From One Tribe to Another

by Judith Fein February 28, 2012


By Judith Fein

I’m a travel journalist and hard-core travel addict. Even when I return from a trip on the verge of exhaustion, careening around the house from jetlag, I start thinking about where my next trip will be. I long to visit places that have unique cultures and customs. The word “exotic” often pops up in my articles, but only recently have I discovered what the word really means — and I found out in Vanuatu.

“Where is Vanuatu?” you probably want to know. The answer: in the South Pacific, roughly between Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and it consists of approximately 83 islands where more than 113 languages are spoken. It used to be called New Hebrides until its independence from French and British colonial rule in 1980. Because of the former dual-power occupation, English and French are widely spoken, and the common language of all the islands is Bislama, a charming pigeon English.

For me, the heart of Vanuatu is its kastom — the Bislama word for custom. It refers to the deep, fascinating tribal culture that has persisted in spite of the colonizers’ and missionaries’ attempts to wipe it out. Visitors to Vanuatu, who mainly come from Australia and New Zealand, are intrigued by the mysterious and ancient rituals, dances, music and beliefs that have survived. They often go to a village and are touched by the sounds, colors, dancing, singing …. and authenticity.

I was completely bowled over by how exotic it all was. At first, I was grasping wildly, trying to understand tribal rules and beliefs that are entirely unknown to me. Then, after a few days, I had a revelation: they are tribal people. I am a tribal person. They are ni-Vanuatu. I am Jewish. And I decided to relate their culture to my own, to experience Vanutau through a Hebrew lens. And for 15 hours a day, that is what I did.

One of my first meetings in Port Vila, the capital of the main island of Efate, was with Chief Tom, who comes from Tanna island. He was wearing a baseball cap, island shirt, trousers and flip-flops. He’s a charismatic, natural storyteller, and his position as paramount chief is roughly equivalent to chief rabbi. He explained that he makes decisions, mediates and solves disputes, and I started smiling when it occurred to me that he is like a one-man beit-din, or rabbinical court. He is also a keeper of deep, tribal knowledge.

“Human beings began as spirits in the unseen world,” he told me. I immediately harkened back to the day a Chabad rabbi told me that Adam and Eve lived in a spiritual world, before humans became flesh. “We come from stones,” Tom explained. “Some stones remained stones, and others became human.”

“In the Hebrew Bible, we come from the dust of the earth,” I told him. “There is still dust on the earth, but some of it became human.” We smiled. We had found common ground.

“What is your practice when someone dies?” I asked him.

“We mourn for seven days,” he answered.

Shiva,” I said. “We mourn for seven days too.”

“Some chiefs still have multiple wives,” Tom informed me.

“Jacob, our forefather, had two wives and two concubines. And Solomon — he had 1,000!”

Later that day, I went to the Vanuatu Cultural Center, which is also a museum, and met the director — a scholar, writer and teacher named Marcellin Abong. He is from the island of Malekula and belongs to the Small Nambas tribe. He took me into the bowels of the building, where my mouth dropped to my navel when I saw a magnificent collection of evocatively carved wooden slit drums, from different islands.

“They could be heard for miles,” he explained. “There were different drum beats for different occasions. People knew what the beats meant. They summoned the people.”

Shofar,” I said to myself. I had learned in an ancient Jewish community, on the island of Djerba in Tunisia, that the shofar was used when there were no clocks, newspapers, phones or other means of communication. It announced the beginning and end of Shabbat and holidays. It summoned the Israelites.

In the course of walking through the museum, Marcellin and I spoke about many things. He talked about ceremonies and explained that men, women and children sit separately, in clearly defined spaces.

“Like the mechitza,” I thought, picturing the partition that separates men from women in an Orthodox synagogue.

I learned that each child gets an indigenous name, often from his grandparents. It is a sign that you own land, that you belong to the tribe. I reflected on my own Hebrew name, Yehudith, and how it is different from my given name. It is the tribal name I carry.

I was completely hooked, connected and impatient to learn more. I went on a tour to Iarofa, a cultural village on Efate island. I was warned that it wasn’t a “real” village, but, rather, a cultural presentation that was put together for visitors. Expecting to be disappointed, I was, instead, captivated. Johnson, who is a chief from the island of Futuna, was very concerned that his culture was being lost, that people who came to Efate for work were becoming detribalized, and children didn’t know about their heritage any more. So he spent eight years putting together a program, in the bush, to teach the richness of his tradition and help to preserve it.

I followed him around like a lapdog. He demonstrated how to trap an animal, fish, build a house, undertake the endless process of making an axe head from stone. He pulled us back into Stone Age culture, where survival was a combination of what nature provided and humans’ boundless ingenuity.

At one point, he mentioned a hut and said that women stayed there, separate from the others, when they were menstruating.

“The laws of niddah,” I thought, excited. I had experienced them firsthand when I visited the ancient Israelite Samaritans, the remnants of the northern tribes, on Har Gerizim on the West Bank. One of the young women had her period. No one was allowed to touch her. She was handed food on a paper plate. She had to sit separately from everyone else. At home, she was not allowed to do any work or touch food. It was the world that fascinated readers of Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent.”

Johnson added that women are not allowed to come to the nasara, the sacred area in the village that is the chief’s.

“Or sometimes women can come, but not touch anything,” he added. Far across the Pacific, other tribal people had laws governing women’s ritual purity, mostly around childbirth and menstruation.

After Johnson and his group had finished their intense dancing and singing, and Johnson had walked on fire in the traditional way and emerged unscathed, he and I spent a long time talking. He explained that he wears a beard because he is mourning the death of his father. I remembered how my own father, who died when I was young, sat shiva for his parents, and how he didn’t shave during the mourning period. “My father died l8 years ago,” Johnson added. “When I cut my beard, it means my mother can marry again. I discuss this with her, and with my family. When it is agreed that the time has come for her, I will cut my beard. My brothers wear dreadlocks. It is for the same reason.”

Before leaving Efate island, I went to one more cultural village, which was called The Secret Garden. The jungle site was covered with signs that gave wonderful information about Vanuatu, more than any visitor could possibly absorb or consume in one visit. There was also a string band, lap-lap (food cooked traditionally in the ground), a presentation and then, to my surprise, a demonstration by tribal people from the island of Ambrym, which is known for magic. First, a man broke a coconut with his bare hand. Then, looking into the wide eyes of the small and rapt audience, he took one piece of wood, rubbed it against another piece of wood, and produced fire in about 30 seconds. Next, and most baffling of all, he buried a small tree branch in the ground and defied any man in the crowd to pull it out. A few strong, hefty guys got up, strode confidently over to the leaf, yanked and tugged and couldn’t move it.

“Moses!” I thought. “This is a demonstration of magic like the one Moses had with the priests of Egypt, to show who was more powerful.”

There was another Moses moment when I flew to Tanna Island for one of the deepest experiences of my trip. In the village of Lounapkamei, which is far off the tourist trail, two ceremonies were taking place on the same day: a circumcision, and the paying of a bride price. A young man named Pascal, who drove me to the village, mentioned something about the Iani (whom I was later to meet), the spokesman for the chief. “Like Aaron,” I thought. Moses had a speech impediment, and he was not a good orator; his brother played that role and spoke to the people and to Pharoah.

The preparation for the bride price was extraordinary. The bride had actually been with her husband for several years, and they already had three children together. It took many years for the husband’s family to accumulate the wealth needed to pay the price to the bride’s family. Jacob labored for Laban for seven years to afford Leah and then his beloved Rachel. Fourteen years of work to pay the steep bride price! At the ceremony on Tanna, I saw how that price was paid: a huge pile was amassed at the nakamal, the sacred space, in front of all the villagers. The items were laid down, one after another, and they included bananas, root crops, finely woven mats, textiles, baskets made from pandanas, kava (a mild narcotic, and the relaxation of choice in Vanuatu), and sacrificed animals. In fact, they were sacrificed right in front of me. “Second Temple Judaism,” I thought, trying not to be disturbed at the sudden death of the animals.


To learn more about Vanuatu, visit

About the author: Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 100 publications. Her Web site is


One thought on “From One Tribe to Another

  1. Fantastic article, Judith. I am Jewish, from London, UK and in 2008 had the fantastic and fascinating experience of teaching and living on Pentecost island, North Vanuatu for six months. People in my village were very warm, hospitable and combined their Christianity with kustom. They were amazed when I could show them photos of me in modern day Jerusalem and when I received mail postmarked Israel. Your article has drawn out the similarities between the joys of orthodox judaism and Kustom. I can’t wait to get back there – so glad you have discovered Vanuatu and have written about it for the Jewish Press. Never did I think I would see this day.

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