Vanuatu through a Jewish lens

A group of islands in the South Pacific reveals a way of life that is exceptionally intriguing.

Vanuatu locals 390 (photo credit: Paul Ross)
Vanuatu locals 390
(photo credit: Paul Ross)
As a travel writer, I have been all over the world, to countries that are wildly interesting because of their unique cultures and customs. I have used the word “exotic” many times in my writing, but only recently have I discovered what the word really means – and I found out in Vanuatu.
“Where is Vanuatu?” you probably want to know.
The answer: in the South Pacific, roughly between Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and it consists of approximately 80 islands where more than 110 languages are spoken. It was called the New Hebrides until its independence from French and British colonial rule in 1980. Because of the former condominion, English and French are widely spoken and the common language of all the islands is Bislama, a charming pidgin English.
For me, the heart of Vanuatu is its kastom – the Bislama word for “custom.” It refers to the deep, fascinating tribal culture that has persisted in spite of the colonizers’ and missionaries’ attempts to wipe it out. Visitors to Vanuatu, who mainly come from Australia and New Zealand, are intrigued by the mysterious and ancient rituals, dances, music and beliefs that have survived.
They often go to a village, and are touched by the sounds, colors, dancing, singing... and authenticity.
I was completely bowled over by how exotic it all was. At first, I was grasping wildly, trying to understand rules and beliefs entirely unknown to me. Then, after a few days, I had a revelation: they are tribal people.
I am a tribal person. They are ni-Vanuatu. I am Jewish. And I decided to relate their culture to own, to experience Vanuatu through a Hebrew lens. And for 15 hours a day, that is what I did.
One of my first meetings in Port Vila, the capital of the main island of Efate, was with Chief Tom, who comes from Tanna island. He was wearing a baseball cap, Island shirt, trousers and flip-flops. He’s a charismatic, natural storyteller, and his position as paramount chief is roughly equivalent to chief rabbi. He explained that he makes decisions, mediates and solves disputes, and I started smiling when it occurred to me that he’s like a one-man beit din, or rabbinical court. He is also a keeper of deep, tribal knowledge.
“Human beings began as spirits in the unseen world,” he told me. I immediately recalled the day a Chabad rabbi told me that Adam and Eve lived in a spiritual world, before humans became flesh. “We come from stones,” Tom explained. “Some stones remained stones, and others became human.”
“In the Hebrew Bible, we come from the dust of the earth,” I told him. “There is still dust on the earth, but some of it became human.” We smiled. We had found common ground.
“What is your practice when someone dies?” I asked him.
“We mourn for seven days,” he answered.
“Shiva,” I said. “We mourn for seven days too.”
“Some chiefs still have multiple wives,” Tom informed me.
“Jacob, our forefather, had two wives and two concubines. And Solomon – he had 1,000!”
LATER THAT day, I went to the Vanuatu Cultural Center, which is also a museum, and met the director – a scholar, writer and teacher named Marcellin Abong. He is from the island of Malekula and belongs to the Small Nambas tribe. He showed me a magnificent collection of evocatively carved wooden slit drums, from different islands.
“They could be heard for miles,” he explained. “There were different drum beats for different occasions. People knew what the beats meant. They summoned the people.”
“Shofar,” I said to myself. In an ancient Jewish community on the island of Djerba in Tunisia, the shofar was used when there were no clocks, newspapers, phones or other means of communication. It announced the beginning and end of Shabbat and holidays and summoned the community.
In the course of walking through the museum, Marcellin talked about ceremonies, and explained that men, women and children sit separately, in clearly defined spaces.
“Like the mehitza,” I thought, picturing the partition that separates men from women in an Orthodox synagogue.
I learned that each child gets an indigenous name, often from his grandparents. It is a sign that you own land, that you belong to the tribe. I reflected on my own Hebrew name, Yehudith, and how it is different from my given name. It is the tribal name I carry.
I went on a tour to Iarofa, a cultural village on Efate island. I was warned that it wasn’t a “real” village, but rather a cultural presentation put together for visitors. Expecting to be disappointed, I was captivated. Johnson, who is a chief from the island of Futuna, was very concerned that his culture was being lost, that people who came to Efate for work were becoming detribalized, and children didn’t know about their heritage any more. So he spent eight years putting together a program, in the bush, to teach the richness of his tradition and help to preserve it.
I followed him around like a lapdog. He demonstrated how to trap an animal, fish, build a house, undertake the endless process of making an axe head from stone.
He pulled us back into Stone Age culture, where survival was a combination of what nature provided and humans’ boundless ingenuity.
At one point, he mentioned a hut, and said that women stayed there, separate from the others, when they were menstruating.
“The laws of nidda,” I thought, excited. I had experienced them firsthand when I visited the ancient Israelite Samaritans, the remnants of the northern tribes, on Mount Gerizim in the West Bank. One of the young women had her period. No one was allowed to touch her. She was handed food on a paper plate. She had to sit separately from everyone else. At home, she was not allowed to do any work or touch food. It was the world that fascinated readers of Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent.
Johnson added that women are not allowed to come to the nasara, the sacred area in the village that is the chief’s.
“Or sometimes women can come, but not touch anything,” he added. Far across the Pacific, other tribal people had laws governing women’s ritual purity, mostly around childbirth and menstruation.
After Johnson and his group had finished their dancing and singing, and Johnson had walked on fire in the traditional way and emerged unscathed, he explained that he wears a beard because he is mourning the death of his father. I remembered how my own father, who died when I was young, sat shiva for his parents, and how he didn’t shave during the mourning period.
“When I cut my beard, it means my mother can marry again,” said Johnson. “I discuss this with her, and with my family.
When it is agreed that the time has come for her, I will cut my beard. My brothers wear dreadlocks. It is for the same reason.”
Before leaving Efate island, I went to one more cultural village, which was called The Secret Garden. The jungle site is covered with signs that give wonderful information about Vanuatu, more than any visitor could possibly absorb in one visit. There is also a string band, lap-lap (food cooked traditionally in the ground), a presentation and then, to my surprise, a demonstration by tribal people from the island of Ambrym, which is known for magic.
First, a man broke a coconut with his bare hand. Then, looking into the wide eyes of the small and rapt audience, he took one piece of wood, rubbed it against another piece of wood, and produced fire in about 30 seconds. Next, and most baffling of all, he buried a small tree branch in the ground, and defied any man in the crowd to pull it out. A few strong, hefty guys got up, strode confidently over to the leaf, yanked and tugged and couldn’t move it.
“Moses!” I thought. “This is a demonstration of “magic” like the one Moses had with the priests of Egypt, to show who was more powerful.”
TANNA ISLAND offered one of the deepest experiences of my trip. In the village of Lounapkamei, which is far off the tourist trail, two ceremonies were taking place on the same day: a circumcision, and the paying of a bride price. A young man named Pascal, who drove me to the village, mentioned something about the Iani (whom I was later to meet), the spokesman for the chief.
“Like Aaron,” I thought. Moses had a speech impediment, and he was not a good orator; his brother played that role and spoke to the people and Pharaoh.
The preparation for the bride price was extraordinary.
The bride had actually been with her husband for several years, and they already had three children together. It took many years for the husband’s family to accumulate the wealth needed to pay the price to the bride’s family.
Jacob labored for Laban for seven years to afford Leah and then his beloved Rachel. Fourteen years of work to pay the steep bride price! At the ceremony on Tanna, I saw how that price was paid: a huge pile was amassed at the nakamal, the sacred space, in front of all the villagers. The items were laid down, one after another, and they included bananas, root crops, finely woven mats, textiles, baskets made from pandanas, kava (a mild narcotic, and the relaxation of choice in Vanuatu) and sacrificed animals. In fact, they were sacrificed right in front of me.
“Second Temple Judaism,” I thought, trying not to be disturbed at the sudden death of the animals.
Later on in my trip, when I was on Aore island, my waiter Hector told me the going bride price on the island of his birth was $8,000, mostly paid in goods. I asked another waiter why the price is so high.
“The bride is a woman of value and valor,” he answered. “She takes care of the pigs (which are very prized on Vanuatu, and very un-Jewish), tends the garden, feeds her husband and the family. She works very hard.”
A woman of valor. Eshet Hayil. I love those words, which are traditionally recited – in poetic form – on Friday nights by Jews.
I went behind the scenes to watch the preparation of the bride. She was adorned in her finest: makeup, her hair just so, and glittering, beautiful clothes to underscore her beauty.
My attention turned to the circumcision ceremony, which lasted all day and into the night. The honored boy was about four years old; it took that long for his family to accumulate the wealth needed to pay for the event, and to reward the boy’s uncle for his role in rearing the child.
The details of this fascinating event included the gorgeous adornment of the boy’s mother, grandmother, aunts and sisters. Their clothes glittered and sparkled in the sunlight.
“Women are like queens today,” a local man told me. I immediately thought of the Shabbat queen, and the use of the word “queen” to elevate the status of women. Ordinarily, I learned when I was on different islands in Vanuatu, the man is king. Women are not allowed into the nakamal, except on special occasions.
And, if they are permitted to enter the sacred space, they are not allowed to touch anything. But, on the day of the circumcision, the taboo is lifted. The “queen” can tell people what to do, take charge. She steps out of her subordinate role.
Another man in the village informed me that, after the circumcision, the next important ceremony in a boy’s life is when his hair is first cut. Upshernish, I reflected. I had attended the Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin’s upshernish celebration in my hometown of Santa Fe, when their son’s locks were first shorn.
I noticed, late in the afternoon of the circumcision, that our guide Pascal and our driver, Philippe, were both drooping.
“Didn’t you eat any of the lap-lap?” I asked them.
They both said no. On this holy ceremonial day, they were not allowed to eat until the sun went down and they drank their halved coconut shells full of kava to break their fast. Fasting. Just like Jews do on important days. I instantly understood why they refused all victuals.
The following day, I went to the kastom (traditional) village of Yakel. Was I hallucinating? There was even “El” (meaning God in Hebrew) in the name of the village. My tall, lithe guide Tom, who carried a bow and arrow and wore a penis sheath, told me about the punishment for those who sin, or transgress the law.
“He has to carry a chicken on his head,” Tom said. “And he has to pay for the chicken.”
Kapparot! The arcane Jewish tradition that takes place every year at the High Holy Days. The poor chicken is swung around the head three times, before it is sacrificed. It is not, as most people believe, a transfer of human sin to the chicken.
Rather, it is about repair, atonement and return to Godly ways.
Tom also told me that the children of Yakel are not sent to the nearby school.
“The chief doesn’t want them to lose their kastom, or learn other ways that can dilute kastom. They don’t learn English.
They only eat our traditional foods,” Tom explained. They were almost the same words I had heard in the Orthodox community in Montreal. And, throughout Vanuatu, I learned about villages where kastom schools had been established, or were being established, to teach the history, traditions, language and laws of each tribe. Yeshivot!
ON ESPIRITU Santo island (often called “Santo”), one of my prime interests was the John Frum cargo cult. This is the subject of another article, but suffice it to say that I was fortunate to arrive on a Friday evening, when their weekly ceremony was taking place.
In an open-sided, thatched-roof meeting house, while participants sang to the accompaniment of guitars and a drum made from the axle housing of a truck, I sat next to Isaac Wan, who is the paramount chief of the John Frum villages. Although the popular and reductive notion is that John Frum was an American who appeared in Vanuatu before and during World War II, and the cult members are waiting for him to come back with material goods they saw during the war but never had, the truth is much more complex.
Isaac Wan explained that his father and grandfather were jailed for 17 years during colonial times, and their crime was trying at all costs to preserve their culture and traditions.
“I get messages from John Frum,” Isaac said quietly, “and they are about peace, treating each other well, getting along.”
Yes, they are waiting for John Frum to come back, and to usher in a time of prosperity and well-being, but aren’t Jews, too, waiting for the Messiah? I asked Isaac what was the most important thing about his cult that he wanted people to know.
“Tell them about our Friday night meeting,” he said without hesitation. Erev Shabbat, I thought. The community gets together for a singing, prayerful service.
We hugged each other goodbye.
High on my agenda on Santo was a visit to the village of Vanafo, where Jimmy Stevens had lived and presided over the Nagriamel cult.
Stevens, a beloved, charismatic and sometimes controversial figure, was a visionary who devoted his life to maintaining kastom in the face of colonial attempts to obliterate it. But rather than fighting the colonizers, he thought there could be peace among all people; they could coexist, but the ni-Vanuatu would have a free, independent state, and not be under the thumb of anyone else.
He had followers on 15 islands, and many of his adepts moved to Vanafo, where they planted, worked the land, practiced collective farming, sold their goods and worked for the common good (like a kibbutz).
Although Jimmy died in 1994, I was fortunate to spend several hours with his youngest son, Yankee. He was personable, smart, charming and articulate – just as I imagine his father was.
“We had 10 laws, like the Ten Commandments,” he said. “They kept the peace. They were the laws of the land that everyone knew. People respected each others’ land. Spirit, land and respect were the basis of Nagriamel. When a pig was sacrificed [okay – think of a bullock or a chicken], the blood had to run here. Vanafo was like the center, the temple of Nagriamel.”
Land. Ten commandments. Sacrifice in the temple. It was all so familiar.
I had heard that Jimmy had 26 wives, but Yankee disputed this. According to him, Jimmy had six wives, and “50 royal girls.
They were gifts from the chiefs of other islands.”
How could I judge when King Solomon had 1,000 wives and concubines? Jimmy was like a king in his time. He had his likeness put on gold coins, which was not appreciated by some ni-Vanuatu. I thought about ancient Jews, who were not supposed to have their images on coins; but the son of Herod did it, and Bar Kochba, during his rebellion against the Roman occupation, purportedly had his name and his sign (a star) engraved on coins.
As I mused, Yankee told me that Jimmy took the name Moses – most likely because he led his people out of bondage and held the laws. I had heard that the name Moses was self-attributed, but Yankee said the people gave Jimmy that name.
“My brother and I still hear the spirit of Jimmy,” Yankee said. “We sacrifice a pig and let the blood run.
We kill the pig quickly. We don’t just swing with the club, wait and swing again.”
I reflected on the kosher way of slaughtering an animal, which is done as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Jimmy Stevens was an emblem of resistance to foreign occupation and domination. This was important to the ni-Vanuatu as it was to the Jews under Roman rule, in the ghettos of Europe during the reign of terror of the Nazis, and during the British Mandate in Palestine. He was also one of those who fought to preserve culture and custom, when oppressors tried to trash, obliterate and abolish them. Isn’t that what we celebrate on Hanukka? As I reluctantly bid adieu to Yankee, my local guide told me more about ni-Vanuatu customs; specifically, that people spit to chase away bad spirits. I fondly thought of my grandmother and my mother, who used to make a spitting sound three times when I was growing up. It was, I was told, to chase away evil spirits and protect against the Evil Eye.
ON AORE island, where I went for a day of relaxation, but of course ended up talking to the staff and learning about their tribes and cultures, I spent a while talking to Anne, the open-hearted owner of the Aore Island Resort. She told me about a practice she found very significant.
“If a woman’s husband dies, one of his brothers may marry her,” she reported. My mind leapt to the Israelite tradition of Levirate marriage, where a man marries his sister-in-law if his brother dies. There is even the halitza ceremony, when the widow takes off the brother-in-law’s shoe and releases him from his obligation to marry her.
I had a one-day stopover back on Efate, and I asked everyone I knew if I could be introduced to a kleva, or healer.
I think the Bislama word derives from “clever,” although I am not sure.
At the Cultural Center, Alben was waiting for me.
We retreated to a private room where we could talk.
He said that he gets his power from nature.
“God created the world and blessed it. So all of nature has a blessing,” he said.
As a kleva, Alben’s specialty is calming seas and helping women in the hospital. There are numerous klevas in his family – “it’s in our blood,” he said.
Then he went on, “There is no murder or theft where I live. We have like the Ten Commandments. If you break a law, you have to hang a rooster, and drain the blood. Blood can wash away the sin. You can’t eat this rooster. And you have to wash yourself in the ocean three times before sunset and return to the village cleansed. This is used for swearing [cursing] or other things people do wrong.”
Well, there I was again – in Second Temple Judaism, where animal sacrifice was practiced. And there were also kapparot and a mikve to relate to! Alben hailed from Malekula, which is deeply steeped in tradition, and was my next island stop. A knowledgeable woman named Salavina, who presided at the cultural center, talked to me about the importance of the palm leaf or palm frond. She explained that the chief uses it for peace, or it can also designate a taboo; for example, if there is a land dispute, when people see a palm leaf, they know not to enter the land.
The importance of a palm frond? I immediately thought of the lulav, which is used in prayers at Succot, and was part of the Succot observance at the ancient Temple.
Malekula (which, according to a soulful and wellinformed local guide and home-stay host named Etienne, is visited by only one-tenth of 1 percent of foreigners who come to Vanuatu) was a source of many tribal comparisons.
Edna, who works in tourism on the island, spoke to me about arranged marriages, which were the norm, but now, as elsewhere in the world, love marriages are common. The more she spoke about prearranged nuptials, the more I reflected on the shtetls in Ukraine and Poland, where my ancestors lived, and where arranged marriages took place.
Edna said that the prospective bride and groom could say no to an arranged match. I remembered, with a smile, that when Abraham sent his servant, Eliezer, to find a bride for Isaac, she was given the choice of saying no before she left her parents and set out for Canaan to meet her husband.
ON MALEKULA, I encounter the Big Nambas and the Small Nambas tribes. The words “big” and “small” refer to the traditional clothing of the men, which are penis sheaths that are suspended from belts.
The differences include whether the belt and sheaths are made from fiber, bark, leaves or grasses.
Among the Big Nambas, most of the women wear a beautiful red head covering; it signifies that they are married. Many Orthodox Jewish women wear a wig, or sheitel.
When a Big Nambas man really loves his woman, he knocks her front teeth out. I must admit, I couldn’t find an equivalent for that one! Etienne, whose house I stayed in, talked to me about the large, tall, mysterious Ram Ram figures I had seen in the cultural center in Port Vila. He confirmed what I had read: the figures are made with the skull and bones of a deceased chief.
Honoring the bones? Isn’t that unrelatable? Not quite.
The bones of patriarch Joseph were carried from Egypt to Shechem (in the land of the ancient Israelite Samaritans, in the shadow of the Mountain of Blessings – Mount Gerizim, and the Mountain of Curses – Mount Ebal).
I snapped to attention when Etienne spoke about the tribes of Malekula. At the time of their fighting with Ambrym, “there were 12 tribes, and they lived on [nearby] Rano island.”
Twelve tribes. Where had I heard that before? At a Small Nambas village, in one dance which was performed, I was told that a spectral figure who entered the dance was “the spirit of the 30 people from Ambrym that the greatest warriors of our 12 tribes killed and ate.”
Why remember the enemy? Why not allow them to vanish from memory? Well, I thought, don’t we remember Amalek, the Philistines and other ancient enemies? Don’t we bring them into our teachings, our discussions? Aren’t they in the Torah? Of course, it was essential for me to try to understand eating one’s enemy; the practice of cannibalism in Vanuatu didn’t entirely disappear until 40 years ago. It was not, according to what I learned, a random practice. It was about getting the power of one’s enemy by eating his flesh.
One man told me that in his tribe it was an extreme form of punishment for multiple instances of disobeying a chief. Amedee, a chief of the Small Nambas, said that after a man consumed human flesh, he couldn’t sleep with his wife for 30 days, and he couldn’t touch a child. He then had to undergo a purification ceremony with water, to chase away the evil spirits.
In other words, a mikve equivalent.
Amedee explained more about his tribe’s customs.
He said that a man makes his last life ceremony before he dies. He pays for his ceremony and makes the arrangements while he is alive. If he dies before making the ceremony, his family takes care of it for him.
My mind immediately jumped to my grandmother, who told me about the burial society she belonged to, the burial plot she had purchased, and how important it was to Jews in the shtetl.
Etienne took me, in a wooden boat, to nearby Wala island, where we visited the nasara of his ancestors.
On the man’s side of the sacred space, there were a series of large, exceedingly heavy stones, each of which was placed by a specific family or clan.
“Without the stone, you are nothing,” Etienne said several times.
I tried to relate to the notion of stones and their tribal affiliation. Suddenly I recalled my first visit to Mount Gerizim, where Benny Tsedaka, the Samaritan scholar, speaker and unofficial ambassador, had shown me the 12 stones supposedly of Joshua; each stone had been placed to represent one of the 12 tribes when they first came to the Promised Land.
Etienne took me to a very sacred place on Malekula: a burial site for chiefs. There, under several slab stones, were the skulls of chiefs. Each was buried with a conch shell, which are associated with the chief’s prestige and power.
I REFLECTED on the nehushtan of Moses, the staff that was said to cure people of snake bites. The Caduceus, the snaked sign of the medical profession, is based on that staff. It is postulated that Moses’s staff was preserved alongside the Ark of the Covenant. And, according to Etienne, Vanuatu chiefs still have staffs, which are symbols of their authority, and are passed down to their sons when the latter assumes the chiefly position.
Etienne’s generosity included sharing the story of his own family’s origins. They started out in the “dark bush,” the overgrown, dense forest or jungle. There was a tree with thick vines growing around it. And the vines became man and woman.
“And there were also a male and female snake,” Etienne added.
Eden! It was the Vanuatu equivalent! “They lived in the dark brush for four generations, and then started fighting,” Etienne recounted.
I immediately thought of Cain and Abel.
“So part of them separated, and moved away,” Etienne continued.
Exile from Eden. Even today, a special snake bears Etienne’s family name, and everyone knows it is only found on his family property. In a land dispute Etienne is currently involved in, this story and the associated sites are part of the claim that he presented in court, and it was accepted as proof.
I must confess that by the time I was leaving Malekula, I was wondering if I had been hallucinating about all the parallels I found. When I saw gifts given in woven baskets, I thought of mishloah manot at Purim. When I saw communal singing, dancing, and women preparing food for the community, I thought of holidays during my childhood at the Laurelton Jewish Center in New York. Was I the only person who traveled to remote, exotic Vanuatu, and viewed it through a Jewish lens? Surprisingly, Amedee, the chief of the Small Nambas village I went to, answered my question, even though I never asked him.
“My grandfather said we originally came from Israel,” he reported.
“This was probably told to him by missionaries,” I ventured.
“No,” he countered.
“My grandfather said the story was told before contact with the missionaries. In 2006, some visitors came here from Israel, and they were surprised by the similarity of many customs we have, like circumcision and the separation of women during their menstruation.”
So I am not the only one. And I am grateful that my own heritage gave me a way of understanding the powerful customs and traditions of people who live a world away from me and touched my heart.
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The author is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 100 publications.