I met Jeff Lieberman, a Canadian transplant to New York City who works in television, last year during Yom Kippur services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. We became friendly, and I’ve since had Lieberman at my home for Rosh Hashanah and Passover. I was intrigued—skeptical, really—when Lieberman told me he was putting the finishing touches on a documentary called RE-EMERGING: The Jews of Nigeria. How did this Jewish guy from Canada find himself in Africa at all, let alone living and working in a Jewish community so far removed from and off the radar of mainstream American Jews?
It all started when Lieberman was living in Los Angeles, and he attended a lecture at a synagogue on a whim. The speaker was a rabbi who had recently returned from Uganda and Nigeria, and as he showed photographs of his trip, Lieberman was captivated by one of the images. “One photo in particular caught my eye,” he explained. “It was a small building in the middle of a wooded area. You wouldn’t notice right away, but there was a large Star of David on the building—it was a synagogue.”
After the lecture, Lieberman approached the rabbi and told him that he wanted to join the next trip to Africa. After more than a year of Lieberman’s somewhat persistent prodding, he got a call from the rabbi, telling him to get his visa in order and his shots up to date; they would be leaving in a few months.
Lieberman was in Africa for just over a month. “We spent all of our time in the communities, attended community meetings, spent Shabbat with families,” he explained. “We met with politicians, interfaith groups. We prayed in large synagogues and small synagogues.”
I asked Lieberman whether making the film changed the way he identified as a Jewish person. “Halfway through the trip I met Shmuel, who is the central figure of the film,” he told me. “We were talking one day and I realized that he knew more about Judaism than I did.” Mostly, Lieberman explained, he now has a greater appreciation for how easy it is for him to practice his Judaism.
“In the West, we can sort of pop in and out of Judaism as we wish. We have access to so many resources-synagogues, JCCs, classes and courses, books magazines and any Jewish material you want.” In Nigeria there are far fewer opportunities to engage with Jewish material.
One issue that I have a hard time reconciling is who gets to say who is and who is not Jewish. Jewish tradition teaches that the first people to accept the covenant with God were Abram and Sarai. Accepting God’s covenant, the couple is renamed and become the matriarch and patriarch of the Jewish people. Several books tell of another famous convert—Ruth. She makes the choice to go with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and declares Naomi’s god her god.
The name I took when I converted to Judaism, Batyah, is the same name the Talmud tells us Pharoah’s daughter adopted when she left with the ancient Israelites out of Egypt. Judaism is mine because I took and accepted the covenant, but what about people who believe that they were cut off from that Jewish covenant through forced conversion, exile, or persecution. Should they be held to the same standards as a non-Jew who wishes to become a Jew? Who gets the privilege of accepting or rejecting a person’s Jewish heritage?
Shmuel’s story, Lieberman tells me, is similar to the story of many in the community. Raised within a Christian community, he wanted to explore a possible Jewish connection. “He had a deep feeling that their ancestral way was a Jewish way and wanted to go back to that,” Lieberman explains, “This is the story of his journey. He really challenged his own beliefs.”
Lieberman recognizes the complexity of Jewish identity, and tried to make sense of it while putting together the documentary. His conclusion is understandably frustrated:
It comes down to the question of what does it mean to be Jewish. Is it a birthright, is it in your mind, is it in your spirit? I spent a lot of time in the film exploring how they could be Jewish, but ultimately, there aren’t any records to prove that they are or that they are not. But there are no records that say that I am Jewish. I know that I’m Jewish because my parents are Jewish and their parents are Jewish. There’s the scientific evidence, which I find incredibly problematic. No one is asking me to take a DNA test to prove my Jewishness, so why should they? Who gets to say who is and who is not Jewish?
He’s realistic about the insular nature of many Jewish communities, even those that consider themselves to be liberal. “We’re used to people acting and looking a certain way,” he says. “Most Jews don’t know or haven’t met Jews of Color, and when they do they find it odd or strange.”
I asked Lieberman what he wanted viewers to take away from the film. “The Nigerian Jews that I met asked me to be the messenger to the wider Jewish world to let them know that they exist,” Lieberman explained. “Books would be nice, they’d like people to come and teach, but more than any of that they want other Jews to know that they exist, that they’re there, and that they’re counted as Jews.”
Jeff Lieberman’s documentary, RE-EMERGING: The Jews of Nigeria is premiering at 92Y on Thursday, May 17 at 8PM, and screens Sunday, May 20th at Congregation Tikvat Israel in Rockville, MD.
(photo credit: Jeff Lieberman)
Erika Davis is a writer, blogger, thinker and innovator who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.