The secrets of the Malagasy Jews of Madagascar

Are most Malagasies the descendants of ancient Israelites, and who are the few Jews living there now?

Malagasy Jews (photo credit: WILLIAM F.S. MILES)
Malagasy Jews
(photo credit: WILLIAM F.S. MILES)
MOST AMERICANS, Europeans and Israelis come to Madagascar looking for lemurs. I have come to find an even more exotic population – Malagasy Jews. I have found them. And, with them – indeed, thanks to them – I have encountered the lemurs, as well.
Not that the Jews are as geographically remote as the lemurs ‒ those funky, little primates uniquely indigenous to Madagascar. But the Jews are even more discrete.
Lemurs have become so habituated to human visitation that, up in their trees, they chew their bamboo shoots within close range of camera-wielding tourists. And there is no mistaking a lemur once you have chanced upon one in the forest.
But in Antananarivo, the capital city, you might not realize that the computer technician, the school teacher, the chef, or the painter that you encounter during the week follow the tenets of the Talmud. (Although if you look carefully at the latter, you will recognize his payot, or earlocks.) On Shabbat, however, watch out. You are in for a cross-cultural experience more likely to blow your Semitic mind than any forest safari search for primates. It especially helps if you know some French, the official language (along with Malagasy) of this once recalcitrant, currently ambivalent, former colony of France.
Even in Madagascar, you cannot lump all Jews into a single category. (There are five generic families of lemurs, too, by the way, and more than 100 distinct species.) Although the observant Malagasy Jews number barely 100, they confirm the adage, “two Jews, three synagogues.”
Their religious disputes are no less intense than in the Holy Land itself. Should they formally undergo conversion (although they daven in Hebrew more proficiently than most Diaspora Jews) just to satisfy the expectations of overseas rabbinates? Should they contemplate aliya, or rather persist in divinely ordained galut until the messiah finally comes? Is Israel itself a legitimate Jewish state, or is it an imposter founded and maintained by secularists who have little true regard for Torah? Are godless Zionists conspiring to strip Malagasy Jews of their faith by encouraging relocation to Israel to become secular Israelis? Move over, Mea She’arim and Williamsburg – Antananarivo is the new capital of Jewish disputation.
Then there are the less lofty – but no less disputatious – disagreements. Should their women be allowed to wear pants at all? What about in the synagogue? Is it truly proper for the insignia of the Zionist state – the Star of David – to be emblazoned on the tallit?
Descendants of ‘Ali Torah’ (Alitawarat), who still today bear the titles of kings and scribes in the royal village of Vatumasina in Vohipeno; they are supposedly in a position to reveal the ‘Malagasy secret’(photo credit: WILLIAM F.S. MILES)
ALL THESE questions have created personal frictions (“my wife was in tears when told she was no longer welcome in the synagogue”) and an institutional rift. Followers of the president of the Jewish Community of Madagascar, who used to worship in the president’s home, are no longer welcome in the only other (and now solely functioning) synagogue on the island. (The president’s landlord fi nally put an end to religious congregation in his home.) And yet, they manage to coexist.
Where do they come from, these Jews? Are they ancient or are they new? Mainstream anthropologists will tell you that the Malagasy people are descendants of Indonesian seafarers who made their way westward thousands of years ago. Yet, there has also persisted the “Malagasy secret” – that most Malagasies are descendants of ancient Israelites, perhaps as far back as the search for the gold and rosewood required for the construction of King Solomon’s temple.
University of Antananarivo Prof. Lucien Razanadraokoto – sociologist, political scientist and philosopher – takes a middle position, averring that around the 10th century, Muslim merchants whose forefathers had been compelled to convert from Judaism settled the eastern range of the island.
With him, I have come to the “sacred rock” of Alakamisy-Ambohimaha, where some can discern Hebrew letters engraved halfway up a tremendous boulder. And at his urging, I have come to the remote southeastern edge of the island to the royal village of Vatumasina, in Vohipeno, to meet with the kings and scribes who are supposedly in a position to reveal the “Malagasy secret.”
“Our ancestor was Alitawarat,” they tell me and my companion, Ashrey Dayves, President of the Jewish Community of Madagascar. “He was originally from Jerusalem, and his fi rst language was Hebrew.”
This is why a variation of the word Torah became embedded in his name. “Romans attacked Jerusalem ‒ with dogs, even ‒ and so he fled to Mecca, where he began to speak Arabic. It is there that he also learned the Koran, which he brought to Madagascar. But Alitawarat still used the Torat Moshe – the teaching of Moses.”
Many Malagasies will swear that the staff of Moses and a fragment of the Ten Commandments are hidden in Vatumasina; but the assembled notables deny this, claiming the sacred objects were lost in fire, during the savage French colonial repression of the pro-independence rebellion of 1947.
This chronology, of course, does not add up. Destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans predated Islam by over half a millennium. And how Alitawarat, or any other ancestor, had obtained possession of Moses’ staff and part of the tablets is also inexplicable. But, if you think this remote Hebraic history is implausible, consider what the Aaronites of Mananzara provide in the way of their genesis… That’s right, Aaronites – descendants of Moses’ brother, who regularly practice animal sacrifice à la Leviticus, with designated high priests and designated Levite assistants. I arrived in Mananzara, just when two such sacrifices were taking place. Due to my “impurity,” Aaronite leader Roger Randrianomanana kept us at a respectful distance during the priestly slaughtering itself; but we were permitted to approach during the butchering that immediately followed.
Mananzara is only 40 kilometers from the capital, but it is a world apart (and not only on account of the unpaved roads that make the trip take several hours). Its Israelite ancestors are said to have arrived by canoe on the northern coast of the island, transported by divine waves and currents, when priests prophesied an impending flood. Resettled in the center of the island, their descendants are aware that there are Jews in the world who follow rituals different than those practiced by Moses and Aaron – but that does not prevent us from remaining cousins, if not frères (“brothers”).
Before meeting Roger the Aaronite, I imagined him as an elderly, bearded, robed ascetic with little knowledge of or interest in the outside world. Instead, I encountered a youthful, energetic, mayor with short-cropped hair running for reelection, who combined my initiation into Aaronism with campaign stumping via a fourwheeled drive caravan blaring an election jingle composed especially for him. His logo? A traditional Malagasy harp within a Star of David. Roger, a true operator, has even been to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to represent his district in the International Folk Art Market, and insists that I become his “technico-political adviser.” He is indeed a with-it Aaronite.
There are other legends of Israelite ancestry among the Malagasy people. French scholar Edith Bruder has published an invaluable compendium of the various accounts of these “Descendants of David of Madagascar,” written versions of which date back to mid-17th century European explorers and travelers. On the Internet, one can find a host of modern-day Malagasy proponents of the (now not-so-secret) Malagasy secret of Israelite origins.
“Unfortunately,” writes University of Utah Prof. Nathan Devir, an Israeli-American who preceded me to Madagascar, “there is no way to prove that Malagasies thought of themselves as God’s chosen people before the Bible – or the European missionaries and explorers for whom the Bible was God’s word – suggested the notion to them.”
EVEN MORE unfortunate – at least for those Malagasy who are overcoming tremendous obstacles to learn Hebrew and practice rabbinic Judaism – are the many Malagasy who proudly wear the mantle of “Israelite,” “Aaronite,” or “Jew” while also adhering to incompatible beliefs and rituals (such as “Jesus is messiah” or “Judaism means animal sacrifice”). Then there are the pseudo-kabbalistic charlatans who traffic in “secret” knowledge of paleo-Hebrew and other gematriatic acrobatics to promise prosperity and/or spiritual transcendence.
Such confusions of identity (especially regarding so-called “Messianic Jews”) are not unique to Madagascar. I encountered similar frustrations while encountering the Jubos (Igbo Jews) of Nigeria. Both in Madagascar and Nigeria, many former Roman Catholics and Protestants followed the pathway of Messianic Judaism before discovering how Judaism is understood and practiced in the world at large, and discarding Christ from their theology. But since vocal pro-Israel kippa- and tallit-wearing male Messianics and their young female counterparts persist, negotiating the boundaries of African and Indian Ocean Judaism becomes delicate, indeed.
Such is the challenge, among others, of Raherimasoandro Andriamamonjy, the (Christian) president of the Club Shalom of Madagascar. Héry, as he is more familiarly known, strives to unite all friends of Israel regardless of their doctrinal penchants.
Although the core of the (non-sectarian) Club Shalom consists of Malagasies who have had educational and development training in Israel, at the margins there is a struggle between rabbinic and Messianic Jews for legitimacy with respect to identification with the Jewish state. Only a former parliamentarian of Héry’s stature could resist such cross pressures and continue striving to federate the factions.
For my part, I wanted to engage those Malagasies who practice the type of Judaism that any Jew outside of Madagascar would recognize. That they, like many fellow islanders, claim descent from ancient Israelites is beside the point. More relevant is their practice and belief today, now that they have abandoned the Lutheran or Catholic religions (which they blame colonialism for having imposed).
“For many years, I explored many types of spirituality,” confides 55-year-old computer programmer and teacher Petoela. “I tried yoga, meditation, astrology. For some time I even followed the Professor Rabi from Israel [a notorious Malagasy kabbalistic guru] and was introduced to Torah and siddur by a Nazarite Christian Jew. But, for the last fi ve years, I have been in contact with rabbinic Judaism, studying true Torah and Jewish culture. There has been a great change in my life. Now, all my [spiritual] questions from before are answered. And the problems I had previously with my family – they are gone.”
A boy prays in Tubiyya’s synagogue;r (photo credit: WILLIAM F.S. MILES)
Everything has fallen into place. Petoela (born Jacques Robisoa) now teaches Hebrew language (with generous portions of gematria to reinforce the sacredness of the language) to a diligent group of 30-40 students on Sunday mornings.
Also teaching Sunday mornings, in a mixture of Malagasy and French (albeit at ELI, the English Language Institute), is Dayves, né Eric Yves. Founder and president of the organized Jewish community, Dayves is a charismatic leader in his mid-forties and famous throughout the island (the fourth largest in the world) for his cooking classes broadcast on national TV. Son of a famous musician, he also has immense talent as a singer in Malagasy and Hebrew.
A bit sheepishly, he admits having trained and preached as a pastor before abandoning mainline Protestantism and cultish Messianism for mainstream Judaism.
Dayves is also the delegate of Kulanu, an outreach group for Jews in remote parts of the globe and, as such, teaches the weekly conversion classes.
“It was while reading Jeremiah that I had a revelation,” Dayves shares. “Hashem’s covenant with his people – my people… At the time, my life, my family, was in crisis.
I realized that if I truly wished to repent, it is through teshuva. Judaism is a principle of life, and a source of faith. The true law is found in Torah.”
It is with Dayves that I took the weeklong road trip that enabled the both of us to see, for the fi rst time in our lives, lemurs in the wild. In the forests of Andasibe and Ranomafana, we accordingly said the shehecheyanu blessing and the prayer upon seeing a wonder of creation.
Most mysterious of the Malagasy way to Judaism is that of the hazan, the cantor, of Madagascar, Tubiyya, who has converted a room in his home into the one currently functioning synagogue on the island. Tubi, as he is called, is one of the few Jews I encountered in Malagasy who does not speak French. (Nor does he use smart phones or e-mail, I am told, as do all his co-religionists.) With Tubi more than any other Jew on the island, communication is a challenge. But not really. When Tubi opens his mouth to lead prayers, a miracle ensues.
Tubiyya, the cantor, seated on the floor of the synagogue in his home for prayer as is the custom, except for the amida (standing) prayer. (photo credit: WILLIAM F.S. MILES)
Out fl ows a Mizrahi-infl ected, spiritually transporting, mellifl uous Hebrew that would be the envy of any cantorial school candidate. This is his language. This, his davening, is Tubiyya’s way of communicating.
How did he learn it? How did this humble seller of knickknacks become such a master shaliach tzibur, a Jewish prayer leader, par excellence? Here, perhaps, lies the greatest of Malagasy secrets.
William F.S. Miles is professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston and the former Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies there. He is the author of ‘Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey' and 'Afro-Judaic Encounters from Timbuktu to the Indian Ocean and Beyond.’