About 15 years ago, the threat that folklore of origins and customs of his people, the Igbos, could be lost within a generation, set the lawyer, Remy C, Ilona to travel deep into rural areas of Nigeria, on long hours journey, by bus, just to get the stories first hand. He said,
These things are not recorded in books. I studied the tradition directly.
On treks to distant corners of his country, Ilona packed notepads, pens and a camera. But just as important to this work was a reference book: a Hebrew Bible. He reflected:
I could understand the Tanach better because I understood the Igbos. And vice versa.
The Old Belief
There is an old belief among the Igbo population — at some 30 million people, one of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups — that they are descended from the ancient Israelites. After a bloody civil war in the 1960s left more than 1 million Igbos dead, their identification with the Jews, who faced their own genocide, took on a new depth. In recent decades, several Igbos have taken their affinity for Israel, ancient and modern, further. Not only do these Nigerians identify with Jews, they have begun practicing Judaism. And Ilona has emerged as their spokesman. Based on the oral folklore he collected, Ilona published his first book – “The Igbos: Jews in Africa” in 2004 — and over the next decade wrote half a dozen more. Together they make something of an “Igbo Mishna,” as Ilona has called these collected tales, the most comprehensive insider ethnography of his people. Ilona has helmed community organizations and online forums, been featured in a documentary, and guided Western rabbis on their forays into Nigeria. Jonathan D. Sarna, a Brandeis professor of American Jewish studies, called Ilona “industrious and impressive.” Though Ilona toiled for a decade in Nigeria, this past fall he enrolled in a distinguished Jewish studies program in Florida. “I am not the first person to talk about our Israelite origins,” Ilona said, speaking from Miami. “But I am the Igbo that has shown that our customs are actually Jewish customs.”
Remy Ilona Biography
Remy Ilona was born in the southeastern town of Ozubulu as the Nigerian civil war was drawing to a close, and was baptized, along with his six siblings, as a Catholic. He went to university nearby, and in 1991 he studied law in the capital, Lagos. For years, Ilona had a small law practice and also taught. By outward appearances, all was well with him. But according to him, something was off;
I was not happy, I looked at the state of Igbos, and I was not satisfied. They had lost direction. What could have led them to lose their way?
He saw Igbo businesses collapsing and a lack of ethnic unity, he said.:
When Igbos were not Christians they had a more cohesive community. They lived longer; they were happier.
Ilona, like everyone else, had heard about the Igbos’ Israelite roots. As a child, he learned about the horrors of the Biafran War a decade earlier — “our Holocaust,” Ilona calls it — in which more than 1 million Igbos, including two of Ilona’s uncles, perished in a failed bid for national independence. There were also stereotypical “Jewish characteristics” attributed to the Igbos. Leading up to the war, the Igbos were seen as socially privileged and politically powerful (the war was, in part, sparked by an Igbo-led coup). During the fighting, international media even referred to Igbos as the “Jews of West Africa.” In the United States, the American Jewish Congress published a report on the war, comparing the Igbo’s plight to earlier Jewish persecution. In Israel, Magen David Adom—the Israeli Red Cross—flew food and supplies to the Igbos, and the government may even have provided arms. Besides the story of Remy Ilona, there are similar stories and rumours of thousands of community members using the information from the internet to begin living the Jewish way of life. Inevitably, Remy Ilona have assumes the role of emissary for the Igbo, like when a new friend, a Jewish woman named Ruth, recently introduced him to another colleague, she would always say:
Meet Remy. His people claim they’re Jewish.
Ilona politely interruptes:
Not claim, we state.
And he would laugh it off, and would always turn the interaction into a running joke with Ruth, who has an Ashkenazi background. He had the chance to introduce her later that week. He said smiling,
Meet Ruth, Her people claim they’re Jewish.