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Review: 'Jews of Nigeria' serves to inspire

Now here's something you don't see every day: A circle of African men chanting Hebrew prayers while wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) and yarmulkes (skull caps) along with their dashikis — not to mention scenes of African women lighting Sabbath candles and diligently preparing a kosher meal using such native crops as yam and cassava. But for the estimated 3,000 Igbo people of Nigeria who practice Judaism, these are common sightings, all part of a unique way of life portrayed with joy and grace in the captivating documentary "Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria."

Writer-producer-director Jeff L. Lieberman (he also shot, edited and narrates) delves into the heart of Nigeria's dedicated Jewish community, largely guided by one Shmuel Tikvah Ben Yaacov (nee: Samuel Chukwuma), a charismatic young leader whose questioning of his original Catholic faith led him to study and observe Judaism. His goal is to one day become a rabbi.

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Shmuel, plus other Igbo Jews and various historical consultants and academics, intriguingly help Lieberman trace the history of the Igbo people (including their arrival in the American South as slaves in 1803 and their crushing defeat in the late-1960s' Biafran war), the Jewish faction's belief that they descend from the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, the congruence between Igbo tradition and Judaic law (male circumcision, avoidance of pork, purification techniques and more), and how Nigeria's Jews are often ostracized by their non-Jewish family members and countrymen.

Outsider skepticism is touched on here as well as the general lack of Igbo validation from Israel and Western Jews. But a visit to Nigeria by Rabbi Howard Gorin from the Washington, D.C., area proves a stirring show of spiritual and material support for this highly inspiring group of Jewish devotees.

"Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.

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