Kohens In Unlikely Places


Don’t let the title fool you. If you hope to learn the fate of Gad, Zevulun or Naphtali, or for that matter any of the 10 mythic lost biblical tribes of Israel, from this edition of PBS’ Nova series, think again.

But once you put the hyperbolic title aside, one can get caught up in this Indiana Jones-like story of British anthropologist Tudor Parfitt and his efforts to trace the origins of a black African tribe called the Lemba, who claim to be Jews descended from the biblical patriarchs.

Parfitt mixes good old-fashioned detective work with state-of-the-art genetic research to try and solve the mystery of the Lemba’s claim to Jewish ancestry: even though they live 4,000 miles from Israel near Zimbabwe.

Parfitt’s 12-year quest tries to figure out how the Lemba came to wear the tallis and kipa, prohibit eating pork, and use a shofar or ram’s horn for rituals. The British anthropologist even tries to locate Sena, the paradise-like lost homeland where the Lemba say they lived before coming to a remote sector of Africa.

Most fascinating is the discovery that about half of the men in an Lemba elite family contain the same genetic marker on the Y chromosome as the one found in a study of Kohanim: male Jews who claim to be descended from the Jewish priestly line of Aaron, brother of Moses.

"The fact that we found this in such high concentrations in one of the Lemba subclans … seemed finally to provide a really usable link between the Lemba and Jews," Parfitt says in the documentary.

But make no mistake, the Lemba are definitely not one of the "lost tribes," states Shaye J.D. Cohen, Ungerledier professor of Judaic studies at Brown University and a consultant on the program.

Cohen is referring to the 10 tribes that made up the northern kingdom of Israel, conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, and taken into exile, apparently disappearing into history. There has been much speculation over the last 2,500 years about what happened to them. Every so often explorers come across a native people who have some trait in common with ancient Jewish custom, and believe they have found a "lost tribe" of Israel.

"There’s something romantic about this, which is why it has never disappeared," explains Cohen, author of the acclaimed new book "Beginnings of Jewishness." "It’s very attractive and powerful, and it makes us feel good."

But he quickly adds: "As a historian, I find the whole enterprise rather silly. Are the Lemba descendants of the lost tribes who disappeared from the face of the earth? The answer, of course, is no."

But Cohen says that doesn’t mean the Lemba are not a kind of modern lost tribe :"a group of people unbeknownst to us and to themselves carrying Jewish genetic material.

"If the genetic testing is accurate, says Cohen, "then we have an interesting historical problem: How did Jewish genetic material wind up in the genes of the Lemba tribe? The obvious, plausible response is some Jewish adventurer got to this tribe and lived among them and sired sons with the native women. We have no idea when or where or how."

Program writer and producer David Espar agrees that many unresolved questions arise from the genetic testing.

"It’s so hard to say anything really definitive," says Espar, who inherited an existing English documentary, and its title, about Parfitt’s quest and reformulated it for Nova, adding new scenes and the genetic testing data.

One key unknown, Espar notes, is the lack of information about how widespread the "Kohen chromosome" is in the world population, because not every ethnic group has been tested. He said scientists hope to provide more answers in the future.

"What I hope people take away from this is some understanding about how genetics can reveal something about history that can’t be known any other way. Genetic archeology is a whole new burgeoning field."

Cohen says the show should raise questions about Jewish identity and how Jews define themselves. "These questions are not simple."

As for the Lemba, Cohen says they will be accepted as Jews "if the Jewish people want them to become Jews. And that’s the way it’s been since Moses and Aaron." NOVA presents "Lost Tribes of Israel" Tuesday, Feb. 22 at 9 p.m. on WNET/13. There is also an Internet link- (http://www.pbs.org/nova/Israel) where viewers can learn more about the biblical lost tribes, Parfitt’s odyssey and an interactive genetic testing game.