The South African Jewish Board of Deputies decided this week to meet the leadership of the Lemba tribe after renewed approaches by the Lemba Cultural Association.
Genetic tests in the United States, revealing that Lemba males carry a DNA sequence distinctive to Cohanim, have sparked further investigations into the tribe's origins.
The president of the Lemba Cultural Association, whose symbol is an elephant within a Magen David to depict the blending of African and Jewish cultures, is Prof. Matshaya Mathiva.
He represents 50,000 Lemba in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique, and said the Jewish origins of his tribe, and the practice of Jewish customs, have been passed down orally over generations.
"We ritually slaughter our cattle, we only eat fish with scales, we do not mix meat and milk. We have always followed the Old Testament. But, unfortunately, during colonial times, the missionaries in Africa forced many to learn the New Testament, as the only way to receive an education was in their schools."
Prof. Mathiva claims that, according to oral history, his tribe left Judea and settled in Yemen, where there was a Jewish kingdom.
"They then crossed over into Africa. One group went to Ethiopia, and the others moved down the east coast, between Tanzania and Malawi, to become the ancestors of today's Lemba."
Prof. Mathiva, a retired professor of African languages, literature and culture at the University of the North, said his family name "was originally Seremane, a derivative of Solomon, and we came from one of 12 lineages of the Lemba."
He has, over the years, felt disappointment at the lack of the acceptance of the Lemba by the Jewish community.
"They are not halachically Jewish," has been the frequent rabbinical response. It is argued that many Lemba are practising Christians, whose claim to Judaism stems from patrilineal descent which does not make them Jewish in the eyes of Orthodox authorities.
This has not deterred the Lemba from building a synagogue in Louis Tichardt, in the north of the country near the Zimbabwe border. "The structure is in place and we are now raising funds for the rest of the building," says Prof. Mathiva. "Whether we are accepted or not, Israel is our ancestral home and the Jewish people are our brothers."
The national president of the South African Board of Deputies, Mervyn Smith, confirmed that the Board was ready to meet the Lemba leadership.
"We hope to meet them and address all their concerns," he said.
He emphasised, however, that it was not within the Board's jurisdiction to enter into halachic issues.
The head of the South African Beth Din, Rabbi Moshe Kurtstage, said the local rabbinate could not rule on the status of the Lemba. "It is an international rabbinical problem," he said. "They have to consult the Chief Rabbis of Israel."
Prof. Mathiva said that he and other Lemba would be prepared to re-convert to Judaism, like Ethiopian Jews, "because it would confirm what our forefathers had to say."
From The Jewish Chronicle
The Lemba, a Bantu-speaking people of southern Africa, have a tradition that they were led out of Judea by a man named Buba. They practice circumcision, keep one day a week holy and avoid eating pork or pig-like animals, such as the hippopotamus.
Several groups around the world practice Judaic rites or claim to be descended from biblical tribes without having any ancestral Jewish connection.
But the remarkable thing about the Lemba tradition is that it may be exactly right. A team of geneticists has found that many chromosome a set of DNA sequences that is distinctive of the cohanim, the Jewish priests believed to be the descendants of Aaron. The genetic signature of priests - a hereditary caste, with certain ritual roles - is particularly common among Lemba men who belong to the senior of their 12 groups, known as the Buba clan.
The discovery of the Lemba's Jewish ancestry has come about through the intertwining of two unusual strands of inquiry. One was developed by geneticists in the United States, Israel and England who wondered what truth there might be to the Jewish tradition that priests are the descendants of Aaron, the elder brother of Moses.
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