By Judith Fein
Travel journalist and member of the (Jewish) tribe Judith Fein travels to the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, where she’s already discovered countless uncanny similarities between Jews and the tribal people of Vanuatu. Below, she wraps up her journey.
Malekula (which, according to a soulful and well-informed local guide and home-stay host named Etienne, is only visited by one tenth of one percent of foreigners who come to Vanuatu) was a source of many tribal comparisons. Edna, who works in tourism on the island, spoke to me about arranged marriages, which were the norm, but now, as elsewhere in the world, love marriages are common. The more she spoke about pre-arranged nuptials, the more I reflected on the shtetls in the Ukraine and Poland, where my ancestors lived, and where arranged marriages took place. Edna said that the prospective bride and groom could say no to an arranged match; they had that option. I remembered, with a smile, that when Abraham sent his servant, Eliezer, to find a bride for Isaac, she was given the choice of saying no before she left her parents and set out for Canaan to meet her husband.
On Malekula, I encountered the Big Nambas and the Small Nambas tribes. The words “big” and “small” refer to the traditional clothing of the men, which are penis sheaths that are suspended from belts. The differences include whether the belt and sheaths are made from fiber, bark, leaves or grasses. Lest you think this is impossible to relate to, I wish you had been with me in Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem, on a Friday night, about eight years ago. An Orthodox rabbi friend, clothed in black, stood on a street corner with me, pointing out the different sects of Haredi Jews who passed by en route to prayer. They were distinguished by their clothing, and they involved variations in the hats, socks, number of buttons on robes, and even the venting on the robes themselves. And sometimes the different sects were not on speaking terms with each other.
Among the Big Nambas, most of the women wear a beautiful red head covering; it signifies that they are married. I have Orthodox Jewish friends who wear a wig, or sheitel. When a Big Nambas man really loves his woman, he knocks her front teeth out. I must admit, I couldn’t find an equivalent for that one!
Etienne, whose house I stayed in, talked to me about the large, tall, mysterious Ram Ram figures I had seen in the Cultural Center in Port Vila. He confirmed what I had read: The figures are made with the skull and bones of a deceased chief. Honoring the bones? Isn’t that unrelatable? Not quite. The bones of patriarch Joseph were carried from Egypt to Schechem (today in the land of the ancient Israelite Samaritans, in the shadow of the Mountain of Blessings, or Mt. Gerizim, and the Mountain of Curses, or Mt. Ebal.
I snapped to attention when Etienne spoke about the tribes of Malekula. At the time of their fighting with Ambrym, “there were 12 tribes, and they lived on [nearby] Rano island.” Twelve tribes. Where had I heard that before?
At a Small Nambas village, in one dance that was performed, I was told that a spectral figure who entered the dance was “the spirit of the 30 people from Ambrym that the greatest warriors of our 12 tribes killed and ate.” Why remember the enemy? Why not allow them to vanish from memory? Well, I thought, don’t we remember the Amelikes, the Philistines and other ancient enemies? Don’t we bring them into our teachings and our discussions? Aren’t they in the Torah?
Of course, it was essential for me to try to understand eating one’s enemy; actually, the practice of cannibalism in Vanuatu didn’t entirely disappear until 40 years ago. It was not, according to what I learned, a random practice. It was about getting the power of one’s enemy by eating his flesh. One man told me that in his tribe, it was an extreme form of punishment for multiple instances of disobeying a chief. Amedee, a chief of the Small Nambas, said that after a man consumed human flesh, he couldn’t sleep with his wife for 30 days, and he couldn’t touch a child. He then had to undergo a purification ceremony with water, to chase away the evil spirits. In other words, a mikvah equivalent.
Amedee explained more about his tribe’s customs. He said that a man makes his last life ceremony before he dies. He pays for his ceremony and makes the arrangements while he is alive. If he dies before making the ceremony, his family takes care of it for him. My mind immediately jumped to my grandmother, who told me about the burial society she belonged to, the burial plot she had purchased, and how important it was to Jews in the shtetl.
Etienne took me, in a wooden boat, to nearby Wala island, where we visited the nasara of his ancestors. On the man’s side of the sacred space, there were a series of large, exceedingly heavy stones, each of which was placed by a specific family or clan.
“Without the stone, you are nothing,” Etienne said several times. I tried to relate to the notion of stones and their tribal affiliation. Suddenly I recalled my first visit to Har Gerizim, where Benny Tsedaka, the Samaritan scholar, speaker and unofficial ambassador, had shown me the 12 stones of Joshua; each stone had been placed to represent one of the 12 tribes when they first came to the Promised Land.
Etienne took me to a very sacred place on Malekula, a burial site for chiefs. There, under several slab stones, were the skulls of chiefs. Each was buried with a conch shell. Etienne didn’t know why the conch shell was interred with the chief’s skull, but I had heard that chiefs, even today, have their own conch shells, which are still used to summon people. They are associated with the chief’s prestige and power. I reflected on the nehushtan of Moses, the staff that was said to cure people of snake bites. The kadeuceus, the snaked sign of the medical profession, is based on that staff. It is postulated that Moses’s staff was preserved alongside the Ark of the Covenant. And, according to Etienne, Vanutau chiefs still have staffs, which are symbols of their authority and are passed down to their sons when the latter assume the chiefly position.
Etienne’s generosity included sharing the story of his own family’s origins. They started in the “dark bush,” the overgrown, dense forest or jungle. There was a tree with thick vines growing around it. And the vines became man and woman.
“And there were also a male and female snake,” Etienne added. Eden! It was the Vanuatu equivalent!
“They lived in the dark brush for four generations and then started fighting,” Etienne recounted. I immediately thought of Cain and Abel.
“So part of them separated, and moved away,” Etienne continued. Exile from Eden. Even today, a special snake bears Etienne’s family name, and everyone knows it is only found on his family property. In a land dispute Etienne is currently involved in, this story and the associated sites are part of the claim that he presented in court, and it was accepted as proof.
I must confess that by the time I left Malekula, I was wondering if I had been hallucinating about all the parallels I found. When I saw gifts given in woven baskets, I thought of shalach manos at Purim. When I saw communal singing, dancing and women preparing food for the community, I thought of holidays during my childhood at the Laurelton Jewish Center in New York. Was I the only person who traveled to remote, exotic Vanuatu, and viewed it through a Jewish lens?
Surprisingly, Amedee, the chief of the Small Nambas village I went to, answered my question, even though I never asked him.
“My grandfather said we originally came from Israel,” he reported.
“This was probably told to him by missionaries,” I ventured.
“No,” he countered. “My grandfather said the story was told before contact with the missionaries. In 2006, some visitors came here from Israel, and they were surprised by the similarity of many customs we have, like circumcision and the separation of women during their menstruation.”
So I am not the only one. And I am grateful that my own heritage gave me a way of understanding the powerful customs and traditions of people who live a world away from me and touched my heart.
• To learn more about Vanuatu, visit www.vanuatu.travel.
About the author: Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 100 publications. Her Web site is www.GlobalAdventure.us.