Discussed in this essay
Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel, Tudor Parfitt. New York: Vintage
To the Ends of the Earth, BBC Television
The variable genetic blends, to which the man in the street refers in speaking of races, all involve highly visible characteristics. . . . [But] invisible features are no less real than the visible ones; and it is conceivable that the former are geographically distributed in one or more ways that are totally different from the latter ones, and also differ among themselves; so that, depending on the repressed qualities, “invisible races” could be revealed.—Claude Lévi-Strauss, The View from Afar
Plenty of people think the Jews are a race. Plenty of Jews think the Jews are . . . well, not a race, exactly, but a people: a superficially incoherent blur of French, Moroccan, Yemenite, and Polish, with an underlying mystical unity, a kind of motley family history, and maybe a legal contract with God.
That the Jews are not a race becomes painfully clear whenever I go to Israel. The guys with olive skin and shiny black hair—the most stereotypically “Israeli” men you can find—are Sephardim: Jews from Arab lands like Iraq, Morocco, and Egypt. And they don’t know me from Adam; with my pink forehead and bright red sideburns, I might as well be a German tourist. Some Jewish historians have entertained the fantasy that the Sephardim are the original Jews (although this didn’t prevent the Jewish state from treating them as second-class citizens for much of Israel’s existence). And it’s true that the Israeli Sephardim speak Hebrew in a theoretically purer, more archaic form than their light-skinned Ashkenazic counterparts—they rasp their laryngeals and gulp their glottal stops, emphasizing sounds that have been lost in modern, Europeanized Hebrew. But it’s not because the Sephardim just stepped out of a time machine: it’s because their parents grew up speaking Arabic, where everybody uses laryngeals and glottal stops. Indeed, the right-wing, ultratraditionalist Sephardi Jews of the Shas Party resemble Arabs more closely than they resemble the right-wing, ultratraditionalist Jews of Agudat Yisrael, who generally come from Western or Central Europe.
Israel is a classic example of the old anthropological notion that race exists more in thoughts and deeds than in biology or even history. What I have in common with Sephardic Jews stems from the fact that we pray and observe Shabbat mornings in so similar a way that the differences are a source of fascination and delight, not frustration. I can walk into any synagogue in the world and fall into prayer with the Jews there. [End Page 76] But if you learned Hebrew and Aramaic and behaved yourself, you’d be able to do it, too. I’ve always believed that what Jews have in common is a set of texts and a shared way of putting them into action. But, as it turns out, I’ve been wrong.
Tudor Parfitt, an anthropologist at University College, London, may be the world’s leading authority on “lost tribes of Israel.” In books like The Thirteenth Gate and The Jews of Africa and Asia, Parfitt has made a career of scrutinizing long-held myths of Judeophiles and Judeophobes alike.
In 1991, he delivered a lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on the Falashas, the so-called black Jews of Ethiopia. (Parfitt had profiled them in his 1985 book, Operation Moses.) As he looked out at his mainly white audience, he saw “a small, discrete group of shabbily dressed black men wearing skullcaps.” In a remarkable conversation after the lecture, they told him that they, too, were Jews, a tribe of Israel lost in southern Africa. They called themselves the Lemba, and they invited him to come and see their way of life.
Parfitt’s astonishing trip was documented in Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel (1992), a rich but curiously incomplete book. Parfitt discovered that the Bantu-speaking Lemba had a culture and a history [End Page 79] that seemed out of place in southern...