aish.com > Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

In Zimbabwe, Unraveling Mysterious Jewish Roots

March 20, 2022 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

One woman’s incredible, complex journey to Judaism – a century in the making.

Lithuania, early 20th century. In the wake of deadly pogroms, a small group of Lithuanian Jews travels to Africa in search of business opportunities. They settle in the British colony of Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), known as the "Jewel of Africa" for its gold, diamonds, and spectacular safari wildlife.

Joining them is 25-year-old Maurice Jacobson, who opens a general store in the predominantly black town of Gwelo (now Gweru). Maurice’s business expands, and his personal driver recommends his sister-in-law Elie Zhetkete for a job at the store. Elie, a black woman, is hired. A romance develops with Maurice and Elie becomes pregnant.

In colonial Rhodesia, “love across the color line” is strictly taboo. Should the paternity become known, the scandal would ruin reputations and livelihoods. The matter becomes a sworn family secret.

Elie gives birth to a boy, Orr. Though identifiably black, Orr’s “white features” – blue eyes and wavy hair – raise suspicion of mixed race. Elie is shunned by her community, then arrested and briefly imprisoned.

Elie raises Orr by herself, while Maurice quietly provides financial and emotional support. Elie marries a black man and together they became the Mpavaenda family. Elie vows to shield Orr from a sense of uncertain identity. When Orr’s hair would grow out, Elie would cut it off. Still, Orr’s physical features lead to social rejection and taunts from extended family members. “You’re a disgrace and don’t belong here!” they tell him.

Morning market in Gwelo, Rhodesia, circa 1923

Though he has inklings of a white father, the topic remains strictly off-limits, and Orr is never told the truth of his out-of-wedlock, interracial lineage.

Elie stays in contact with Maurice, who encourages her to raise Orr with an admixture of Jewish tradition. She keeps kosher, forbids pig in the house, and ensures that chickens are slaughtered at the neck and the blood drained. As a faithful Christian, Elie always has a Bible close by.

Two of Devorah's great-aunts, who revealed the secret of her Jewish lineage.

Meanwhile, Maurice Jacobson marries Tilly (Matilda) Shiff, a member of the British Order of the Empire. Orr’s existence remains a carefully-guarded secret, as Tilly’s aristocratic background precludes any involvement in such scandal. Maurice and Tilly adopt two sons, whom they raise in Gwelo. Both go on to achieve prominence in their respective fields: lawyer and physician.

Maurice enjoys great success as a businessman and community leader. He serves two terms as the mayor of Gwelo. Maurice is buried in Gwelo, his “secret” ostensibly long forgotten.

Maurice Jacobson and family in Gwelo, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), (circa 1940)

The Hidden Secret

Orr grows up and becomes a respected judge. Determined to provide his own children with a clear ethnic identity, he marries Jane, a British citizen from Portugal whose profile matches Zimbabwe’s demographics: 99% black and 85% Christian.

Orr and Jane raise a close-knit family – two sons and a daughter named Barbara Ivy Elie (who now goes by Devorah) – in a leafy green suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare (formerly Salisbury).

As a child, Devorah senses that her ancestry is different.

As a child, Devorah senses that her ancestry is different. Teachers comment on the color of her eyes and she is bullied by other children. Yet she always seems to have special protection, like the time some children came to beat her up and a swarm of bees suddenly appeared – chasing the bullies away.

At home, Orr maintains some Jewish traditions, including kosher chickens and no pig. Although young Devorah has no inkling of connection to “white and Jewish,” in a dream she is wearing a bracelet engraved with the words: “A true Jew in deed, with no guile.” In the dream, when other children inquire about the origins of the bracelet, Devorah explains, “I was born with it.”

Devorah remains close with her grandmother Elie, who stays true to her vow to utter no word of the family’s Jewish connection. With her actions, however, Elie communicates a message that will echo for generations. Unlike other women in town, Elie dresses modestly, with long skirts and high necklines. As a child, when Devorah visits and plays dress-up with the modest clothing, Elie is thrilled to see her granddaughter gravitate in this direction.

Main street in Gwelo, Rhodesia, circa 1923

Next Generation

Devorah gets married at age 18, and Elie – then 106 – invites her to visit along with her husband. At the meeting, Elie’s resilience finally breaks. Drawing Devorah close, she says, “I can now share secrets.” Though careful not to utter the word “Jewish,” Elie cryptically says: “When I die, you should go to my people. They will tell you what to do.”

Life for Devorah gets busy, raising a family that includes a daughter and three sons. Life is Zimbabwe is challenging, as a 30-year reign of corruption and tyranny decimates the country: Life expectancy is cut in half and millions die from HIV pandemic. Hyperinflation is so extreme that that Zimbabwe issues a 100-trillion-dollar banknote.

Devorah’s four children

Through it all, Elie’s words ring in Devorah’s ears: “Go to my people.” Devorah wants her children to know their lineage and seeks more information about her grandmother’s parting message. Devorah visits her 96-year-old Aunt Minor and inquires: “What did my grandmother mean when she said, ‘Go to my people’?”

For nearly a century, Minor was sworn to secrecy. Now she declares, “Your grandfather was a merchant. His name is Maurice Jacobson and he is Jewish.”

For nearly a century, Minor was sworn to secrecy. Now, confronted by Devorah, she declares: “Your grandfather was a merchant in the town of Gwelo. His name is Maurice Jacobson and he is Jewish.”

Minor begins to cry. “Instead of me telling you,” she says angrily, “why didn't my sister tell you?”

The news rocks Devorah’s world. She travels to Gwelo in search of information. Yet this small outpost no longer has a Jewish community, and the trail runs cold. For the next decade, Devorah makes various inquiries, yet comes no closer to the truth.

Frustrated, Devorah visits her great aunt to press for more information.

Devorah at her son’s wedding in Israel, 2022. In the background, Devorah’s ex-husband

“Go to a place in Gwelo called Jackson Farms,” the aunt says. “There you will find a woman Margaret Majuta (Margaret the Jew). She will tell you everything.”

Devorah travels to Gwelo and locates the bus stop to Jackson Farms. "This bus was supposed to leave five hours ago,” the bus driver tells her, “but for some reason it got delayed. Ma’am, you must be praying to the true God, because we are now ready to go.”

At midnight, Devorah arrives at Jackson Farms, not knowing exactly who she is there to see. This region of Zimbabwe has suffered from years of guerrilla warfare, and people are unwelcoming of strangers. Devorah meets a group of men who eye her suspiciously. Through tears, she speaks with conviction: “Gentleman, it is not easy for a woman to be alone in a strange place at midnight. Please help me find my people.”

Devorah’s grandchildren – Mayan’s children

They deny knowing Margaret Majuta, and Devorah leaves empty-handed - and more frustrated than ever.

With persistence to discover her lineage, Devorah makes a return trip to Jackson Farms and takes a more aggressive approach. She mentions to the locals the name of her grandmother, Elie Mpavaenda. A few men step out to make a phone call, then return to tell Devorah: “Margaret will meet with you. She knows your father, and knows the people who sent you.”

When they meet, Margaret reveals that she is Elie’s niece, making her Devorah’s first cousin, once-removed. Margaret then confirms the story of Maurice Jacobson and the young black woman he hired at the store. “Your grandfather,” she confirms, “was a Jew.”

Devorah at the Western Wall

Steps on the Path

With this information, Devorah is inspired to find her spiritual path. She begins attending synagogue in Zimbabwe, where a congregant tells her, “I can see that you are not saturated with African rituals, but connected to God.” Devorah announces her desire to learn Hebrew, but is rebuffed. “We only teach Jewish children,” the rabbi says.

Devorah enrolls in Bible School, where among the teachers is an Israeli woman. “The Jewish people are known as the children of Jacob,” the teacher explains. Devorah feels her grandfather leading her, and begins referring to herself as “Jacob-son.” Devorah also discovers that, incredibly, her father’s name “Orr” is the Hebrew word for “light.”

One day, as the Israeli woman is teaching about God, Devorah suddenly has a spiritual epiphany. Overwhelmed with awe, Devorah decides that her destiny is to eat, pray, and live as a Jew.

Using the Christian Bible, Devorah begins to teach herself. She reads the Shema which instructs: “Teach your children, going out and coming in.” So Devorah teaches her children to say Shema every day before school. “God is one,” she tells them. “That is what we believe.”

Initially, Devorah’s husband supports and encourages her interest in Judaism. They study Torah together. But he resists when the budget includes special kosher food and a new modest wardrobe. To keep the peace, Devorah secretly uses her own pocket money to cover the extra expense. Eventually, the marriage strains and they divorce.

Devorah’s son Gavriel in Israel

In 2009, Devorah and her daughter Mayan travel to Israel. Mayan is captivated by the people and land of Israel. She converts to Judaism, and becomes engaged to Oren, an Israeli. Following a traditional Jewish wedding in Jerusalem, the couple travels to Zimbabwe for an African-themed celebration.

The couple settles on a kibbutz, and when Mayan gives birth to a daughter, Devorah is shocked that she looks completely white.

This revives Devorah’s desire to reconnect with long-lost family tradition, and she resolves to follow the Jewish path. Yet in Zimbabwe, with no resident rabbi and a community of 120 mostly elderly Jews, Devorah struggles to advance her Jewish journey.

Johannesburg

Years pass and Devorah, feeling more settled, is ready to commit to life as a Jew. Yet with no adequate conversion option in Zimbabwe, she is advised by Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the “African Community Rabbi,” to pursue conversion in South Africa.

In 2017, after much introspection, Devorah gives up her comfortable life in Harare and moves to xenophobic South Africa. The endeavor is arduous, given that English is not Devorah’s native language, and she is taking these steps all alone – with no family, friends, nor even acquaintance in South Africa.

Devorah, Mayan, and the book that opened a window to their Jewish heritage

With a balance of courage and dignity, Devorah arrives in Johannesburg carrying one suitcase, a bit of money, and lots of grit and determination to make the best of whatever hurdles she encounters. She rents a room in the heart of crime-ridden Johannesburg. Unlike what was advertised, the room is small and dingy, with a communal bathroom and kitchen. Yet it meets her top priority: walking distance to an Orthodox synagogue. Unlike the other Zimbabweans in Johannesburg, Devorah is not an economic migrant. She is here for the higher purpose of becoming a Jew.

That Friday evening, Devorah walks to the Ninth Street Orange Grove Shul, where she stands out as the only woman in a congregation that is all-male, Ashkenazi, and white. At the synagogue, Devorah meets Craig Snoyman, an attorney in Johannesburg, who invites her to Shabbat dinner. Over challah and gefilte fish, Craig mentions his friend Brian Brom who lives in Johannesburg and regularly conducts business in Zimbabwe.

This connection will ultimately transform Devorah’s life.

Back to Gwelo

One Shabbat morning, Devorah is introduced to Brian and they begin chatting in Shona, the native language of Zimbabwe. The conversation quickly turns to Devorah’s Jewish journey. “My grandfather was a Jew who lived in Gwelo,” she says.

“I’m probably familiar with every Jew who lived in Gwelo during the 20th century. What was your grandfather’s name?”

Brian is incredulous. “My family is from Gwelo! My father came there in 1936 from Lithuania, when the town’s population had a few dozen Jewish families. My father was a Jewish community leader in Gwelo for over 40 years. I was born and raised there!”

Devorah swallows hard, a torrent of emotions welling up inside.

Brian continues: “I’m probably familiar with every Jew who lived in Gwelo during the 20th century. What was your grandfather’s name?”

Brian and Audrey Brom

Overwhelmed at what might come next, Devorah mutters, tentatively: “Maurice Jacobson.”

Brian claps his hands with glee. “I know all about Maurice Jacobson! He was a respected businessman who co-owned the general store, Shiff & Jacobson. He was the mayor of Gwelo and also a national leader of the Jewish community.”

With these words, Devorah breaks into uncontrollable sobs.

Brian continues to describe the town, the street, and her grandfather’s shop.

After years of dead-ends, here, in a tiny synagogue in South Africa, Devorah finally discovers her long-lost grandfather. What are the chances she'd meet a Jew from the same small town in Zimbabwe?

The next day, Devorah visits Brian’s home and he shows her a book entitled, Majuta – A History of the Jewish Community in Zimbabwe. He opens the book to show her an entry about Maurice Jacobson – photo included.

Devorah with a friend on the day of her conversion

The encounter leaves Devorah weeping and shaking. Her Jewish spark, pulled across the span of a century, has now burst into flame. Soon after, she returns to Israel for intensive Jewish studies at Machon Ora in Jerusalem.

Devorah’s search to connect with her grandfather comes full circle in 2019 when she accompanies Brian to visit Gwelo. There, in the Jewish cemetery, Devorah stands at the grave of Maurice Jacobson: overwhelmed, crying, reciting Psalms, and praying. Her joy is mixed with feelings of anger that for so many years, she was denied the truth.

At the gravesite, Devorah has a message for Maurice Jacobson. “Thank you for being my grandfather. Thank you for giving me life. And thank you for linking me to the true God.”

Devorah departs with a renewed sense of wholeness and peace.

Future Generations

Devorah carries herself with regal humility, and admiring supporters in the Johannesburg Jewish community take her under their wing. Her incredible journey culminates in 2021 with conversion to Judaism under the auspices of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa. At a Covid-restricted celebration, she adopts a new surname: “Jacobson.”

From the stump of Zimbabwean Jewry, Devorah’s family has sprouted a branch bearing new fruit: Her daughter Mayan continues to live in Israel with her husband and two beautiful children. Devorah’s son Gavriel also moved to Israel and converted. In February 2022, his marriage to a woman from New Jersey was attended by Devorah’s large extended family.

Gavriel under the chuppah

Today, Devorah spends endless hours studying ancient rabbinic texts, including the daily Daf Yomi page of Talmud. She hopes to soon make aliyah, “to come home to Jerusalem.”

She reflects: "Isn't it wonderful how God reveals the jigsaw pieces, then lets us assemble them to complete the puzzle."

with thanks to Craig Snoyman and layoftheland.online




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