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Mozambique Virtual Jewish History Tour

The 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 halt.

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 Chodesh 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 Mozambican co-religionist.

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