Jewish community of Mozambique is more than 100 years old. Throughout
its existence, it has been small in number and diverse in origin.
Before the turn of the century, the Ashkenazim and Sephardim who first
migrated to the Indian Ocean port of Maputo (known before
independence in 1975 as Lourenco Marques), hailed from such places as Vilna, Marrakech, London, and
Durban. For years, they met for services in homes and
reportedly often feuded on liturgical matters. Community lore
records a Rosh HaShanah early in the century at which an innovative hazan managed to please
the whole congregation by alternating between Ashkenazic and Sephardic style
pronunciation and melodies for the length of the service.
Despite their differences, in 1926 the two groups
built a common synagogue. But the
community was never large enough to support a rabbi, so service and
other rituals were led by members.
Despite an influx of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War, the community seemed to be in a
terminal demographic decline. By the early 1970's the gabbai
had to roust visiting South African Jews from the city's tourist
hotels to make a minyan on
Friday nights. At Mozambican independence in 1975, most of the
remaining Jews, who were out of sympathy with the collectivist
economic policies of the new government, left the country. The synagogue,
along with many churches and mosques, was confiscated; it was turned
into a warehouse. The cemetery, once an urban oasis with its avenue
of frangipani and a towering mango tree, fell into disrepair and was
badly vandalized. Without the synagogue, and in a climate of official
hostility to religion, organized Jewish life in Mozambique came to a
In 1989, however, a local non-Jewish businessman,
Alkis Macropolous, organized a campaign to have the synagogue
returned to the community. An advertisement placed in the local
newspaper brought the few remaining Jews in the country back
together. Gradually, small contributions allowed clean-up and
restoration work to begin. Alkis had expected the synagogue to
become a sort of historical monument to the Mozambican Jewish
community that had once worshipped there.
His expectations were justified. For
Mozambique's few remaining Jews, isolation from world Jewry had meant
no exposure to Jewish culture and no availability of the ritual
requirements of Jewish life. The flame of Jewishness in Mozambique
was all but extinguished.
Despite these circumstances, the return of the
synagogue to the Jews led the Jews to return to synagogue. A handful
of self-taught members started meeting in its single bare room on
Saturday afternoons to sing fold songs and study Hebrew.
Representatives of other religious groups in Mozambique attended an Anne
Frank memorial program. When I stepped inside the little white
sanctuary for the first time, I heard a group of twelve people
singing "Am Yisrael Hai," accompanied on a portable
keyboard by the gabbai-by-default, who happened to be a German
Lutheran. It was, as they say, from the heart.
Since the 1989 recovery of the synagogue,
milestone has followed milestone. The community's sifrei
Torah, which were presumed lost when most of the Jews scattered
in 1975-76, were found in the safekeeping of the South African Jewish
Board of Deputies. Because they were no longer kosher, the Chief
Rabbi of South Africa, Dr. Cyril Harris, solicited the donation of
another Torah scroll, and a congregation in Cape Town made that
extraordinary gift to the Maputo community. The day the rabbi
delivered the Torah happened to be Rosh Hodesh and hence an
opportunity for a public reading from the scroll.
It was the first time the community's younger
members had ever heard the Torah read. They listened with
rapt incomprehension. Since 1989, successive Passovers have incorporated as many local elements as possible. Mozambique's
may be the only Jewish community in the world where the haroset on
the seder plate is based on cashews, which are plentiful locally, and
the maror is the herb nkakunda, which all agree is the bitterest
edible thing sold in the market. On Rosh
HaShanah in 1993, the shofar was blown in Maputo for the first
time in at least 15 years. In November of that year, Mozambique
and Israel established diplomatic relations.
The community's single most unifying ritual is the Shabbat service held every
Friday night. Long gone is the competition between Ashkenazic and Sephardic liturgical
styles. The task today is to make the services accessible and
meaningful to those who speak only Portuguese (the first language of
the community) and to those who prefer English ( the common language
of visiting foreigners). The result is an idiosyncratic mixture
of the two, plus lots of singing in Hebrew, the language with which
everyone struggles equally.
Jewish religious knowledge can lapse and culture
evaporate, but Jewish identity lingers. And so, from even a single
spark, Jewish life can revive. Among the Mozambican Jews, basic
Jewish ideas and observances such as circumcision and kashrut are complete
novelties. One man's only
observance is to wear a yarmulke on Yom Kippur in an annual
public affirmation of his identity. Another young man was
brought to synagogue for the
first time by an uncle at the age of 19. Ever since, he has attended
Friday night services faithfully and even spent his precious saving
on a Christian bible because it was written in Hebrew. Some months,
later, he wanted to admit himself to the hospital in order to be
circumcised, having read on the reverse of a Jewish calendar about
the mitzvah of circumcision.
The circumcision was put off pending some study of the meaning of the
ritual and consultation with rabbinic authorities.
The return to long-buried Jewish roots is not
limited to the Mozambicans. Some of the most active community members
are non-Mozambican Jews who work on the staffs at embassies and
foreign aid organizations. Many of them were not synagogue-going Jews
in their own countries but became Shabbat regulars in Maputo and began to share with their less-educated
The demand for Jewish knowledge in Maputo is
greater than the supply. Books about Judaism, especially in
Portuguese, are particularly prized.
But, what the community lacks in religious
instruction it makes up for in enthusiasm. One of the projects that
has made great headway is the restoration of the cemetery. The
community has met on Sunday mornings since 1992 to remove tons of
trash from the cemetery grounds, plant new trees and raise the walls
to discourage vandals. The cemetery is well on its way to
becoming the little urban garden it once was, and is again a fit
resting place for previous generations.
The revival of the Jewish community of Mozambique,
remarkably, has been helped along to a great extent by non-Jews. When
you ask the key participants why they got involved, the common
threads in their replies seem to be personal friendships with Jews
and esteem for the principles of Judaism. In my year and a half in
Mozambique, I found only curiosity and warm feeling about Jews and
Judaism among non-Jews. The government ministries and the leadership
of other religions have greeted the revival of the community with
delight and encouragement. Despite its small size, the Jewish
community has participated as a full equal in national ecumenical
events involving Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Hindus.
After a generation of civil war, socialism and
recurring drought, an observer of Mozambique might be excused for
answering G-d's question to Ezekiel in the negative. But peace is
giving Mozambique new hope of reconstruction and development. One
small aspect of the more general improvement of national fortunes is
the unexpected revival of the country's Jewish community. That
miraculous development augurs well for the nation's future.
Sources: Jews of Mozambique. Saudades