Gershon and Gila: breaking the glass in a colorful Nigerian wedding

With more than 70 Jewish congregations, spread across four regional areas, Nigeria – the largest populated country in Africa – hosts the fastest growing community of Jews in the world.

The wedding of Gershon ben Avraham to Gila bat Sarah in Ogidi, Nigeria (photo credit: Courtesy)
The wedding of Gershon ben Avraham to Gila bat Sarah in Ogidi, Nigeria
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“Our [wedding] union today is the fulfillment of something I have long been feeling in my heart. I feel like I’ve known her all my life, for us to be joined together as man and wife according to Jewish customs.”

– Gershon ben Avraham
Such nuptial sentiments are precisely what give hope for the future of Judaism in the Diaspora. Outside of Israel, and especially outside of ultra-Orthodox circles, the trends in Jewish demographics are precarious. Assimilation threatens non-Orthodox Jewry as never before and economic pressures in high-cost metropolises squeeze even Orthodox couples to delay or opt for fewer children. Marrying on account of Judaism may be commonplace in Israel and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; in the hinterlands of the galut, the Jewish world outside of Israel, it is not to be taken for granted.
And so, thousands of miles from Jerusalem – and even further from London, New York and Buenos Aires – the wedding of Gershon ben Avraham to Gila bat Sarah last August – on the 24 of Av, to be precise – is a particular cause for celebration. And perhaps for wonder. For this simha took place in Ogidi, southeast Nigeria, a town associated more with Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) than with Sholem Aleichem (inspirer of Fiddler on the Roof). Neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, Gershon and Gila (whose born names are Chijioke Ezigbo and Chika Anyachebelu) are ethnically Igbo, Nigeria’s third-largest tribe. (Wedding guest, Prof. William Miles of Northeastern University in Boston, author of Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey, would therefore refer to Gershon and Gila as “Jubos.”) For those who like playing Jewish geography, it is worth noting that Ogidi is further from Cape Town – where Abba Eban, Israeli foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations, was born as a South African – than it is from Tel Aviv.
With more than 70 Jewish congregations, spread across four regional areas, in terms of synagogue expansion, Nigeria – the largest populated country in Africa – hosts the fastest growing community of Jews on the second most populated continent on earth. All this without a single rabbi to minister to the indigenous population! (There is a Chabad presence in the capital city of Abuja, but for reasons of halacha it tends mostly to Israeli expats, resident businessmen and diplomats.) That is why the rare visit of an American rabbi prompted the scheduling of an equally rare double bar mitzvah in December 2018 (see “Officiating a simha in Nigeria,” The Jerusalem Report, July 9, 2019).
No rabbi is required for a wedding, however, any more than it is for a bar mitzvah. In the case of Gershon and Gila, a longtime Israeli advocate for African Jewry, Dani Limor – the former Mossad agent who led the operation to spirit Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan in the early 1980s – was on hand to officiate. Limor (played by “Captain America” actor Chris Evans in the recent film, “The Red Sea Diving Resort”) was in nearby Onitsha, leading a team of traveling teachers from Israel to Nigeria’s third National Jewish Youth Seminar. An Israeli film crew, led by Yonatan Roz, was on hand to cover the wedding – another unimaginable coincidence.
Before the public ceremony, behind a curtain separating them from the expectant guests, Dani Limor presided over the traditional ketuba signing ceremony, attended by the groom, his father and soon-to-be father-in-law. A discussion of the mohar – funds pledged in case of divorce – evoked some mathematical challenges, as the Talmudic currency of two hundred silver zuz had to be first converted to modern-day Israeli shekel and then into Nigerian naira. Inscribing Igbo names of witnesses in Hebrew characters on the ketuba was no less of a challenge.
The mohar is just one example of ancient Jewish practice being taken more seriously in contemporary Juboland than elsewhere in the Jewish world. At the Gihon Hebrew Synagogue in Abuja, elder Agbai gave a representative dvar Torah for Parashat Vayetze. Agbai recalled the time that he accompanied a family member to pay the bride price for a beautiful young Igbo girl. To their greatest surprise, upon arriving at the girl’s distant village in Abia State, eastern Nigeria, the family initially refused to accede to the younger girl’s betrothal: her elder sister was yet married. Shades of Jacob and Laban, Rachel and Laban...
For all the cross-cultural novelties, the Gershon-Gila wedding proceeded in traditional Jewish fashion. The Leophine Residency Hotel accommodated the huppah, over which four brothers of the bride and groom held a tallit. Gershon checked the veiled Gila to make sure she was indeed the right bride (no mere formality, given the Abia State story!), and Gila circled Gershon the customary seven times. This Kabbalistic protection is taken all the more seriously in a society where the existence of evil spirits is not dismissed out of hand...
Kiddushin – blessing and sharing a cup of wine – was followed by the ring ceremony, the couple’s signing of the ketuba and the pronouncing of the sheva brachot. Some of these seven blessings were recited by Gadi Bentley, head of the traveling teachers group from Israel. The remaining lines of the blessings were recited by two cantors from Anambra State – Yitzhak Peniel and Nathan Levi.
All gazes were then focused on the most anticipated moment of the wedding: the stomping on a carefully wrapped glass cup. The usual explanation is that this is a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. But Nigerians are no less taken by the belief that the noise from the shattering of the glass frightens away any demons hovering around to spoil the festivities. Shouts of “mazal tov” filled the Leophonine Residency Hotel function hall of Onitsha. After some initial dancing, the couple were led to a room to allow for some private time, a practice known as yichud. The couple reentered the venue in grand style, accompanied by an Igbo traditional musical band. Traditional dress worn by hundreds of wedding guests, entertained by indigenous and Jewish music and dancing – the seudat mitzva dance party – made for one of the most colorful events in Jewish Nigerian history.
One can debate how ancient the Israelite/Jewish connection to the Igbos actually is. Gershon (a commercial sculptor with a degree in fine and applied arts) is from a family of Sabbatarian Jews who switched in 2006 to rabbinic Judaism. His aunt, Lizben Agha, is a prominent female Jubo leader who with her husband Paniel are building a capacious synagogue in Ogidi, hometown of the late and internationally celebrated author Chinua Achebe. Gila, a fashion designer, was raised as a Catholic before deciding to join Gershon in Judaism – not an easy decision in a society where Catholics do not readily accept marriage into other Christian denominations, much less Judaism. But Gershon and Gila knew each other from elementary school, and long-found love – along with Judaism – won out. As Aunty Lisben put it: “This historic celebration wedding brought together Jews from all over the world to witness the huppa marriage of Gershon and Gila, who will always be my children. I’m proud to be an Igbo, and so happy to know that Igbos are Israelites.”
If Gershon and Gila are “Israelites,” they are nevertheless ones who see their future in Nigeria, raising children to be proud of their ancient heritage – both Jewish and Igbo – in their homeland. If the rest of the Diaspora shared Gershon’s and Gila’s commitment and enthusiasm, world Jewry would be in a much better place.
The writer is a Nigerian writer, blogger and entrepreneur. He is the founder of the Jewish Nigeria Blog and also an international tour guide for tourists intending to visit Jewish communities across West Africa