Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jewish tribe found in Zimbabwe

Members of Lemba tribe - who wear yarmulkes, eat kosher, and practice circumcision - have Jewish DNA

It is easy to distinguish between the Lemba and their Zimbabwean neighbors – the wear yarmulkes, pray in a language rich in Yemeni and Hebrew roots, and draw stars of David on their headstones.

The BBC reported Saturday that British scientists have succeeded in proving that the Lemba are indeed Jewish, as they claim, through DNA testing.

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The tribe, numbering around 80,000, resides in central Zimbabwe and northern South Africa. Many have converted to Christianity but still maintain many Jewish customs, such as circumcision, kosher slaughter, and prohibition of pork.

According to the Lemba's tradition, passed on orally throughout its history, their ancestors were seven Jews who left the holy land 2,500 years ago, before the destruction of the second temple. They passed through Yemen and finally settled in Africa.

Many see it as just another lost tribe myth, but DNA tests have confirmed that the Lemba carry the Semitic gene.

Religious singer Fungisai Zvakavapano-Mashavave said few people were aware of the tribe's existence, and that he wanted the world to know about it.

"I'm very proud to realize that we have a rich culture and I'm proud to be a Lemba. We have been a very secretive people, because we believe we are a special people," he told the BBC.

Professor Tudor Parfitt, from the University of London, said he was astonished to discover the many Jewish customs practiced by the tribe.

"This was amazing," he said. "It looks as if the Jewish priesthood continued in the West by people called Cohen, and in same way it was continued by the priestly clan of the Lemba.

"They have a common ancestor who geneticists say lived about 3,000 years ago somewhere in north Arabia, which is the time of Moses and Aaron when the Jewish priesthood started."

Parfitt, a world-renowned expert, spent 20 years researching the Lemba and lived among them for six months. Despite their Jewish practices, many are Christian and even Muslim.

"Christianity is my religion, and Judaism is my culture," says Perez Hamandishe, a local pastor.

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