RADIO / Lost and found: Robert Hanks follows Tudor Parfitt on the trail of a 'lost tribe of Israel'

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The Independent Culture
Sometimes a programme ends up with a title that it can't live up to: so far, King Solomon's Tribe (Radio 4, Thursday) seems to be one of those. Tudor Parfitt, a Hebrew scholar from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, is telling the story of his quest to discover the truth about the mysterious Lemba people of southern Africa. Are they really, as they claim, a lost tribe of Israel? Where is the fabulous city of Sena, their supposed ancestral home?

In the first part, last week, Parfitt set out to South Africa to see what he could find out about the Lemba. It didn't take him long: in the first 10 minutes or so he announced: 'I finally manage to track down the central group of Lemba elders; and here in Soweto, at a secret meeting, I'm at once taken into their confidence.'

The problem here was the lack of challenge. Of course, you don't want Parfitt to feel obliged to make up dangers - ersatz encounters with headhunting tribes fiercely loyal to a mysterious white queen, say - but if you're going to plump for a title that echoes H Rider Haggard so blatantly (and the commentary made it clear that the resonances were perfectly conscious), then you need a few difficulties, some sense of strain, to stave off bathos. Perhaps it was because of the compression of the programme - although proceedings didn't feel particularly rushed - but Parfitt's quest seemed pretty straightforward.

Still, looked at from a purely ethnographic point of view, King Solomon's Tribe is riveting, largely because it seems to fly wilfully in the face of received wisdom. Nobody, apart from Parfitt, seems prepared to admit even the possibility that the Lemba are Jewish - especially the established Jewish population. (But then few white South Africans, even in the modestly enlightened atmosphere of today, are ever likely to be very happy about having black South Africans claiming kinship.)

There is plenty of circumstantial evidence to support the Lemba's claim, though. Men are circumcised, for instance - according to one Lemba, over-eager to emphasise their enthusiasm for the custom, 'because it is their culture . . . with pleasure, no harm'. They practice kosher, too - they slaughter animals in the prescribed fashion and 'if you say 'Eat pork', they will rather choose to die; they will say 'Shoot me' rather than eat pork'. Then they blow kudu horns, which closely resemble the Jewish shofar; they have a secret language, with a name that sounds like 'Hebairu'; they don't marry outside their own kind (although, like European Jews, they are scattered among other peoples); and they are said to have a sacred drum of similar size and shape to the lost Ark of the Covenant. Furthermore, Lemba legends speak of having come from the north - from somewhere near to Ethiopia, home of the Falashas.

All this could have done with some qualification. After all, Jews aren't the only religious group that won't eat pork; and plenty of other peoples go in for circumcision - the unusual thing about Judaism is that they do it to the new-born, rather than to young men, as the Lemba do.

By the end of the first part, though, Parfitt had arrived at the weak conclusion that the Lemba certainly have lots of things in common with the Jews; and he is all set to go off and try to find traces of Sena. It's not exactly a cliffhanger, but there's enough unresolved to make the second half well worth hearing.