Jews In Places You Never Thought Of

Recently published in hardcover, Jews In Places You Never Thought Of (Ktav), edited by Karen Primack, reminds us that the Jewish family tree includes many diverse and exotic branches.

Ever heard of the Chuetas of Majorca and other islands off the Mediterranean coast of Spain? Outwardly Catholic, they are considered descendants of hidden Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Their religious practises reflect many Judaic elements; for instance, they fast on Yom Kippur and pray to a deity called Adonai.

And how about the Jews of Sao Tome and Principe, two island nations off the Guinea coast of central Africa? When Portugal expelled its Jews in 1496, the king ordered 2,000 Jewish children to be taken from their parents and sent to these fever- and crocodile-infested islands, which Portugal wanted to colonize. Stories tell of how parents beseeched their children to intermarry and to remain loyal to the laws of Moses.

One year later, only 600 of the child slaves were still alive. Today, their descendants are a distinct minority (recognizable by their white skins) in the islands’ population of about 100,000 mostly Creole inhabitants. Efforts are under way, both in Sao Tome and in Israel, to document the roots of this stranded Judaic tribe and re-integrate them into the Jewish mainstream.

While in Thailand several years ago, I visited a Karens hill tribe in a remote mountain village north of Chiang Mai, near the Burmese border. I found a people living in semi-squalid conditions, living in huts and cooking with fire. Electricity had only lately enhanced their rugged agriculturalist way of life.

Unlike neighboring tribes of more recent vintage, the Karens had supposedly been nomads in these mountains since ancient times. They number several millions throughout Burma, Laos and Thailand. According to Jews In Places You Never Thought Of, they have Jewish roots and may be connected to the B’nei Menashe or Shinlung, another Judaic tribe in northeast India that also numbers in the millions.

Comprised of chapters from about 45 contributors, Jews In Places You Never Thought Of is co-published by Kulanu, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that assists obscure Jewish tribes and Gentile peoples attracted to Judaism to learn more about being Jewish, convert halachically if necessary, and make aliyah if desired.

Encountering a group of Inca natives from Peru that had been following the path of Judaism since 1966, Kulanu assisted nearly 300 of them through a beit din conversion and immigration to Israel. Kulanu has also assisted the Abayudaya, a group of native Ugandans who have been practicing Judaism since 1919. Having helped 41 B’nei Menashe to resettle in Israel, Kulanu is pressing Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and Ministry of Interior to accept more.

The book asks questions about many other groups of people in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Cape Verde and China. It offers an occasionally fascinating, if somewhat uneven, collection of articles. ♦

© 2003