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A Tribe Called Quest

In search of the lost Jews of Ghana.

To get to Sefwi Wiawso, a Ghanaian town about 75 miles east of the Ivorian border, I catch a tro-tro in Kumasi, Ghana's second city. A tro-tro is basically a motorized refrigerator--an ancient Mercedes 207, or maybe an Isuzu Minibus--and the primary mode of transportation in West Africa. Once 17 passengers are pressed into the twelve-seat vehicle, we embark on a harrowing ride across the rolling hills of Ghana, during which the rules of single-lane passing are flouted to the edge of death. When we arrive at Sefwi Wiawso, the tro-tro is met by a swarm of taxi drivers. The address is buried in my luggage, so I tell one driver, "We're going to the Armah residence." But the name doesn't ring a bell, so I make it easy for him: "Take us to the Jews."

I first discovered the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso, a community of about 150 Ghanaians who claim to be descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, through some travelogues I found from a simple Google search. In the photos online, the members of the community look pretty much how I imagined their non-Jewish neighbors would look--dark-skinned Africans in printed shirts, long robes, and faded t-shirts. From what the village rabbi told me, it seems that, in 1976, an inhabitant of Sefwi Wiawso, Aaron Ahomtre Toakyirafa, was visited by spirits who informed him that he and his neighbors were descended from one of the Jewish tribes supposedly exiled by ancient Assyria. This all seemed quite logical to Toakyirafa, given the similarities between certain village practices and Judaic tradition: The group celebrated a holiday that resembled Passover, followed kosher-esque dietary restrictions, and didn't work on Saturdays. Toakyirafa began proselytizing Judaism, and soon a number of families joined the fold and the group moved just over the hill to found New Adiembra.

American Jews began to learn about the settlement in the 1990s. An American organization called Kulanu, which helps out Jews in remote locales, set up the Jewish Community of Ghana fund for the New Adiembrans. A Des Moines congregation sent prayer books and a couple of goodwill ambassadors. Soon, a small tourist industry perked up for Lonely Planet–type Jews, and the community began to host visitors. Because of these interactions, the traces of middle-class American Judaism are visible everywhere, from the goofy summer-camp classics like "David Melech Yisrael" that the village kids love to sing, to the satin yarmulke I saw in the synagogue with a little label underneath: "The Bat Mitzvah of Ariel Lieberman."

During our stay in New Adiembra, Joseph Armah hosted a friend and me in his L-shaped concrete compound, where he lives with his half-dozen or so kids and one of his two wives (his other wife lives across the valley in the heart of Sefwi Wiawso). Our spare guest room in the far corner of the compound was furnished with a random menagerie of Judaica (a spicebox, menorahs, a few Kiddush cups, a ceramic dreidel) on top of an ancient television set and dozens of elementary Hebrew books scattered over a desk.

Joseph, who is the chairman of the Jewish community, is a 40-ish man with a catcher's mitt of a face. Our first night in the village happened to be a Friday, and, when we arrived, his children were just beginning to prepare for the Sabbath meal. Joseph's daughter Sarah laid a crocheted tablecloth across the table in the guest room and set up a couple of candlesticks and a Kiddush cup. The younger children drifted in and out--Joseph's son Bright locked onto my traveling companion's iPod and started watching "South Park" videos, while another young Armah, Joshua, started chatting me up about Arnold Schwarzenegger, recounting the second act of True Lies. Then he picked up a child's Passover Haggadah and recited the entire story of Moses to me in English.

Once the table was set, we sang the usual psalm, "Song for the Sabbath Day," in Twi, the predominant local language. Wine being a tough get on the outskirts of Sefwi Wiawso, Joseph recited the Kiddush over Coca-Cola and then left us to eat by ourselves--a meal that we later determined to be Gino's Mackerel in Tomato Sauce with rice, which, judging from its advertising presence on the country's highways, is huge in Ghana. While we were eating, I peeked out the window and saw Joseph and seven kids squeezed around a single pot of food on the lawn.

The rest of the weekend offered that same strange mix of recognition and alienation. But the main weirdness came not from the New Adiembrans themselves, but from the way American Jews, including me, related to them. For my part, I felt an instinctive, atavistic urge to view Joseph and his community as purveyors of an unspoiled brand of Judaism--even knowing that their claims to Jewish roots are, let's be honest, probably imaginary. It was clear, from reading travelers' blogs and the B&B-ish guest registry that Joseph makes everyone sign, that others were drawn in too: Americans wrote glowingly about their "amazing Shabbat!" and the wonder of celebrating their Judaism with their African "brothers and sisters."

Later on, I read a Kulanu newsletter from Fall 2000 that seemed to take this to a further level, treating the Sefwi Wiawso Jews almost as subjects to be molded in the image of modern American Judiasm. In a particularly evangelizing passage, the newsletter read: "Only when the Sefwi Ghanaians are universally accepted as Jews around the world, when they read and speak Hebrew with the fluency that now evades them, when they are able to live in Israel, or at least visited [sic] it, only then will the job be finished." It's as if the proselytizing instinct that lead to the globalization of Christianity and Islam is making itself known in Judaism as well, just in this roundabout, suppressed way of reaching out to the "lost tribe" of Ghana. It's a weird form of cultural imperialism--using the Ghanaians to graft fake roots onto a deracinated group. The American Jews clearly need the Ghanaian Jews far more than they need us.

I felt this most sharply on Saturday morning, after a couple of six-year-old boys picked us up for services. They led us along a dirt path for 20 minutes before dropping us off at the one-room synagogue and vanishing. Inside, the vast majority of the congregants were children. The male members sat in pews on the left side facing a tiny, hammeredtogether wooden ark and the females sat on the right. We took seats toward the back, donning the proffered neon-pink-and- yellow prayer shawls, and the service began.

Although much of it was recited in English, there was a distinctly un-Jewish tinge to the worship. The congregation sang rousing melodies in Twi, during which they swayed and clapped rhythmically, like an American gospel choir. The rabbi delivered the sermon in Twi, with a tuneful cadence and Pentecostal fury.

When he retrieved the Torah from the ark for the Torah procession, one of the boys pointed at it and asked me if I could read it. I nodded, which somehow committed me to chanting the maftir--the final few verses of the weekly Torah portion--and the haftorah.

Chanting Torah is something I hadn't done in years, not since my days as a third-string reader at my former synagogue in Los Angeles, before I shelved my Judaism in 2004. But, upon request, I rose from the back pew with the Iowa-donated Tanach and took the floor. Singing Torah to 100 Ghanaians in the brush of West Africa was, let's say, a transporting experience for me--if not a particularly religious one. When I got back to my seat, the boys rushed me, begging me to teach them "how to sing the song." I nodded and told them we'd work on it that afternoon when we got home from services. But, instead, we walked over the hill into town where I treated the kids to Fantas.

Kevin Arnovitz is the commentary editor for the public radio show Marketplace.

By Kevin Arnovitz