and upon meeting "Benjamin", a Nigerian Jew who challenged his belief of Jesus as savior with Judaic teachings.
However, there is an oral tradition passed down through generations of some of Nigeria's Igbo people, whose identity was deeply impacted by British colonization and Christianity. There seems to be commonalities between the Jews and Igbos: eating fish with scales, not eating pork, slaughtering animals the kosher way, circumcision on the 8th day, resting days, marriage rites, among others. There are also similar words with the same meaning in Hebrew and Igbo; like for example, the word "Igbo" is said to derive from the Hebrew word "Ivrim", which may be a corruption of the Igbo word "Ibri".
One of the most resonant and moving aspects is the arrival of Rabbi Howard Gorin, who has come from Washington D.C. to Nigeria to visit the synagogue led by Elder Habbakkuk, who by the way, has grown close to young Schmuel and has allowed him to live in the premises. The Igbos hope that Rabbi Gorin "strengthens" their faith in Judaism. It's almost ironic that the faith of Rabbi Gorin, who was impressed by how advanced in their teachings the Igbos were, seemed to have been strengthened by the Igbo Jews' commitment, knowledge and command of the Hebrew language instead.
After the film, director Lieberman said he wanted to tell the story from these Igbo villagers' point of view and in their voice. He wanted to document a representation of many Nigerians that people around the world are not aware of. Aside from their faith, these are remarkable and intelligent individuals, whose passion and dedication for knowledge are admirable. Western ideals of wealth are irrelevant to these villagers, who are spiritually wealthy.
The documentary is much about these Igbos reconnecting with their alleged Jewish identity as much as it is about Igbo culture as a whole. And, it's also just as much about African descendants all over the world. RE-EMERGING, straightforward in its narration, gives a relatively thorough historical account of the Igbos during colonization, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and presence of Igbo heritage in America, independence from British rule, Biafran War and more. There are many unanswered questions about the missing link between Igbos and The Lost Tribes of Israel, whose alleged Igbo descendants may have migrated to Nigeria. Did the descendants of GAD travel via Ethiopia, then Cameroon? Through Morocco, then Mali, and then straight to Nigeria?
There are several intriguing theories between the two groups; none of which
can be proven 100 percent. And regardless of what one's convictions may be, at least for this writer, none of it mattered.
RE-EMERGING is told with conviction and passion. There is a palpable
thirst for knowledge of all things Judaic; the meticulous perfectionism
of these Igbo people in these remote villages to master its practices,
along with the need to learn the Hebrew language are quite fascinating
Controversy will sure follow the viewing of RE-EMERGING; religion has never been an easy topic to broach. I am curious of how the documentary will be received upon reaching more sizable audiences.
Re-Emerging is in theaters at New York's Quad Cinema (34 W 13th Street) until the end of this week, with two shows daily at 1pm and 7pm. For tickets and more information go to the film's web page at http://www.re-emergingfilm.com.