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Reviews of The Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey

“A fascinating, sensitive, and insightful addition to the rapidly developing field of studies of Jews and Judaism in Africa. A must-read…” — Richard Hull, New York University

“Metaphorically, the Igbo have often been regarded as ‘the Jews of Nigeria’ because of their entrepreneurial exceptionalism. This volume is about those Igbo who are literally of Jewish faith. Professor William Miles provides us with a fascinating report about Black Jews who have prospered in a country with the largest concentration of Muslims on the African continent.” — Ali A. Mazrui, Professor and Director of Global Cultural Studies, State University of New York, Binghamton

“Africa scholar Miles … examines a burgeoning new community in a mostly Muslim and Christian, but ‘intensely religious’ country: Jewish converts among Nigeria’s ethnic Igbos, a group the author respectfully dubs ‘Jubos’ and counts at about 20,000 strong. West African Judaism (as opposed to the long-established presence in East Africa) is a contemporary phenomenon; indeed, Miles calls Jubos ‘probably the world’s first Internet Jews.’ Their shared faith unites an otherwise diverse community—which makes do with Internet cues, photocopied siddurs, and Coke-bottle menorahs while facing assimilation troubles, internal discord, and difficulties achieving state recognition (from both Nigeria and Israel). In addition to his firsthand account of a Jubo Hanukkah and, two years later, a Jubo bar mitzvah, the author collects a series of testimonials from (mostly male) converts. A short postscript describes a meeting with the great Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who is intrigued … The author’s closeness to his subjects and hosts makes him perhaps too inclined to take their religious fervor at face value, making for a less than hardheaded approach to the Jubo phenomenon. The Jubos force reconsideration of histories and some basic categories of identity, and will likely be most provocative to professing Jews and
scholars of religion or anthropology.” — Publishers Weekly

“William F. S. Miles presents a thought-provoking story of religious discovery in Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey. Miles sheds light on a small group of Nigerians from the Igbo tribe who have recently come to adopt rabbinic Judaism, a people he refers to as ‘Jubos.’ Miles provides a fascinating look into the Jubos’ spiritual and religious journey finding Judaism within predominantly Muslim and Christian surroundings. This quest is rooted in their desire to answer the age-old question of how to determine their true religious and ancestral identity. This path includes a history of Christian practice, a turn towards messianic Judaism, and finally the enthusiastic embrace of rabbinic or ‘normative’ Judaism. The Jubos’ enthusiasm in observing Rabbinic Judaism stems from their belief that God has chosen and guided them on this path. Throughout their discovery of Judaism, the Jubos compare their Igbo customs with Hebrew ones, finding many commonalities, reflecting an ancient Israel­ite ancestry. Not being universally accepted by the larger international Jewish community, the Jubos turn to the Internet for education on how to practice their faith.

“The story of the Jubos is certainly one worth telling and Miles does an excellent job of keeping the reader engaged. Miles includes not only his own reflections on his Judaism and identity, but also personal anecdotes from various Jubos as they describe their spiritual journey and passionate commitment to Judaism. Miles provides the reader with first-hand accounts of the Jubos in their homes and synagogues, reading Torah, celebrating bar mitzvahs, and negotiating their path through the strict observance of Jewish Law. Miles challenges the reader to think about the issues surrounding the intersection of ethnicity, religion, spirituality, sense of belonging, and acceptance by others, and [he] provides an opportunity for the contemplation of what determines religious identity.” — Jewish Book Council

Interview with NPR Boston: Here and Now

Northeastern University professor William Miles has been conducting research in West Africa for more than 30 years. So it came as a surprise to him that he learned only recently of a growing Jewish community in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja.

Nigeria is about half Muslim and half Christian. Animism is practiced as well. But now, thousand of Igbos—an ethnic group of southeastern Nigeria—have adopted Judaism.

In his forthcoming book “Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey,” Miles shares life stories from the community, as well as his own experiences, as he celebrates Hanukkah and a Bar Mitzvah with “Jubos” in Abuja.

 How large is Nigeria’s Jewish community?

“The definition of what is a Jew is a very complex one. It’s complex in Israel, it’s complex in the diaspora, and it’s complex in the Nigerian diaspora as well. So depending on how rigorous a definition one wants to use, one is either in the lower thousands, or if you want to follow the more expansive Nigerian newspaper number, you can see figures up to 50,000. I’m actually more conservative and I tend to stay with the smaller thousands, in terms of a good number, although numbers are hard to come by.”

How did this group of Nigerians become Jewish?

“Through a history of colonialism and proselytization through Christian missionaries. Most Igbos became Christian. Some of them in the 1970s, 1980s, were proselytized—from the United States, actually—by what in the American setting would be often called Jews for Jesus, what in Nigeria they still call Messianic. Now, having practiced Messianic Judaism for many years, which is all of the customs and the practices of Judaism—Sabbath, prayer on Saturdays, wearing of the tallit, the prayer shawl—but they also believed in Jesus, which for normative Judaism, regular Judaism, just doesn’t fit. And after some years of questioning—because Nigerians are really religious people, they take religion seriously, they go to bed thinking about it—some of them started to say, ‘this doesn’t compute. If we’re supposed to believe in one God, then this theology of a son of God in addition to God doesn’t make sense.’ And then the Internet arose and they were exposed for the first time to world global Judaism.”

The world’s first “Internet Jews”

“They had exposure to Hebrew language, to how Jewish ritual is practiced throughout the world. The Internet arrived in Nigeria at the same time that many of these Igbos were breaking away from Messianic Judaism, as they thought of it, and were able to learn and had this great access to whatever is out on the Internet. And everything is out on the Internet! Including Rabbinic Judaism.”

A very close observance of Judaism

“Most Jews in American were born into it, didn’t have much of a choice. And they practice in very varying degrees of religiosity and observance and worship. But the Jews of Nigeria have chosen not only to believe something that other Nigerians don’t believe, but to live their lives in a Jewish way. They want to be—and they are—as authentic as they can be. So that whereas for even observant Jews in the United States, much of it is confined to what they do in the home or on Saturday on the Shabbat, there they try to live the entire day and the entire week by calling each other on the cell phone with ‘shalom,’ with prayers throughout the day, with constant reminders of this special—for the Nigerian context—religion that they have chosen.”