Book Review | Black Jews in Africa and the Americas

December, 28 2012

How to Be Black and Jewish

Tudor Parfitt
Harvard University Press
2013,  $29.95, pp. 232

Tudor Parfitt’s last book, Search for the Lost Ark, was a scholarly romp through history and linguistics—an adventure story that ended where his latest book begins: the remarkable discovery that male members of a black African tribe, the Lemba, carried the genes of the priestly caste of ancient Jews, the Cohanim. Currently living in Zimbabwe, far from their Middle Eastern origin, the Lemba practice a number of customs that resemble those of ancient Hebrews. But it was their claim to have an “ark” that caught Parfitt’s attention and led him to wonder if they might actually be descendants of an early Jewish community—a belief later confirmed by DNA studies.

Whether Lemba customs (including wearing yarmulkes) were simply local developments—what anthropologists call “independent inventions”—or genuine connections to a biblical past, the genetic data were undeniable, concluded Parfitt, who is professor of modern Jewish studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

But what of the numerous other African tribes whose myths connect them to the Bible, and who assert Jewish ancestry? In exploring this question, Parfitt calls on his experience as a historian, scholar, linguist and writer to offer a surprising hypothesis. During the Middle Ages, he suggests, Jews were often, like the Moors, considered to have black blood. In addition, a long-held European tradition, he writes, “maintained that the Jews generally were ‘black’ metaphorically, in the sense that they were diabolical and evil, as well as black literally.”

When European invaders and explorers arrived in Africa in the 15th century, they did not know what to make of the strange customs and odd appearance of the natives. Given their assumption that Jews were black, it seemed logical to think that at least some Africans might be descendants of the Lost Tribes. Ostensible resemblances in cultural or religious behaviors, erroneous comparisons of native lexicons to Hebrew, and the existence of migratory routes from the Middle East through West Africa led many commentators of the time to proclaim one group or another the descendants of biblical Hebrews.

Among Christians, uniquely powerful evidence of the black-Jewish link was the biblical story of Ham. “Derived from the account in Genesis,” Parfitt writes, “it became the source of a convoluted history that associated Ham with Africa.”  As the story goes, Ham discovered his father, Noah, “hot, naked and drunk, asleep in his tent.” Irate that Ham blabbed about what he saw to his two brothers, Noah cursed him and his son Canaan by declaring that henceforth and forever they and their descendants would be “the servants of servants.”  Later, Parfitt explains, “The sixth-century Babylonian Talmud construed from the biblical account that the descendants of Canaan were cursed precisely by being made black and degenerate.” Canaan was soon forgotten, and it became expedient for the object of Noah’s rage to fall squarely on Africa as a means of justifying the trade in black slaves.

Local, largely indigenous African customs such as circumcision, menstrual seclusion of women and the marriage practice called the levirate, which requires a man to marry the widow of his deceased brother, mirrored practices described in the Old Testament and further strengthened Christian belief in this presumed biblical ancestry. In West Africa, the Europeans thus anointed the Maasai of Kenya as  “Hamites” for their “handsome” physical appearance, the Yoruba and Ibo of Nigeria for apparent similarities to Jewish customs and language, and a number of Ethiopian tribes for their  European acquiline noses and lighter skins. Parfitt quotes “…the Grecian features and brilliant eyes…” of Ashanti women in Ghana, described by a scholarly 18th-century English traveler, Thomas Edward Bowdich, who likened them to the civilized Ethiopians cited by none other than the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.

Actual connections between historic Jews and East Africa were more tenuous, but the process of discovering imagined Semites took firm hold nevertheless. The Tutsi of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi were labeled “Hamites” for their supposed cultural superiority, whereas smaller, darker people such as the Twa and Hutu were not. Although East African  “Hamites” were hardly the equals of their European masters, they enjoyed a preferred status and more opportunities than their darker-skinned neighbors.  Parfitt describes how these imposed, negotiated and adopted identities came to be irretrievably enmeshed with indigenous oral histories and myths, such as inherited shared experience of oppression and imagined blood lines.

Beginning after the abolition of slavery in America, networks developed among black Jews in America and black Jews in Africa. Over time, some of these ties diminished while others were made stronger by the groups themselves. Recently, for example, the Ibo strengthened their connections to Judaism by likening their experience as a minority scattered throughout Nigeria to the Jewish diaspora and referring to the Biafra genocide between 1967 and 1970 as another “Holocaust.”

The Beta Israel of Ethiopia, pejoratively labeled the Falasha (the name means “stranger”), gave life to their Judaism by building synagogues, learning Torah and practicing relatively strict forms of Jewish worship. Although they lack Jewish genetic markers, the Beta Israel were accepted as refugees and granted Israeli citizenship. To be sure, as Parfitt points out, not all Israelis have accepted the Beta Israel. Jews are hardly immune to color prejudice, and color has obstructed their smooth assimilation. And without a deeply historical or genetic connection to Judaism, the emigration of the Beta Israel could raise thorny questions about the “law of return” of other African groups.

Exploring race narratives over centuries in which not only were Jews cast as blacks but blacks as Jews, Parfitt details the complex, shifting relationships between religious and racial definitions and their actual impact on various groups. The results may be surprising to those who perceive identity as something fixed and immutable, when, in reality, it is a social creation arising from contact with other cultures, casual and sometimes deliberate misunderstandings, political and economic needs and profoundly held beliefs.

Closer to home, although also interwoven with African history, is Parfitt’s discussion of the rich and sometimes fraught relationship between American blacks and American Jews.  Although white colonials had imposed Hamitic labels on African blacks, they never thought that some might actually practice the religion of the Hebrews. Black Jewish congregations existed in the United States but were largely ignored by Christians until the mid-19th century, when the growing Pentecostal movement led to rapid conversion of American blacks to Evangelical Christianity.

Initially cordial black-Jewish social relations had converged in the Jazz Age and other popular music of the 20th century. And Jews who had themselves been the victims of prejudice had long been prominent in the civil rights movement and the founding of the NAACP. But as more Jews joined the middle class and a majority of blacks remained below the poverty line, the gap between them widened. Anti-Jewish prejudice penetrated black churches. At the same time, many labor unions refused to admit blacks. The appearance of Islam in black communities led to further strains as some black Muslims took up the anti-Semitism nurtured by the bloody Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.

The processes that brought black converts to Islam are hardly different from those that made others Jews or Christians. In throwing light on the source of our beliefs, Parfitt makes transparently clear how prejudice and desire for status, to cite just two verities of human behavior, interact with ever-changing features of the political and economic landscape to transform human identities.


Gloria Levitas is an anthropologist and author who writes on food and culture, psychology and literature and has edited a collection of American Indian poetry.


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19 thoughts on “Book Review | Black Jews in Africa and the Americas

  1. Charity Dell says:

    Most African-Americans and Afro-caribbeans are descendants of African
    Jews and Judeo-Christians of North, Northwest, West and Central Africa.
    “Scholars” tend to forget that Judaism and Christianity were well-established
    faiths with millennia of history on the African continent. By the time the Arab
    hordes started invading Africa in the late 700’s, Jews and Judeo-Christians
    had established thriving communities, huge regional kingdoms and extensive trade routes, due to centuries of migration and travel throughout Africa. After Muhammad Askia decided to ban the Jews of Mali and then sell them to the Portuguese in 1492, the African and Arab Muslim slavers began a targeted, systematic removal of these populations and sold them to the English, French,
    Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish slavetraders for export to the New World. (The real irony of this situation lies in the fact that the African Muslims were ALSO descendants of the African Jews/Christians whose ancestors were forcibly
    “converted” by Muslim armies.)
    African populations in the New World are the result of the Muslim “final solution” to rid the continent of its Jewish and Christian populations.
    African Jews/Judeo-Christians.

    1. J says:

      Charity Dell – Great comment, I agree whole heartedly. Have you read From Babylon to Timbuktu by Rudolph Windsor? He elucidates these points that you have clearly pointed out. It bothers me that it is almost a common belief amongst modern scholars and the general populace that all “black” people come from “Africa”. When we read the bible, and compare it with accurate historic accounts and hard archeology we see that the biblical Israelites are of a dark hue. These dark skinned people were mistaken for the ancient black Egyptians on several occasions in the old and new testament. According to the Zondervan, Euston and Harper’s bible dictionary, Noah’s son Ham, is the Father of the Egyptians (Mizraim) and the progenitor of the African race with exception to the “negro” (See Zondervan Compact Bible Dictionary). Various Egyptian reliefs reveal that Egyptians had black slaves and served as task masters. The Pictorial History of the Jewish People as well as the Reader’s Digest Illustrated bible reveal these truths. That leads me to a question concerning your comment: “Most African-Americans and Afro-caribbeans are descendants of African Jews” – Are you saying that the “African-Americans” and “Afro-Caribbeans” are descendants of “Africans” that converted to Judaism? Or were you saying that the original bloodline Jews were in Africa and ended up being sold into slavery? I would argue the latter to be the case.


      1. Charity Dell says:

        Sorry I didn’t see this until now! To answer your question, I believe that the original African Jewish populations ended up being sold into slavery. What has fascinated me most in my research, is the “ethnic cleansing” element of slavery from the African side–specifically, the Arab Muslim and African Muslim involvement in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, especially as it affected various regions of Africa. Of course, the Muslims were not the only ones involved in kidnapping and selling Africans, but the slave trade could not have been successful and highly lucrative without: A. Their prior knowledge of the specific groups who had specific skills coveted by European New World plantations and B. Their own determination to rid the continent of the two religions that stood in the way of total Muslim hegemony of the continent–Judaism and Christianity.

        1. Please links to your research says:

          Greetings Charity,

          Your research interests me, particularly concerning Muhammad Askia and the targeted slavery. Do you have links or books wherein I can read more on the subject? I’ve read from “Babylon to Timbuktu” and the below, detailing that the slave trade was not some random event. Can you expound further? Thanks

          1. Charity Dell says:

            I’ll be happy to send you some links. The trans-atlantic slave trade
            was a HUGE thing, continent-wide, and everyone–African, European,
            Arab–had their little hands in the till. As the Bible reminds us: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (I Timothy 6:10) Even so, I was astounded by how systematic the destruction was of entire people groups, based upon the skill-set needed by the European super-powers. And the complexity doesn’t stop there–there are also “swirls” and “eddies” within these historical currents. For example, in addition to Portuguese involvement with shipping Africans to both Portugal and the New World, there is also the expulsion of Portuguese Jews; these Sephardim also intermarried with Africans both on the continent AND in the archipelagos of Cabo Verde and the Acores Islands. So those Afro-guese populations are of Portuguese Jewish descent. All the Portuguese who made it to Georgia in the early 1730’s were also Sephardic Jews, and some of them had children with African women. I suspect that, were DNA testing routinely applied to African-descent peoples in the New World, many of us are of Portuguese Jewish descent, in addition to the ancient Hebrew lines we carry from our African ancestry.

          2. Charity Dell says:

            To J–

            Here are some links you would be interested in:

            There is a lot of stuff here on ancient African Jewish populations.

            You can peruse all the stuff under the “Virtual Jewish World” and
            then clicking on “Africa.”

            This website is especially concerned with “lost communities” of
            ethnic Jews worldwide, including African and Asian groups.

            Check out all the “Factpapers” on EGYPT and also on the JEWS
            OF AFRICA.

            If you want to corrspond further, email me at:

  2. Ki says:

    It simply surprise me, why people simply work day and night to simply associate them selves with the biblical Hebrews, what ever the case, may be there is no any pure race period! According to the bible the father of the Biblical Hebrews was from Today’s Iraq, he didn’t come from heaven! And the african black people where ever they may be they are from Africa,they had pretty much primitive cultures like any other humans, spoke many languages which is totally no connection with the Biblical Hebrew or any middle Eastern languages, may be some East African languages (Ethiopia & Eritrea ) is very similar to the Biblical Hebrew language plus they posses old and unique culture similar to the cultures of the people in the bible. And the geographic location, may be people from that area of Africa can be the Canaan. Other than that the whole world population seem to be confused with their identity, why can’t simply accept who they are! Its great to be who you are! When it comes to Ethnic cleansing till today societies are vanishing in front of the naked eye of the whole wide world! It’s surprising and at times sad to see people in Africa and the rest of the world to just work hard to find a link to the
    Biblical Hebrew people. People, may be it never existed, may be its a myth! Do research that can better help for a better world! Bye

    1. Charity Dell says:

      I don’t think so much that folks are working to “associate” themselves with Biblical Hebrews, as it is the research needed to establish the historicity of claims that Africans and African-descended people have made for MILLENIA about their history and origins. You are correct that there is no “pure race”, except for the fact that we are purely HUMAN! 🙂 But essentially, what has happened is that the trans-Atlantic slave trade worked to “discredit” anything Africans had to say about their past heritage/history/origins, because of course, the European colonial powers did not want their “property” passing down this information to their offspring; did not want their “property” to practice their ancestral faiths–even if the faiths were biblically-based; did not want said “property” to remember their heritage; did not want the “property” quoting the very Bible that condemned all the rape, pillage and slaughter that the slave traders and plantation owners freely committed; and certainly did NOT want to “Let My people go” in any manner, shape or form! So that’s why so much research has to be done and recorded by those whose history has been “lost, stolen or strayed.” As the proverb says: “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”

  3. kerarat says:

    How come the Iteso of Uganda are not always mentioned to be jews and yet they originated from the ethiopian areas mentioned by the prophet Zephaniah 3:10. also read from babylon to timbuktu pages 77 – 79

  4. julie says:

    This is so fascinating! I agree that this is so important to learn and figure out. for one, as you pointed out to give credence to a group of people who were forced to forget their very own cultures, histories and beliefs to satisfy the needs of the wicked and evil establishments who enslaved them. But also, to help move forward– to bring a group of people satisfaction to knowing where whence they came from and who they are and we are as a jewish people. Being Jewish, I think it is so amazing to find out that there are other Jews who have or believe to have biblical roots, practice them and believe in passing it on so strongly that they do what they can to not assimilate and lose their faith. My question to you is– how can this effect, here in America, the very strained relationship between blacks and Jews? And in Israel?

    1. Charity Dell says:

      I think part of the problem is that “Jewish” in the United States has come to be associated specifically
      with “whiteness”, vis-a-vis either Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews as “normative Jews”; and also specific
      forms of “rabbinic Judaism”–and that includes debates about who or what group is “halachic” or “not.”
      The great untold story of African Jews and African Judeo-Christians–those of us who descend from these
      ancient African Hebrew populations–includes the fact that Christianity (as practiced by African-Americans)
      was not “the white man’s religion”. It is a thoroughly Afro-Semitic faith, certainly started by Afro-Semites
      in first-century Israel. Unfortunately, too many “scholars”–white, Jewish, Black, etc.–assume that whenever African-Americans claim Christianity as their ancestral faith, they are merely parroting “what the white plantation owner made them do.” This faulty “premise” does not explain the fact that African-American worship practices are Hebraic in form and ritual; nor does it explain why our slave ancestors defied
      Euro-American attempts to stop us from reading the Bible and practicing our ancestral faith–a faith that
      TRANSPLANTED into the New World. Scholars need to begin serious study of the American Black Church
      AFRO-HEBRAIC faith community and stop treating African-American Christianity as some kind of pitiful “hand-me-down-patchwork-of-rags” faith that was forced upon the “pitiful slaves who didn’t know any better.” The simple fact is, our faith had to be transplanted to survive the conditions in which we found ourselves,
      iexiled from our ancestral lands. The other fact all Hebrew-descended peoples need to recognize is that all of us have similar origin and migration stories and we are genetically tied to ancient Hebrew populations. The nation-state of Israel grants “Jewishness” based upon narrow factors. However, it seems apparent to me that Father Avraham’s descendants through Yitzchak are certainly numerous throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and New World populations–and the genetic reports are attesting to that fact. I have participated in discussions about the Cohen Modal Haplotype in which people will claim that having the CMH “doesn’t make you Jewish.” Well, when I asked how are you then a “Gentile” with this genetic marker that links you to the Levite line and specifically to to Aharon’s genes, I hear another discussion about “matrilineal descent” and “halachah.” I regard as Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish ANYone–regardless of religion, practice, halachah, and/or matrilineal/patrilineal descent–who carries genetic links to not only Avraham, but also the line of inheritance established through Yaakov and all the patriarchs/matriarchs. Perhaps if Jews who practice
      forms of rabbinic Judaism and African-Americans who practice Afro-Hebraic Christianity stop arguing about who are the “true Jews”, both sides could benefit from some frank, long overdue discussion–discussion
      that includes the fact that both “Judaism” and “Christianity” are Hebraic faiths that are practiced by
      genetically-linked Hebrew-descended peoples. We all have ancestral stories rooted in common oral
      tradition, stories that stretch across continents and across millenia of history.

      1. Qasim says:

        Much love, my sister; and we’ll said.

  5. Renay says:

    I find all the comments rather interesting and look forward to reading more on the subject. Here-to-date I have not been interested in this subject even though I worship in a Messianic synagogue. At best, genealogy was unnecessary and just a past time. I am one who is very practical and desiring to live and walk out my faith.

    I will say that the identity of the ‘covenant people’ is becoming more important to me as I consider covenant responsibilities, callings, and what the Most High God intends for a nation of kings and priests to do. If those people don’t know that He has holy days (that are not Christmas and Easter), a kingdom constitution with laws judgments and rulings, instructions for a holy life (not necessarily Pentecostal-Holiness), how will they know what He’s doing in the earth and what their role is? Ignorance is not bliss. It could actually have us rejecting and missing Him the second time.

    In some ways I am beginning to think that He has called us to teach his Torah and intercede for the nations as He is fulfilling the last harvest of souls of the earth. I do wish there was a group that would mirror his heart and walk in forgiveness, love, respect, and holiness to do battle with the real enemy of mankind whose name here I shall not mention. Anybody want to chat feel free to email me Blessings to us all.

  6. julio says:

    In Christ Yeshua, there is neither Jew or Gentile ,Jew or Greek , male or female. We are one. ” If you abide in my Word , you are my Disciples indeed and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. ” let us not engage in disputes of genealogies or doctrines that are of no profit. Worship our Savior , love each other and good fruit will follow. Stay firm in Studying His Word and prayer, good works. The Holy Spirit indwelling in us will do the rest when we are faithful as He is Faithful.

  7. Demetruis Tate says:

    Just reading this information set a lite on opened up the third eye i can see clearly now very interesting want to learn more about being a lost king here in America want to know where i can go and research to study black jew and knowing the studies of my Hebrew religion and the calling of the true god i would like to learn more anyone have the knowledge of a hebrew chuch or gathering would like to know want to attend and learn thanks have a beautiful day hungry to know the real history of my people.

  8. Oddmodd says:

    As it pertains to genetic kinship, whose DNA is being used as the source to determine genetic ties to the ancient Hebrew people? I ask this question because it’s a fact that all scholars agree with that a great many of people over the last 1200 yrs claiming genetic Hebrew ties are in fact Jewish via conversion at some point in time. The Khazars for instance, was a mighty kingdom who occupied what is now the Georgia, Southern Ukraine, southwest Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. This empire converted to Judaism as not to offend it Christian neighbors to the north and Muslim neighbors to the east as they occupied essentially the main trading region that linked the Middle East to Europe. These people were white caucasions and they true origins of a vast percentage of white Jews today. When the empire fall in the late 10th century AD, it’s people were immersed into conquering empires and spread across Europe, while maintaining their Jewish relogious practices. This articles and these comments are great critical thought and covers a very critical yet lost component of history, which are the migratory paths of the blood descendants of the true Hebrew people. One must also consider the ethnic and color makeup of the middle-east prior to the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD. The most authentic and truly the only descriptions one should consider are those provided by those who lived and interacted with the people of antiquity. If we are to follow this rationale then, at least the color scheme of the ancient Middle East and North African people becomes evident, and even more so the further back in time you venture. Using real historical non-biblical descriptions, provided by the people themselves as well as others, we see that the Sumerians, Hebrews, Egyptians, Elamites, Akkkads and with a degree of racial mixture, the latter people of Persia and Babylon are all described as being brown to Black-skinned people, with the Hebrews and Egyptians even being comparatively likened to Ethiopians due to there dark skin and wholly hair by Tje Greek historian Herodotus. He also calls the people of Indian as looking like Ethiopians except for their wavy-straight hair texture. Sumerians, from whom the biblical Abraham (father of the Hebrews) descends (Sumerian city of Ur), calls themselves Igigis, which translates to “The Black Headed Ones”. We know that this is not in reference to their black hair color since even today the Middle East consist of primarily the black hair trait. So that name was to deferentiate skin color. Today’s images and sculptures of light or white complexed Sumerians have been proven to be either from a different culture of a much later time period from that of the Sumerians. This holds true when comparing the modern day Berbers to that of the ancient people of North Africa, after whom the Romans named their conquered provinces Maerantania, translates Land of Blacks, just as the Greeks referred to Kush as Ethiopia, Land of The Burnt-face People. Again, as in the case of Egyptian head bust and statues that routinely had their noses knocked off and even rebuilted in many cases, images of lighter complexed people often represent people from later periods in that nation’s history, as period that saw a more amalgamated population due to conquering by other peoples.


    If your descendants were not slaves brought here to America, it would be easy for you to say that we need to move forward when your history and heritage is intact. But when a people who’s experience has been one of disconnection and degrading, ancestral separation, and historical erasing, it would lead one with a burning desire to seek to discover his ancestry.

  10. Offshore says:

    This entire thread is Amazing. I was thinking while reading, if white Muslims, Black muslims & Indian muslims can all unify under one faith, both the white Jew and the black Jew can unify and create something amazing if unified. Just a thought. Shalom

  11. Mana widana says:

    Hi all,

    I believe that I am one of the descendants from ancient black Jews who left the homelands centuries ago. I was born in a small town in North Ghana in Wa. I always believed from a very young age that i was Jewish. Now that I am living abroad I did my DNA and discovered that I was not native to any one country in Africa and my DNA revealed ancient connections to the Nile valley and the Bantu people and the hunter gatherer people from southern and east Africa. And I came across a book Wa and the Wala that told about my forefather who was the king of the town and came from a mysterious land that nobody knows his true identity. We are the spiritual leaders of the town and we never converted to Islam or Christianity and when they asked my forefathers, their beliefs were that they cannot convert. We followed the crocodile god and the earth gods and did sacrifices. My family is still the spiritual leaders.

    And I started doing research on my mothers family and I found that their local African names were Hebrew names.

    My email is if you have any questions or comments.

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