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The world’s first ‘Internet Jews’

In “Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-​​Judaic Odyssey,” William Miles, a pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, tells the story of the world’s first “Internet Jews.”

The Igbos of Nigeria, Miles explains in his forth­coming 10th book, have embraced rab­binic Judaism over the last three decades and learned the Hebrew lan­guage through songs and prayers found on the Internet. Bol­stered by cus­toms recalling an Israelite ancestry, sev­eral thou­sand Igbos have adopted Jewish hol­i­days and rit­uals such as Hanukkah and the Bar Mitzvah.

The Jewish Studies Pro­gram and the Depart­ment of Polit­ical Sci­ence are co-​​sponsoring an event cel­e­brating the release of the “Jews of Nigeria” on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in 215 Snell Library.

“I hope that the book will raise the pro­file of the com­mu­nity in a way that would dispel sus­pi­cions and myths about what Judaism in Africa entails,” said Miles, the second holder of the Stotsky Pro­fes­sor­ship of Jewish His­tor­ical and Cul­tural Studies.

Many Igbos, he explained, feel com­pelled to sup­press their Jewish iden­tity for fear of reprisal. According to Miles, “Igbos don’t leave burning Hanukkah can­dles in their win­dows because they will be accused of being in a cult and prac­ticing witchcraft.”

Miles vis­ited the Igbos in December of 2009 for Hanukkah and again in June of 2011 for a Bar Mitzvah of a boy named Hezekiah. Three years ago, he brought drei­dels and Hanukkah can­dles to the Igbos, which they placed in a makeshift Menorah fash­ioned out of Coca Cola bottles.

Miles described last year’s Bar Mitzvah as a Judi­cially authentic cer­e­mony. “Hezekiah was chanting from the Torah and reading pas­sages from the Old Tes­ta­ment,” he said of the coming-​​of-​​age ritual, which took place in a syn­a­gogue con­structed by the Bar Mitzvah boy’s father. “There was joyous singing and dancing.”

Miles has spent some 30 years con­ducting research in West Africa. He is a fea­tured expert in a new doc­u­men­tary on Igbos called “Re-​​Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria,” which will be screened at the West Newton Cinema on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

After grad­u­ating from col­lege, Miles entered the Peace Corps, and began teaching Eng­lish in the French-​​speaking land­locked country of Niger. He is cur­rently plan­ning a Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram to the French-​​speaking country of Senegal.

“My intro­duc­tion to West African life was in a totally Muslim envi­ron­ment,” Miles explained. “It is fas­ci­nating to dis­cover this new Jewish angle in a part of a world we thought we knew so well.”

– by Jason Kornwitz

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