The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel
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 A haunting history-cum-travelogue, as Parfitt (Hebrew & Jewish Studies/Univ. of London) sleuths out the claims of the Lemba of South Africa, a black people who believe themselves to be the legendary lost tribe of Israel. As Parfitt showed in The Thirteenth Gate (1987), scattered groups around the world claim, usually on little evidence, to be Jews (the Falasha of Ethiopia are the best-known example). The Lemba, too, insist that once they were white, rich, and free--a Hebrew tribe that traveled to Africa, built the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe, and then somehow became black, poor, and disenfranchised in South Africa. Why these claims, asks Parfitt? Is it because Jewishness is a ``symbol of uniqueness or exclusivity''? Is it because the Lemba wish to emigrate to Israel? No clear answer emerges, but Parfitt's Africa is an unforgettable land of kooks, crooks, and dreamers. In an Afrikaaner stronghold in South Africa, he runs up against nasty white racism, and, in a black township, a professor in a lizard-infested house rants about his own genius while delivering salvos of Lemba lore. Meanwhile, Afrocentrists lash out at Parfitt for challenging Great Zimbabwe's black origins. Then it's on to Zimbabwe, where Parfitt eats fried ants and dances with naked revelers before being socked in the jaw as a friendly warning to keep his distance. A visit to Ian Smith, embittered ex-president of Rhodesia, does nothing to alleviate the dotty atmosphere. Finally, heading home, Parfitt is robbed twice by police, a fitting wrap-up to his bizarre journey. In an epilogue, the author springs a last surprise: perhaps the Lemba are not Jews, but Muslims who have forgotten Mohammed and the Koran, leaving a residue of Judaic practice (fasting, circumcision) carried on to this day. Like Paul Theroux with a Ph.D.: the best in adventure-scholarship. (Photos--not seen.)

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 1993
ISBN: 0-312-08829-9
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1992