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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/10/17

New Film Chronicles the Surprising Story of Jewish Renewal in Africa

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(Image by Gabrielle Zilkha)
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Suppose you're a young Jewish woman on a six-month volunteer mission with a women's rights group in Ghana, West Africa. Your passion for women's issues helps you dismiss your initial wariness in this strange setting. Then the Jewish New Year celebrations -- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- approach, and you long for the holiday celebrations back home.

So what does a wandering Jew do? She looks for a synagogue. But a synagogue in Ghana?

So she asks about one.

Most people are puzzled, saying that they've never seen or heard of any Jews. One man says that he knew a few Jews, but could not provide any details.

This is what happened to Gabrielle Zilkha, until an age old Jewish resource came to her: a Jewish mother.

Gabrielle's mom searched the Internet and found a brief reference to a Jewish group in a small rural village quite far from Accra, the capital of Ghana, where Gabrielle was staying.

Although skeptical, Gabrielle called and arranged a visit. After a day-long bus ride to the remote village, she asked a cab driver about a man named Joseph, the contact name she was given. It drew a blank. She added, "he's a Jew." The driver's face lit up: "Oh, OK." He drove her to a house where she was welcomed and taken to a guest room. When the door opened, she was staring at a large Star of David on the wall.

This is where filmmaker Gabrielle Zilkha's journey into Judaism in Ghana --and the inspiration for her documentary film, Doing Jewish: A Story From Ghana -- began.

In that moment, though, looking at the Star of David she wondered: "Is this just a token or do they really practice Judaism?" That question was answered the next morning, the Sabbath, when Gabrielle entered a small crude building that was their synagogue.

To her astonishment she saw a Torah, men with yarmulkes (skull caps) and talits -- and the entire congregation of black African men, women and children chanting prayers in Hebrew.

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(Image by Gabrielle Zilkha)
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I interviewed Gabrielle to find out more about this intriguing community.

Bernard Starr: That synagogue experience must have been quite a shock.

Gabrielle Zilkha: It was indeed. I'm not a frequent synagogue-goer but there was something quite beautiful about finding a sense of familiarity as a foreigner. This synagogue also felt so remote from other Jewish communities and institutions, and I found it quite moving to see a people so dedicated to their Jewish culture in what seemed like a vacuum.

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Bernard Starr, PhD, is the author of The Crucifixion of Truth, a drama about historical antisemitism set in 16th-century Italy and Spain. Starr is a psychologist, journalist, and professor emeritus at CUNY, Brooklyn College. At Brooklyn College (more...)

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