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The Lemba or wa-Remba (their preferred name is Mwenye) are a southern African ethnic group found in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and with smaller, little-known branches in Mozambique and Malawi. According to Tudor Parfitt, Professor of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, in 2002 they number an estimated 50,000. Since the late twentieth century, there has been increased media and scholarly attention to the people's claims of partial common descent to the Jewish people.[dead link] They speak the Bantu languages spoken by their geographic neighbours and resemble them physically, but they have some religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism and Islam, which they say were transmitted orally.
Today, many Lemba are Christians (including Messianic Jews) or Muslims, while maintaining several Jewish practices. Genetic Y-DNA analyses in the 2000s have established a partially Middle-Eastern origin for a portion of the male Lemba population. Both Arabs and Jews share this DNA, but the Cohen Modal Haplotype, an indicator of Jewish ancestry, has been found among the males of one leadership clan at rates even higher than the general Jewish population.
In Zimbabwe and South Africa, the people prefer the name Mwenye. The name "Lemba" may originate in chilemba, a Swahili word for turbans worn by East Africans, or lembi, a Bantu word meaning "non-African" or "respected foreigner". Magdel le Roux says that the name VaRemba may be translated as "the people who refuse" - probably in the context of "not eating with others" (according to one of her interviewees).
In the period in which Jews were settled in southern Arabia, they were prosyletizing, and attracted converts from around the Mediterranean and North Africa. Many pre-modern Lemba beliefs and practices can be linked to Judaism and some are also common to Islam. According to Rudo Mathivha, a Lemba of South Africa,[dead link] these include the following:
- They observe Shabbat.
- They praise Nwali (God) for looking after the Lemba, and identify as part of the chosen people.
- They teach their children to honor their mothers and fathers**.
- They refrain from eating pork and other foods forbidden by the Torah, and forbid certain combinations of permitted foods.
- They practice ritual animal slaughter for meat for consumption, which is Middle Eastern in origin rather than African.
- They practise male circumcision**; according to Junod's work in 1927, surrounding tribes regarded the Lemba as the masters and originators of that art.
- Since the late 20th century, they place a Star of David on their tombstones.
- Lemba are discouraged from marrying non-Lemba, just as Jews are discouraged from marrying non-Jews.
Some of these traditions are not exclusively Jewish; they are common to Muslims in the Middle East and Africa, as well as to other African tribes. In the late 1930s, W. D. Hammond-Tooke wrote a book identifying practices similar to Muslims: for instance, male circumcision is done by Lemba at an age similar to that of Muslims, between seven and fifteen, rather than to infants soon after birth. Their endogamous marriage practices are also common to Muslims, as are certain dietary restrictions. Together with the similarities between many Lemba clan-names and known Arabic Semitic words; e.g., Sadiki, Hasane, Hamisi, Haji, Bakeri, Sharifo and Saidi, Hammond-Tooke concluded that the Lemba were descended, at least in part, from Muslim Arabs.
The British scholar Tudor Parfitt became involved in researching the Lemba's claims and helping find their ancestral city on the Arabian peninsula, in present-day Yemen. In an interview featured on NOVA in 2000, he said he was struck by the Lemba's maintenance of rituals that seemed Jewish or Semitic:
"The other thing was the extraordinary importance they placed upon ritual slaughter of animals, which is not an African thing at all. Of course, it's Islamic as well as Judaic, but it's certainly from the Middle East, it's not African. And the fact that every lad was given a knife with which he did his ritual throughout his life and took to his grave. That seemed to me to be remarkably, tangibly Semitic Middle Eastern.
Lemba traditions and culture 
There are numerous versions of their myths of origin, but they generally tell of migrating from the North (which is common to many African ethnicities.) According to Lemba tradition, their male ancestors were Near Eastern Jews who left Judea about 2,500 years ago and settled in a place called Senna in the Arabian peninsula (present-day Yemen). Much later, they migrated into North East Africa.
According to the British scholar, Tudor Parfitt, who published a book on his findings in 1993, the location of Senna was more than likely in Yemen, specifically, in the village of Sanāw within the easternmost portion of the Wadi Hadhramaut. The city has had a Jewish population since ancient times, but since 1948 and the founding of the State of Israel, as well as later wars, it has dwindled to a few hundred. In Lemba tradition, Sena has the semi-mythical status of a sacred city of origin and hopes for eventual return.
According to Lemba oral tradition, their male ancestry originally comprised several male "white people from over the sea” who came to southeast Africa from a country which boasted large cities in order to obtain gold. After becoming established in Africa, at some point, the tribe split into two groups, one staying in Ethiopia and the other traveling farther south, along the east coast.
The Lemba claim this second group settled in Tanzania and Kenya, building what was referred to as another Sena, or "Sena II". Others supposedly settled in Malawi, where their descendants reside today. Some settled in Mozambique, eventually migrating to Zimbabwe and South Africa. They claim to have constructed Great Zimbabwe, now a monument. Ken Mufuka, a black Zimbabwean archeologist thinks the Lemba may have contributed but would not have been solely responsible. Tudor Parfitt and Magdel le Roux think they at least helped construct the massive city.  (see below). But, most academics agree that the construction of the enclosure at Great Zimbabwe is largely attributable to the ancestors of the Shona, indigenous to the region. Such works were typical of their ancestral civilizations.
The Lemba have endogamous marriage patterns, discouraging marriage to non-Lemba. Normative Orthodox Judaism today recognizes only matrilineal descent as determining birth Judaism. Patrilineal descent was once the norm among the Israelites. The restrictions on intermarriage with non-Lemba make it nearly impossible for a male non-Lemba to become a member. Lemba men who marry non-Lemba women are expelled from the community unless the females agree to live according to Lemba traditions. A woman who marries a Lemba man must learn and practice the Lemba religion, dietary rules and other customs. The woman may not bring any cooking equipment from her previous home. Initially, the woman may have to shave her head. Their children must be brought up as Lemba.[dead link] If the Lemba had Jewish ancestors, the requirement to shave the head may date back to rituals associated with converting the first Lemba women to Judaism, the means for the Jewish males to acquire women. Genetic MtDNA data (see below) has shown no connection among the women with Jewish ancestors.
According to Tooke, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the Lemba were highly esteemed by surrounding tribes in the Zoutpansberg region of South Africa for their mining and metalwork skills. He wrote in his 1937 book that the other tribes regarded the Lemba as outsiders. According to articles from the early 1930s, in the 1920s the Lembas' medical knowledge earned them respect among tribes in South Africa. Parfitt noted in his article on the Lemba in his 2002 book that colonial Europeans had their own reasons for distinguishing some tribes as other than indigenous African, as if it gave them more right to be in the continent. By contrast, the lead anthropologist in Zimbabwe firmly places them among African peoples.
Sacred ngoma 
Lemba tradition tells of a sacred object, the ngoma lungundu or "drum that thunders", that was brought with them from Sena. Tudor Parfitt has theorised that it was the Ark of the Covenant, lost from Jerusalem after the city's destruction by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. Parfitt suggests that the ngoma was a copy of a replica of the Biblical Ark. He thinks the wooden object was likely replaced on numerous occasions, when it wore out. He says that the final copy of the ark/ngoma came to Africa with its priestly guardian.
He discovered it in a Harare, Zimbabwe museum in 2007. It had last been exhibited in 1949 by colonial officials in Bulawayo. They took it to Harare for protection during the drive to independence, and it became misplaced at the museum. According to Lemba oral traditions, the original ark/ngoma was destroyed by fire hundreds of years ago and had been replaced. Radiocarbon dating showed the artefact to be only 600 years old. Parfitt thought that perhaps this work was a replica made while the Lemba were in Yemen, after the original Ark of the Covenant had been destroyed. He said he believed it was the oldest wooden artifact in Zimbabwe. In February 2010, the Lemba ngoma lungundu was put on display in the museum with a celebration of its history and of the Lemba.
DNA testing 
Genetic testing supports some Lemba oral traditions related to origin in the Middle East. A genetic study in 1996 of 49 Lemba males suggested that more than 50% of the Lemba Y-chromosomes are Semitic in origin, shared by Arabs and Jews.
To define the people's origin more specifically, Parfitt and others developed a larger study to compare additional Lemba subjects (for whom clans were recorded) with males from South Arabia, Bantu in Africa, as well as Ashkenazy and Sephardic Jews. They found significant similarities between the markers of the Lemba and men of the Hadraumaut in Yemen. They also learned the population in Yemen was relatively recent, so would not have shared common ancestors with those of the Lemba.
A subsequent study in 2000 found that a substantial number of Lemba men carry a particular haplotype of the Y-chromosome known as the Cohen modal haplotype (CMH), as well as, a haplogroup of Y-DNA Haplogroup J found amongst some Jews, but also in other populations across the Middle East and Arabia. The genetic studies have suggested that there is no Semitic female contribution to the Lemba gene pool. This indicates that Jewish men migrated to Africa in ancient times and took wives from among the local people after settling in new communities.
Among Jews the CMH marker is most prevalent among Jewish Kohanim, or hereditary priests. As recounted in Lemba oral tradition, the ancestor of the Buba clan "had a leadership role in bringing the Lemba out of Israel" and eventually into Southern Africa. The genetic study found that 50% of the males in the Buba clan had the Cohanim marker, a proportion higher than in the general Jewish population. While not defining the Lemba as Jews, the genetic results confirm the oral accounts of ancestral males originating from outside Africa, and specifically from southern Arabia.
More recently, Mendez et al. (2011) observed that a moderately high frequency of the studied Lemba samples carried Y-DNA Haplogroup T, which is also considered to be of Near Eastern origin. The Lemba T carriers belonged exclusively to T1b*, which is rare and was not sampled in indigenous Jews of the Near East or North Africa. T1b* has been observed at low frequencies in the Bulgarian and Ashkenazi Jews as well as in a few Levantine populations.
Construction of Great Zimbabwe 
- Models of circumcised male organs were found at Great Zimbabwe; (the Lemba appear to have introduced that practice into southern Africa);
- The Lemba bury their dead in an extended rather than a crouched position – i.e., in the same style as in certain Zimbabwean graves, where gold jewellery confirmed an association with the ancient civilization;
- The old Lemba language was a dialect of Karanga – which is spoken today in the Masvingo area of Zimbabwe; (thus, the Lemba female ancestry was probably derived from the MaKaranga). Gayre asserts that the ancestors of the Lemba were responsible for the construction of Great Zimbabwe.
Most scholars, however, generally agree that Great Zimbabwe was built by the Shona people as part of the 13th-century kingdom of Zimbabwe. It was successor to the earlier Kingdom of Mapungubwe, also known for its complex stone ruins.
Halakhic status as Jews 
In modern Rabbinic Judaism, halakhic Jewish status (Jewish status according to Jewish law) is determined by documenting an unbroken matrilineal line of descent or by conversion to Judaism. Jews who adhere to Orthodox or Conservative Rabbinism believe that "Jewish status by birth" is passed only by a Jewish female to her children (if she herself is a Jew by birth or by conversion to Judaism) regardless of the Jewish status of the father. Because of the absence of matrilineal Jewish descent for the Lemba, it is unlikely that Orthodox or Conservative Judaism will recognize them as 'Halakhically Jewish'; they would require the Lemba to undergo the formal conversion process.
The Reform branch of Judaism, on the other hand, recognizes patrilineage. As more is learned of widespread people's histories, the Reform branch has acknowledged unusual descent outside the European and indigenous Middle Eastern spheres. Especially since publication of the genetic results, American Jewish communities have reached out to the Lemba, offering assistance, sending books and study materials, and initiating ties to teach the Lemba about normative Judaism. So far few Lemba have converted to normative Judaism and given up their own syncretic practices.
South African Jews of European descent have long been aware of the Lemba, but have never thought of them as more than an "intriguing curiosity." Generally the Lemba have not been halakhically accepted as Jews because of their lack of matrilineal descent. Several rabbis and Jewish associations support their recognition as one of the "Lost Tribes of Israel". In the 2000s, the Lemba Cultural Association approached the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, asking for the Lemba to be recognized as Jews by the Jewish community. The Lemba Association complained that "we like many non-European Jews are simply the victims of racism at the hands of the European Jewish establishment worldwide." They threatened to start a campaign to "protest and ultimately destroy 'Jewish apartheid'".
According to Gideon Shimona in his book, Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa (2003):
Rabbi Bernhard of South Africa has stated the only way for a member of the Lemba tribe to be recognized as a Jew is to undergo the formal Halakhic conversion process, after which they "would be welcomed with open arms."
Representation in other media 
- Channel Four documentary based on Parfitt's Journey to the Vanished City (1992 first edition).
- PBS Nova documentary: Lost Tribes of Israel, includes content about the Lemba. Website includes transcript of an interview with Tudor Parfitt based on his work with them.
See also 
- Beta Israel (Ethiopia)
- Gathering of Israel
- Jews and Judaism in Africa
- Jews of the Bilad el-Sudan (West Africa)
- Y-chromosomal Aaron
- Yemeni Jews
- Parfitt, Tudor. (2002), "The Lemba: An African Judaising Tribe", in Judaising Movements: Studies in the Margins of Judaism, edited by Parfitt, Tudor and Trevisan-Semi, E., London: Routledge Curzon, p. 42
- Parfitt (2002), "The Lemba", p. 42
- Parfitt, Tudor (1993/2000) Journey to the Vanished City: the Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel, New York: Random House (2nd edition)
- Parfitt(2002), "The Lemba", p. 39
- Wuriga, Rabson (1999) "The Story of a Lemba Philosopher and His People", Kulanu 6(2): pp.1,11-12]
- le Roux, Magdel (2003). The Lemba - A Lost Tribe of Israel in Southern Africa?. Pretoria: University of South Africa. pp. 209–224, 24, 37.
- The origins of the Lemba "Black Jews" of southern Africa: evidence from p12F2 and other Y-chromosome markers., PMC 1914832, PMID 8900243
- Kleiman, Yaakov (2004). DNA and Tradition - Hc: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews. Devora Publishing. p. 81. ISBN 1-930143-89-3.
- Tudor Parfitt' Remarkable Quest, NOVA, PBS, 22 February 2000, accessed 10 May 2013
- Shimona, Gideon (2003). Community and conscience: the Jews in apartheid South Africa. United States of America: Brandeis University Press. p. 178. ISBN 1-58465-329-9. Retrieved 2010-03-13.
- Parfitt (2002), "The Lemba", pp. 47-50
- Junod, H.A. (1927). The Life of a South African Tribe, vol. I: Social Life. London: Macmillan. pp. 72–73, 94.
- Note: Such endogamous marriage patterns are common among many ethnic groups in Africa and elsewhere
- le Roux, Magdel (2003). The Lemba - A Lost Tribe of Israel in Southern Africa?. Pretoria: University of South Africa. pp. 174, 293.
- Lost Tribes of Israel, Transcript, NOVA, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), aired 22 February 2000
- Hammond Tooke, W.D. (1937/reprinted 1974). The Bantu-speaking Peoples of Southern Africa. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. pp. 81–84, 115–116.
- Parfitt (2002), "The Lemba", pp. 40-42
- The Story of the Lemba People
- Lost Tribes of Israel, NOVA Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 22 February 2000
- Tudor Parfitt's Remarkable Journey, NOVA Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), November 2000 accessed 26 February 2008
- van Warmelo, N.J. (1966). "Zur Sprache und Herkunft der Lemba". Hamburger Beiträge zur Afrika-Kunde (Deutsches Institut für Afrika-Forschung) 5: 273, 281–282.
- le Roux, Magdel (2003). The Lemba - A Lost Tribe of Israel in Southern Africa?. Pretoria: University of South Africa. pp. 210–224.
- Parfitt, Tudor (2000). Journey to the Vanished City. New York: Vintage (Random House). pp. 1–2.
- le Roux, Magdel (2003). The Lemba - A Lost Tribe of Israel in Southern Africa?. Pretoria: University of South Africa. pp. 25, 169.
- Great Zimbabwe (11th–15th century) Thematic Essay | Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Trevor, Tudor G. (December 1930). "Some Observations on the Relics of Pre-European Culture in Rhodesia and South Africa". J. Royal Anthropological Inst. of Great Britain and Ireland 60: 389–399.
- Jaques, Rev. A.A. (1931). "Notes on the Lemba Tribe of the Northern Transvaal". Anthropos XXVI: 245–251.
- Parfitt (2002), "The Lemba", pp. 43-44
- "A Lead on the Ark of the Covenant", Time, February 21, 2008
- "Zimbabwe displays 'Ark of Covenant replica'", BBC News, February 18, 2010 accessed March 7, 2010
- Parfitt, Tudor and Egorova, Y. (2005) Genetics, Mass Media, and Identity: A Case Study of the Genetic Research on the Lemba and Bene Israel, London: Routledge.
- Parfitt (2002), "The Lemba", pp. 47-48
- "Y Chromosomes Traveling South: The Cohen Modal Haplotype and the Origins of the Lemba — the "Black Jews of Southern Africa"", American Journal of Human Genetics 66 (2), February 1, 2000: 674, doi:10.1086/302749, PMC 1288118, PMID 10677325
- Schindler, Sol. Review: "The genetics of Jewish ancestry", about Abraham's Children: Race , Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People by Jon Entine, The Washington Times, 28 October 2007
- Hamilton, Carolyn (2002). Reconfiguring the Archive. Springer. p. 191. ISBN 978-1-4020-0743-9.
- "The Lemba, The Black Jews of Southern Africa", NOVA, Public Broadcasting System (PBS), November 2000, accessed 26 February 2008
- Parfitt (2002), "The Lemba", p. 49
- Parfitt (2002), "The Lemba", p. 50
- F.L. Mendez et al., "Increased Resolution of Y Chromosome Haplogroup T Defines Relationships among Populations of the Near East, Europe, and Africa", BioOne Human Biology 83(1):39-53, (2011)
- Gayre, R. (1972). The Origin of the Zimbabwean Civilization. Galaxie Press, Zimbabwe.
- "Shona", African holocaust
- "Patrilineal descent", Jewish Virtual Library
Further reading 
- H. A. Junod, "The Lemba", Folklore, Vol. XIX, No. 3, 1908