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Nathan P. Devir

Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies, Religious Studies, and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies
Director, Middle East Center/Middle East Studies Program
Director, Religious Studies Program

Department of World Languages and Cultures
Languages and Communication Building
255 South Central Campus Drive
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, UT 84112

Office: LNCO 1325
Telephone: (801) 585-3000
Fax: (801) 581-7581
E-mail: nathan.devir@utah.edu

For speaking or programmatic engagements, please be in touch with the Jewish Speakers Bureau here.


Research

Photos from
Research Trips

Book Excerpt

   

 

Research

I was hired by the Department of World Languages and Cultures at the University of Utah in July 2011, after having worked for three years as a Visiting Instructor/Assistant Professor of Modern Hebrew and International Studies in the Department of Religion at Middlebury College. I completed my Ph.D. in the Department of Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University in 2010, with a specialization in Comparative Jewish Cultures. I also hold a B.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Haifa (Israel), where my field of study was Judeo-Maghrebian Literature and Culture.

My scholarly interests focus on the intersections of narrative, praxis, identity, and ethnicity in the modern Jewish paradigm. Specifically, I am concerned with how sub-cultural particularities among divergent Jewish groups help to illustrate the ways in which varied interpretations of Jewish peoplehood are codetermined. To put it another way, I am interested in how individuals and communities articulate their own senses of what constitutes Jewishness—their typologies, taxonomies, and plain gut feelings about what that kind of belonging means to them in their daily lives. Highlighting how such codetermination takes place is the uniting thread throughout all of my work. To do this, I have examined the conceptual and geopolitical frameworks through which Jews from differing backgrounds reference or reenvision sacrosanct themes and ideologies informed by Judaism’s discursive reservoir and narrative tradition.

In my doctoral research, I focused on the interplay between literary discourse, ethnocultural affiliation, and biblical exegesis in modern Jewish cultural production. My dissertation demonstrated how subversive hermeneutic devices found in the reconstructions of Jewish themes, tropes, characters, and imagery employed by Modern Hebrew, Francophone North African, and Anglo-American Jewish writers function as transformative responses to sometimes controversial stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Talmud, and the Kabbalah. My first publications, which grew out of this work, all showcase close readings of specific texts in which each author attempts to respond, through politicized and ethnically-specific exegetical means, to the foundational narratives of Judaism’s sacred textual tradition.

An outgrowth of my work on such cultures during my dissertation was the discovery of research on so-called “neo-Jewish,” “Judaizing,” or “self-defining” Jewish communities from the developing world. Whether through an identification with a Hebraic or Israelite ancestry, or simply out of a newfound spiritual volition to follow Mosaic Law, these communities are increasingly seeking to become part of what is called in Hebrew klal yisrael: the worldwide Jewish community. Prior to finishing the Ph.D., I began to immerse myself in scholarship about these emerging groups with heretofore unknown or hotly disputed ties to established Jewish communities elsewhere in the world. These nascent communities captured my imagination, and I began to incorporate my own research on them into my scholarly profile. I have been fortunate to receive funding for this research from, among other places, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, the Reed Foundation, the Council for American Overseas Research Centers, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Earhart Foundation, the Lucius N. Littauer Fund, the University of Leipzig’s Simon-Dubnow-Institut für jüdische Geschichte und Kultur, and the University of Utah Research Committee.

The theoretical concerns explored in my earlier work remain unchanged: they are still on the sub-cultural specificities and ethnic variations in global Jewry, but now involve field-based, ethnographic analysis (a domain in which I possess institutional certification), as well as methodologies acquired through my earlier training, such as socio-historical criticism (especially involving postcolonial approaches) and hermeneutic, discourse, and communicative interaction analyses. Looking ahead toward future scholarly projects, I see myself continuing to focus on interdisciplinary approaches to identity formation and notions of belonging among minority communities worldwide, both Jewish and non-Jewish.


Books:

Between Law and Grace: Messianic Jewish Movements in Sub-Saharan Africa (in progress; expected completion date: 2018).

New Children of Israel: Emerging Jewish Communities in an Era of Globalization. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2017.

https://www.amazon.com/New-Children-Israel-Communities-Globalization/dp/1607815842


Selected Journal Articles:

“African Judaizing Movements and the Question of Polygamy: Perspectives from Cameroon.” Journal of the Middle East and Africa 8.1 (2017): 75–96.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21520844.2017.1289496?journalCode=ujme20

“Exposing Pathology, Playing God: Parsing Psychosocial Discourse in ‘The Last Commander’ by A. B. Yehoshua.” Jewish Culture and History 15.3 (2014): 188–211.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1462169X.2014.973261

“Conceptions of Idolatry and Secular Art in Chaim Potok’s Asher Lev Novels.” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 13.2 (2014): 150–166.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14725886.2014.918715

“History and Its Contagions: Rethinking the Legacy of Genesis 22 in A. B. Yehoshua’s ‘Early in the Summer of 1970.’” Biblical Reception 2 (2013): 229–251.

http://www.sheffieldphoenix.com/showbook.asp?bkid=241

“Maghrebian Feminism Meets the Bride of God.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29.2 (2013): 47–73.

http://www.fsrinc.org/article/1457/

“Reexamining the Allegorical Hermeneutic in A. B. Yehoshua’s A Late Divorce.” Religion and the Arts 16.5 (2012): 507–538.

http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/15685292-12341237


Selected Book Chapters:

“Popular Perceptions of Israelite Genealogy in Madagascar: Dissociating Bio-racial Signifiers from Mainstream Jewish Religious Practice.” In African Jewish Journeys. Eds. Marla Brettschneider, Edith Bruder, and Magdel le Roux. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, forthcoming 2018.

“Propagating Modern Jewish Identity in Madagascar: A Contextual Analysis of One Community’s Discursive Strategies.” In Connected Jews: Expressions of Community in Analogue and Digital Culture. Eds. Caspar Battegay, Simon J. Bronner, and Andrea Lieber. Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, forthcoming 2018.

“The ‘Internet Jews’ of Cameroon: Inside the Digital Matrix of Globalized Judaism.” In The Shadow of Moses: New Jewish Movements in Africa and the Diaspora. Eds. Daniel Lis, William F. S. Miles, and Tudor Parfitt. Los Angeles: African Academic Press/Marymount Institute Press/Tsehai Publishers, 2016. 113–130.

http://www.store.tsehaipublishers.com/product_info.php/religion-spirituality/in-the-shadow-of-moses-p-168

“Origins and Motivations of Madagascar’s Normative Jewish Movement.” In Becoming Jewish: New Jews and Emerging Jewish Communities in a Globalized World. Eds. Netanel Fisher and Tudor Parfitt. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016. 49–63.

http://www.cambridgescholars.com/becoming-jewish

“History and Responsibility: An Assessment of Potok’s ‘Non-Jewish’ I Am the Clay.” In Chaim Potok: Confronting Modernity through the Lens of Tradition. Ed. Daniel Walden. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013. 97–115.

http://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-05981-5.html


Selected Presentations and Invited Lectures:

“The Role of Social Media in the Transnational Promulgation of Central African Judaism.” Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, Washington, D.C., forthcoming October 2017.

“The Lost Tribes of Israel: Yesterday and Today.” Brigham Young University, April 2017.

“‘Dispersed among the Nations’: The Lost Tribes of Israel in Madagascar?” Jewish Museum of Florida, Miami Beach, January 2017. 

“Messianic Jewish Communities in Sub-Saharan Africa.” African Studies Association, Washington, D.C., December 2016.

“Ideological Points of Contention between African ‘Neo-Jewish’ and Normative Global Northern Jewish Communities.” Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, Washington, D.C., October 2016.

“Notions of Peoplehood among Emerging Jewish Communities: Historical, Religious, Political.” Colloquium on Wrestling with Jewish Peoplehood, Temple University, April 2016.

“Black Judaism: A Growing Religious Movement in Africa.” Symposium on Africa in the Twenty-First Century, Tennessee State University, March 2016.

“Israel and Color: Views from the Ivory Coast.” Second Annual Symposium on Jews and Color, Florida International University, January 2016.

“A Case Study of an Emerging Jewish Community: The ‘Beth Yeshourun’ of Saa, Cameroon.” Modern Language Association, Vancouver, British Columbia, January 2015.

“Online Spiritual Volition: The ‘Internet Jews’ of Cameroon.” African Studies Association, Indianapolis, Indiana, November 2014.

“Identity Politics among Emerging Jewish Communities from the Developing World.” Religious Research Association/Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Boston, Massachusetts, November 2013.

“Visual Arts and the Judaic Tradition in Chaim Potok’s Asher Lev Novels.” Colloquium on Traditions and Perspectives in the History of Jewish Art, Bar-Ilan University, September 2012.

“Mourning a Coexistence Lost: The Ethics of Judeo-Arabic Identity in Tunisian-Jewish Francophone Fiction.” African Literature Association, Southern Methodist University, April 2012.

“Une histoire perdue: L’identité judéo-maghrébine dans l’œuvre de Chochana Boukhobza.” Colloquium on Le sens de l’Histoire dans les littératures francophones, Université de Sousse, April 2010.

 

Selected Media Coverage:

Rosner, Shmuel. “The ‘Becoming Jewish’ Exchange, Part 3: ‘Millions of Africans Believe They Are of Israelite Ancestry.’” Jewish Journal, March 1, 2017 [http://jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain/215832/becoming-jewish-exchange-part-3-millions-africans-believe-israelite-ancestry/].

Dolsten, Josefin. “In Madagascar, ‘World’s Newest Jewish Community’ Seeks to Establish Itself.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, November 25, 2016 [http://www.jta.org/2016/11/25/life-religion/in-madagascar-worlds-newest-jewish-community-seeks-to-establish-itself].

Kestenbaum, Sam. “‘Joining Fabric of World Jewish Community,’ 100 Convert on African Island of Madagascar.” Forward, May 24, 2016 [http://forward.com/news/341106/joining-fabric-of-world-jewish-community-100-convert-on-african-island-of-m/].

Kestenbaum, Sam. “The New Jewish Diaspora?” Forward, April 28, 2016 [http://forward.com/news/339682/the-new-jewish-diaspora/].

Lidman, Melanie. “Ghana’s Deep Spirituality Points Some, Joyfully, Back to Judaism.” Times of Israel, April 14, 2016 [http://www.timesofisrael.com/ghanas-deep-spirituality-points-some-joyfully-back-to-judaism/].

Miles, William F. S. “The Secrets of the Malagasy Jews of Madagascar.” Jerusalem Post, September 26, 2015 [http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/The-Malagasy-secret-415164].

Book Excerpt

“Preface,” from New Children of Israel: Emerging Jewish Communities in an Era of Globalization (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2017), xi-xvi.

 

In November 2012, I spent a month in Ghana studying a rural community of ethnic Sefwi who consider themselves descendants of the ancient Hebrews. The fieldwork on this subgroup of the indigenous Akan people was part of a larger scholarly project, some of which is included in this book, on so-called “neo-Jewish,” “Judaizing,” or “self-defining” Jewish communities from the developing world.[1] Whether through an identification with a Hebraic or Israelite ancestry, or simply out of a newfound spiritual volition to follow Mosaic Law, these emerging groups with heretofore unknown or hotly disputed ties to established Jewish communities elsewhere are increasingly seeking to become part of what is called in Hebrew klal yisrael: the worldwide Jewish community. Part of my research in Ghana involved interviewing non-Jews about their perceptions of the self-defining Sefwi Jews, who had embraced a religion with essentially no known history in this Sub-Saharan West African country.

“Edward” (not his real name) was one of my non-Jewish interviewees.[2] Edward had invited me to his home, where the interview was to take place. After some casual conversation in the main greeting room, he excused himself and asked me to wait while he retrieved from the bedroom “something to show me.” I expected Edward to come back with news clippings, a book, or some other relevant piece of information about his supposedly Jewish neighbors. Instead, he returned with a shotgun in one hand, a box of ammunition in the other. Strangely, I did not feel the least bit nervous, despite the fact that we had met only briefly, a number of days earlier. Something in his demeanor put me at ease. Then again, perhaps part of my calm was due to the effects of the ginseng hooch we had been drinking. It was a specialty in this backwater province.

“Please show me how to use this,” Edward said, pointing to the shotgun. “I saw something similar in an American action movie, and then went to have a rip-off copy made at the local gun shop.” He smiled sheepishly. I hesitated, remembering that I would be traveling to Accra, Ghana’s capital, via the regional airport in Kumasi the next day. I doubted that the security team at the tiny airstrip had the necessary equipment to detect any gunpowder residue on my fingers, but the prospect of spending the rest of my first university research leave in a West African bush prison made me think twice. “You must know how to use one, right?” Edward asked, sensing my indecision. “Don’t all Americans hunt?” Recalling a dialogue from an episode of the short-lived Jackie Mason sitcom Chicken Soup, I thought of telling him that I usually “bought mine at the store,” but didn’t have the heart. Instead, I nodded, grateful that a wild childhood in Montana and my stint as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces had apparently been good for something. “I can show you how to use this,” I said, “but I’d rather not actually fire the gun. You never know if they’ll be able to detect the residue on my hands at the airport tomorrow.”

“You are very cautious!” Edward said. “Okay, no problem. But please, show me how it works.” He listened carefully to my instructions about how to safely load and fire the weapon. I expected that, when he was ready to shoot, we would exit the house and proceed, in the same cautious manner, to an area near the perimeter of the forest outside of his home. Instead, Edward led me into the kitchen, where he loaded the shotgun, took aim through the open window at a palm tree about twenty feet away, and fired. A large branch of the tree crashed to the ground. Edward’s children and an elderly uncle ran into the kitchen to see what was going on. “That’s great!” he exclaimed, slapping me on the shoulder. “Thank you so much!” The children held their hands over their ears and asked Edward in Sefwi, the local language, what the obruni (white guy) was doing in their house. Edward shooed them away and invited his uncle to squeeze off a few rounds. Before long, the poor tree had gotten a permanent face-lift from the buckshot of my new friend’s weapon.

I had met Edward one Saturday morning as I attempted to find my way to the synagogue in New Adiembra, a small village located near the town of Sefwi Wiawso, the birthplace of the Ghanaian Jewish community. Edward noticed me walking in circles around the area of his mother’s compound, and asked if I might help him unload some crates from a parked vehicle. We spoke about my research, and he was intrigued. He agreed to drive me to my destination. When he dropped me off at the synagogue—an unfinished concrete structure painted blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag, with tin panels for a roof—we exchanged cell-phone numbers and agreed to meet at a later occasion. Before we parted ways, he asked: “By the way, how do you say, ‘I like you’ in Jew?” I gave him the correct Hebrew usage. He repeated it back to me and we parted with a handshake.

The members of the Ghanaian Jewish community, whom Edward knew well, had begun practicing a kind of impromptu Old Testamentism in the late 1970s.[3] The founders of the community, all members of a nascent Bible study group, noticed some curious parallels between precolonial Sefwi practices and those of the ancient Hebrews. The recognition of such cultural parallels had previously escaped them, due in part to the tendency of mission schools and local churches to focus on teachings from the New Testament. Both groups had in common rites such as circumcision, menstrual seclusion, Saturday Sabbath observance, taboos related to food and burial practices, a spring yam festival reminiscent of the biblical Passover, and a kind of monotheism. Some members of the study group, galvanized by these connections, insisted that the Sefwi must be descended from one of the Ten Lost Tribes, which were scattered from the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE after the invasion of the Assyrian Empire. Others maintained that they had journeyed through Africa from the Holy Land at a much later stage. Conflicting information from oral heritage narratives could be used to corroborate both suppositions, so they acknowledged that it would be impossible to establish the exact point of origin and method of arrival in Ghana. There was one thing, however, that they all agreed on: they were of Hebrew stock. They decided to call their movement the “House of Israel.”

Curious to see if there were any other lost Hebrews in the world, they sent a delegation to make an official inquiry at the Ministry of the Interior in Accra. Unsure of what to do, officials from the ministry sent them to the Israeli embassy in Abidjan, the commercial capital of the Ivory Coast, which borders Ghana to the west. The letter the group wrote there to their long-lost brethren, which detailed their location and the desire to make contact, was entrusted to the baffled Israeli staff. Somehow, the letter made its way to a synagogue in Des Moines, Iowa. And thus began the extraordinary journey of a community of pastoralists and cocoa farmers toward modern-day Jewish observance.

According to the Sefwi Jews, all ethnic Sefwi are Hebrew by origin. Some of them just don’t know it yet. Even Edward, who practiced animist ancestor worship and spoke affectionately of his favorite fetish priest, was full of praise for the practicing Jews in New Adiembra. “They are helping to restore what the colonialists stole from us,” he told me during our conversation. “The British raped, pillaged, and destroyed our native culture. I am not part of these Jews’ religious community, and I will continue my own religion in my own way. But I believe in what they are doing.”

For Edward, the great heroes of the Jewish tradition—Moses, Joshua, David, Samson, and Judah Maccabee—had proven to the world that resistance to the forces of oppression was laudable. Echoing the sentiments expressed by many formerly colonized peoples whose encounters with Christianity may have been advantageous in the realms of health and literacy, but devastating in the loss of many central aspects of their indigenous cultures, Edward insisted that “turning the other cheek” entailed the inevitable loss of “pride, autonomy, and self-respect.” Such statements of support for those returning to their ancient roots are not confined to this Ghanaian Jewish community. In the developing world, particularly in areas where European missionaries helped to foster awareness of certain biblical characters, practices, and narratives, or where popular nineteenth-century ideas about “historic races” took hold among colonial administrators, many such self-defining Jewish groups are emerging with surprising frequency. They exist in, among other places, Brazil, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, India, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Peru, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. While it is difficult to say exactly how many individuals belong to such groups, the numbers are likely in the millions.[4] Most are formerly Christianized peoples who have come to Judaism through religious communities whose focus is primarily on the Old Testament, such as those from Sabbatarian, Seventh-day Adventist, Messianic, or Prophetic movements.

Interestingly, most people from these groups have little knowledge of, or regard for, notions of secular Jewishness. I initially found this disparity quite striking, since the Jewish relationship with modernity in the West has been inextricably linked with secularism. Indeed, from the period of the Haskalah, or the movement toward “Jewish Enlightenment” that began around the end of the eighteenth century, much of the discourse surrounding Jewishness has involved notions of emancipation and assimilation, as well as the shift from legalistic religiosity to a relatively murky form of secularized identity politics. Among emerging Jewish communities, however, professing one’s Jewishness by way of ethnocultural affiliation, à la Woody Allen, without adhering to formal Jewish religious praxis, is almost unheard of. In retrospect, this now seems logical. For the most part, traditional cultures still value propriety and piety, and regard religious observance as somewhat of a logical sequitur for an existence in which, according to John S. Mbiti, there is “no formal distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the religious and the non-religious, [or] between the spiritual and material areas of life.”[5] In Charles Liebman’s view, such a worldview “consumes the life of the individual” because it “imposes attitudes and behaviors” that distinguish it from secular lifestyle options in the West. These secular options, Liebman posits, are part and parcel of “the culture of personalism and voluntarism” that pervades most facets of secular Western society.[6]

In this digital era of globalized interconnectedness, emerging Jewish communities from developing nations are redefining what it means to be Jewish vis-à-vis their coreligionists elsewhere in the world. The relationship may not be entirely reciprocal, but it has a firm basis in shared ideas. And ideas are like a contagion: one can never know who will get the bug. Seeing cellular modems used to access proper Sabbath liturgy from a mud hut in the savanna has convinced me of this. The prophecy of Isaiah 11:12, according to which God will “assemble the dispersed of Israel, and gather together the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth,” is a prediction taken seriously by many more people than some of us in the West might ever imagine.

In the modern period, world Jewry has experienced transformations on the cultural, geopolitical, and demographic levels. Jewish emancipation and national aspirations have reached their zenith; and yet, the Jewish people has also come close to total annihilation. Two of the twentieth century’s most tumultuous, watershed events for the Jews—the Holocaust and the birth of the modern-day state of Israel—brought about changes that were far-reaching for Jewish communities all over the globe. An unprecedented wave of self-defining Jews from the developing world, who will complicate, enrich, reenvision, and stretch the traditional parameters of God’s covenant with Israel, will be modern Jewry’s next watershed event. The changes in the character of Jewishness brought about by the influence of these “new Children of Israel,” as they have often been referred to, will happen with or without the acknowledgment or support of officially recognized Jews from the outside world. Indeed, we should make no mistake: these changes are already taking place.

 

 

Notes

[1] Throughout this book, I use the term “developing world” to refer to mainly postcolonial nations transitioning from traditional to modernized societies whose qualities of infrastructure, Human Development Index scores, and Gross National Incomes lag behind those of industrialized countries. No intended pejorative value judgment is attached to this term.

[2] For a description of study procedures related to the elimination of identifiable data, see the section on methodology in chapter 1.

[3] Any use of the term “Old Testament” throughout this manuscript is intended to coincide with the mention of the Hebrew Bible in a Christian or nonnormative Jewish context. For Jewish contexts, I refer to the whole of these texts as the “Hebrew Scriptures.”

[4] According to Tudor Parfitt, the estimated number of nonrecognized “shadow Jews” worldwide may be between 13.5 million and 14 million. Cited in Judy Maltz, “Number of Wannabe Jews Equals That of Recognized Jews,” Haaretz, November 4, 2014, http:// www .haaretz .com /jewish -world / .premium -1 .624585. 

[5] John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 2d ed. (Oxford: Heinemann, 1990), 2.

[6] Charles Liebman, “Jewish Identity in Transition: Transformation or Attenuation?,” in New Jewish Identities, ed. Zvi Gitelman, Barry Kosmin, and Andras Kovacs (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2003), 347.

Last Updated: 8/29/17