Is Fish and Chips a Jewish Delicacy?

The little-known Jewish connections to a few of the world's favorite foods

A Jewish immigrant is credited with serving the world's first "fish and chips" around 1860, though the dish's roots go back deep into Sephardic Jewish history

Fish and chips — the classic English street food combo of deep-fried, breaded fish fillets and crispy chips (French fries to Americans).

Chili con carne — that spicy, meaty, slow cooked stew that is so well-known from the American Southwest.

Foie gras — fatty goose or duck liver, often utilized in any number of French haute cuisine dishes.

What do they all have in common? While widely eaten and strongly associated with their regions of origin, each have little known connections to the Jewish people, and their history.


Fish and Chips

The strongest (and best known) of the connections applies to fish and chips. Invented in the immigrant-heavy East End of London, this dish combines two elements that share one production method — deep frying.

Frying battered fish fillets (for this dish, plaice, cod or haddock are most common) was typical to Sephardic Jewish cooking. The Oxford Companion to Food notes:

“As Claudia Roden (1996) observes, there was a strong Jewish tradition of frying fish in batter and eating it cold. And it was ‘fried fish in the Jewish fashion’ which Thomas Jefferson discovered when he came to London and which was included in the first Jewish cookbook in English (1846).”

The Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that Jews were allowed to openly settle and practice their religion in the country. The new Jewish communities were largely from Holland and of Spanish-Portuguese descent. Many settled in London’s East End, and, in fact, the oldest continuously used synagogue in the United Kingdom is the Sephardic Bevis Marks Synagogue in that area.

The Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

By the 19th century, there were also a number of Irish immigrants in the same part of the city, and their chips shops stood alongside those of Jewish fishmongers. Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin has been recognized as the first to look at these two deep-fried foods and put them together into one delicious combo, apparently some time in the early 1860s.

A plaque recognizing Joseph Malin as the originator of fish and chips

On a side note, the Sephardim typically covered their fried fish in “agristada” — a thick lemon-egg sauce that is still common today. As they moved in a different direction from Spain following the Expulsion, some arrived in Greece. There, according to historian Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, they left their mark on the local cuisine, and Greeks have a soup that incorporates this sauce, known as “avgolemono” (literally “egg-lemon”).


Chili con Carne

That same Expulsion edict that sent Jews east towards Greece (as well as Italy, Turkey and other places) and north to Holland and later to England, also sent Jews in other directions.

Some found their way to the New World, starting early communities in places such as Suriname, Curacao, Brazil and Mexico. Though some of these immigrants were openly Jewish, there were also large contingents of so-called “Crypto-Jews” — those who outwardly converted to Christianity (known as “Conversos” or “New Christians”), yet secretly maintained some connection to their Jewish heritage, due to the authority of the Inquisition even in the New World.

Illustration of a dining scene appearing in a 19th century book on the Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collections

Though Mexicans had already been making stews that included chili peppers, Marks and others have suggested that it may have been these same “Crypto-Jews” who first added meat and beans to the dish.

Chili con carne has similar ingredients — and a similar slow-cooking method — as hamin, the traditional Shabbat stew, which took a big culinary leap forward during the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, when new ingredients were added and the dish became notably more sophisticated.

Interestingly, there is even evidence from Inquisition records of New Christians in Brazil making Sabbath stews of beef and chili peppers.  While this is unlikely to be a direct antecedent to chili con carne, due to the geographic distance, it does show a similar predilection and perhaps even a connection to a shared culinary precursor.


Foie Gras

The Jewish connection to foie gras is more certain than to chili con carne, though somewhat less significant than to fish and chips. People have engaged in the process of purposefully fattening geese since ancient times, both in Egypt and Rome. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, it may have been Italian Jews who preserved this tradition and transported it to Western Europe, though others believe that the Romans themselves may have originally brought the technique to France.

Either way it became a very Jewish endeavor, such that by the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Jews specialized in the process of creating foie gras and were recognized as the masters of it.

Interestingly, the foie gras itself was not the primary goal of these Jewish goose farmers.

Geese appearing in an early 20th century Jewish children’s book published in Warsaw. From the National Library of Israel collection

Rather, it was a by-product of the desire to create enough schmaltz — rendered poultry fat — for cooking through the year. Since the laws of kashrut forbid any mixing of milk and meat, butter could not be used as a cooking medium for any meat product, and since pork is also forbidden, lard (rendered pig fat) could also not be used.

While Jews living around the Mediterranean Basin and across the Middle East had access to olive oil, this was inaccessible to the Jews living in more northern climes, so they would render the fat of geese, ducks and chickens, and use that schmaltz for much of their cooking. For similar reasons, agristada’s popularity among Sephardic Jews is also largely due to the fact that it could be used as a thickener for meat soups and stews in place of butter.

Jews were also amongst the first to mash the foie gras into a paste, and mix in things such as egg and onions. This not only developed into the French pâté de foie gras but also into another traditional Ashkenazic favorite, chopped liver.

Many people today have issues with foie gras, due to their perception of the pain inflicted on the geese during force-feeding. Some have presented evidence of Jewish ethical opposition to the practice going back at least until the 12th century, however Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky has convincingly argued that these sources have been misinterpreted. According to Zivotofsky, there has been significant opposition to the practice based in Jewish law over the centuries and into the modern period, though it stemmed from concerns about dietary restrictions (kashrut), as opposed to being driven by ethical objections.

Product wrapping for Israeli foie gras, ca. 1960s. From the Eri Wallish Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Nonetheless, in more recent history many Jewish voices have spoken out against the practice and over the past two decades, Israel has been one of the world’s leaders in legislation prohibiting the production and sale of foie gras.


“Jewish Dishes”

Dozens of dishes from around the world include the word “Jewish” in their names, but on a deeper level, there have been many examples over the centuries – like fish and chips, chili con carne, foie gras and avgolemono to name just a few – when the Jewish influence was more subtle, remaining largely under the radar.

Jews have spread all over the world throughout history, and have integrated (to greater or lesser degrees) into the cultures that surrounded them.

The foods they ate have often – if not always – been influenced by what non-Jewish neighbors ate, many times altered in order to meet the requirements of kashrut. Yet, the influence in the other direction, of Jewish cooking on other culinary traditions, is too often overlooked and is more significant than many of us may have ever realized.


A version of this article first appeared on The Taste of Jewish Culture. It has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

Sources and Related Reading

Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, John Cooper

The Jewish Kitchen: Recipes and Stories from Around the World, Clarissa Hyman

Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks

“Foie Gras ‘Fake News’: A Fictitious Rashi and a Strangely Translated Ethical Will”, Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky

Memories from my Sephardic Grandparents, by James Russell

Greek songs and stories, a book from Morocco, and one ruby-eyed snake ring...

Ladino speakers from opposite edges of the Mediterranean, Russell's maternal grandparents passed down a rich and curiosity-sparking cultural inheritance

My maternal grandmother, Marguerite Sananes, née Saltiel, of blessed memory (1900-1997), was a native of the northern Greek city of Salonica (Tk. Selanik, Gk. Thessaloniki).

At the time of her birth it was one of the great ports of the Ottoman Empire. Her forebears on that side of our family had fled to safety in Muslim Turkey from Toledo in 1492 following the infamous edict of expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella. Like other Sephardim (except for those from the other kingdom of the Iberian peninsula, Portugal, of course) we preserved the Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino or Judezmo, which my mother Charlotte, her three sisters Esther, Clarice, and Gloria (may their memory be for a blessing), Grandma, and my Great-grandmother Rachel of blessed memory all spoke as their native tongue.

Sephardim wrote Ladino in the notoriously difficult Hebrew cursive called Solitreo; they printed it in “Rashi” and standard square-character Hebrew letters. Great-grandma Rachel (whom we called Manache) knew Ladino, Italian, and, I am told, some Greek and Turkish, and that was enough— by the time I knew her she had reverted to Spanish alone.

Excerpt from a letter in Solitreo script. From the National Library of Israel collection

Manache had learned English well enough to pass the test on the US Constitution for her citizenship examination, and to converse fluently with my father, an American-born Ashkenazi Jew innocent of Ladino, not to mention Turkish or Bulgarian. Manache passed away in 1964 at the age of 96.

In the year of Grandma Marguerite’s birth, Salonica was the only great city on earth with a majority Jewish population. Most of the Jews belonged to the working classes, and they spearheaded the nascent labor movement in the Ottoman Empire. Many were stevedores, and on Shabbat, the port came to a standstill.

A Jewish porter in Salonica, early 20th century. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Grandma Marguerite told me when I was very young how she used to distribute socialist newspapers in Ladino to workers at the waterfront— she reminisced about the famous White Tower (Gk. Leukos pyrgos) by the sea. Our family attended the synagogue called Los figos locos, “The Wild Figs”, which, she explained, was named after a place remembered from the Toledo of the fifteenth century.

These memories were still vivid after nearly half a millennium: many Jews still kept the keys to the houses in Spain that they had been forced to abandon.

In the Balkan Wars, when Grandma was twelve, the city reverted to the Kingdom of Greece and returned to its original name, Thessaloniki. Grandma had attended the school of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, where she learned fluent French, and had been set to attend college in Auteuil. But the World War broke out in 1914 and those plans never materialized; she became a journalist for a local newspaper.

Her knowledge of French enabled her to find a job with the French military authorities and to feed our family during the famine in the aftermath of the conflagration that devastated the city, particularly the poorer, Jewish neighborhoods, in 1917.

View of Salonica from the Jewish cemetery around the time of World War I. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Manache broke her hip during the Great Fire. It was never set; and when I was little she used to get about the house with a great cane. She was a tall, gaunt woman, bedridden in her last years, and used to call me to her saying “Camina, pasha!” –  “Walk, little prince!”

Grandma, her parents, and many other members of the Saltiel and Ben Ruby families immigrated to the United States in 1920, sailing from Piraeus— the port of the Greek capital, Athens— on the Meghali Ellas, (“Greater Greece”, after the grandiose plan of Venizelos to liberate Ionia and the Hellenic communities of Pontus and the Anatolian interior from Turkish rule).

Greek immigrants board a small boat that will take them to a ship bound for America, ca. 1910

It ferried thousands of Greek, Jewish, and Armenian immigrants from Athens to the New World. Grandma used to describe the good ship to me when I was a boy as rather less grand than its name might suggest: “half a walnut shell”.

Over the month-long passage the only food was bread and onions that were, she used to add, not very fresh. But the Meghali Ellas bore its passengers safely to New York.

Great-grandmother Rachel was a clairvoyant and practiced magic: I remember being told that she would go and sacrifice a black cock at midnight over the grave of the spirit she discerned had caused an illness in the family. Manache wore a gold ring of entwined snakes, one with a single ruby eye; the other, with a single diamond eye: I inherited it upon her death.

Great-grandmother Rachel’s mysterious snake ring (Photo: James Russell)

It may have significance as an apotropaic amulet, cf. the brazen serpent Nechushtan of Moses. I am named after her husband Ya‘aqov, whom people called “el bueno“, “the good”, for his kindness and his honesty in business.

In Ottoman Salonica he had been a grain merchant: he was a polyglot and used to strike a verbal deal with the farmers up north in the partly Slavic-speaking province of Macedonia and in Bulgaria, and seal the contract for the price for the year’s crop with a handshake. He always paid the agreed sum, even if it turned out to be a bad harvest. So he was good, if not rich.

The family settled on upper Park Avenue in Manhattan— then as now a poor neighborhood. They advertised for a suitable match for Grandma in the Ladino newspaper, and when each swain came to call, the women would leave a book on the table and hide in the kitchen to see what the prospective spouse did with it.

Most men showed no interest in the book. (That is fair enough, in retrospect: they had not come to visit a library.) One fellow did, but as he was holding it upside-down it was plain he was not literate and therefore a bad match.

Finally, a somewhat older gentleman immersed himself in the volume, not looking up right away when the ladies emerged. So Grandmother married him.

Joseph Sananes, my maternal grandfather, was also a Sephardic Jew and Ladino speaker, but from the other Mediterranean edge of the Iberian dispersion: Tetuan, on the northern coast of Morocco.

The Jewish Commerce Street of Tetuan, ca. 1900. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The newlyweds settled in a large, comfortable house in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Grandpa was a successful businessman in the 1920s.

Those were the days of the Prohibition of liquor in the United States, so he grew grapes in the backyard and made Shabbat wine for our family, as well as the strong anisette liquor raki. Grandma baked honeyed kadayif pastry and cooked the Moroccan tejine for him, along with the traditional Shabbat adafina stew and the delicious dishes of the Jews of Greece.

Ethnic memory in America is often culinary, partly because such innocuous things spice quaintly the melting pot of the shared, diverse culture, but partly too because tastes and smells of early childhood have a visceral power in the memory.

The stock market crash of 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression wiped out the family finances, but Grandpa worked very hard and managed to support his wife, four daughters, and a large extended family. He would enjoy a small glass of raki when he came home from work, and my mother told me he regularly studied the works of the eleventh-century philosopher and Torah sage, the Rambam (Maimonides).

On Shabbat and other holidays, visitors would come to call and Grandma served them raki, coffee, and homemade candied orange peel. The other Moroccan Jews – some of whom were unlettered, rough men – considered my gentle, learned Grandpa a “hakham“, and turned to him as a sage and adjudicator of disputes.

My Grandfather Joseph Sananes, passed away in 1956, when I was three; but I am told he and I were great friends: once one evening after supper he gave me a thimbleful of Turkish coffee in my parents’ apartment on the southwest corner of 164th Street and Broadway in Manhattan and I giggled all night long.

Joseph Sananes shortly before he passed away (Courtesy: James Russell)

I still treasure his silver tiger-eye ring and have the painted wooden stool embossed with metal studs that he made for me.

Joseph Sananes’s ring (Photo: James Russell)

But the most precious inheritance is a Psalter given him when he left Morocco for the new world, around 1900 (see Plates 5, 6, and 7). This Sefer Tehillim was printed at Livorno, in the year encoded on the title page as “Ve-zot ha-berakha“, “And this is the blessing” [= 5626, 1865 CE] with the owner’s name embossed on the tooled red leather cover:

“With peace upon Israel! Shelomo son of David/ N[ahon?], May the right hand of God preserve us, in the city of Tetuan, may God protect her.”

There follows a dedication on the verso of the title page:

“This book is a gift given as a memorial of love and affection to one close to me who is from amongst those who know God’s law, the friend of my soul and spirit: in honor of Rav Joseph Sananes, may his Rock watch over him. ‘And thou shalt discourse upon it by day and by night.’ (Joshua 1.8) The Psalms of King David, peace be upon him: may he by his merit defend us and all Israel, Amen.”

Shelomo ben David’s signature in the cursive Solitreo script used for Ladino follows.

This much, then, for the circumstances of the written evidence.

“Write it down!” the historian Simon Dubnow commanded the Jews of the ghetto of Riga before the Nazis murdered him in 1941. So, one writes, in love and vengeance.

But of the life itself there is much more that cannot be set down in any book, but that moves and speaks in color and sound and scent in the tableaux vivants of the chambers of the mind where the past lives— the lazy warm light of a Sunday afternoon, the taste of fish cakes and rice with tomato sauce and fried peppers in a little Brooklyn kitchen, the crackle of fijuela pastries, the hard sweet rolls called roscas.

Coffee brewing. The voices.

Marguerite Sananes, née Saltiel, shortly after her arrival in New York, ca. 1920 (Courtesy: James Russell)

Stories about Djuha, the holy fool, and the way Grandma told them as cousin Michelle and I hung on every word in enraptured delight: The time he taunted the cat who snatched his fish by saying, “You’ve got the fish, but I have the recipe!” or the time he asked the wind to help him carry the heavy bag of flour he needed to bring home…

The melody of the Greek lullaby Grandma sang “Samiotissa” (“The girl from Samos”) and of the Ladino song “La vida dó por el raki” (“I would give my life for raki!”)

Picnics and laughter.

And still, beyond, remoter memories: a white tower, the flowering Aegean sea, men in fezzes, the hushed Sabbath of Salonica.

And before that, in the backward and abysm of time, wild fig trees in a dry Castilian landscape, and the arabesques adorning the walls of a holy house in Toledo.

It is said that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will accomplish the resurrection of the dead through His perfect memory of all they were and all there was.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Tulsa Race Massacre and Oklahoma’s Jews

How local Jews - some with fresh memories of European pogroms - did their small part to help victims of one of the worst acts of racial violence in US history

"All That Was Left of His Home after the Tulsa Race Riot, 6-1-21" (Public Domain via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

The Tulsa Race Massacre – also known as the Black Wall Street Massacre and the Tulsa Race Riot – was one of the most horrendous incidents of racial violence in United States history. On May 31 – June 1, 1921, hundreds of people were injured and killed, and thirty-five blocks of the city were destroyed, along with over 1,200 homes.

“Ruins of the Tulsa Race Riot, 6-1-21” (Public Domain via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

While relatively few whites exhibited empathy and compassion to the persecuted African American community of Tulsa – largely due to the influence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and others – many Jewish families made efforts to help African American families by taking them into their homes or businesses, feeding and clothing them, as well as hiding them during and after the atrocity.

During the time of the Race Massacre, a number of the Jewish families went into North Tulsa to secure their black employees, friends, and their families, in order to protect them at least until Martial Law was over on June 3rd… some even longer.

Many of the Jews in the city were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe who remembered firsthand suffering through violent pogroms and anti-Semitic policies in the Russian Empire and elsewhere.

Scenes like this undoubtedly brought back memories for many Tulsa Jews who had survived pogroms in Europe (Public Domain via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

Here are a few family stories from that terrible time that have been passed down within the Oklahoma Jewish community.


Pickle vats and underskirts 

Jewish Latvian immigrant Sam Zarrow (1894-1975) and his wife Rose (1893-1982) owned a grocery store and hid some black friends in their large pickle vats at the store, while Rose concealed some of the little kids under her skirt! In addition, they hid others in the basement of their home. Sam and Rose’s sons, Henry (1916-2014) and Jack Zarrow (1925-2012) became two of the most well-known and philanthropic men in Tulsa’s history, supporting a range of causes across the city.


Waiting with a shotgun

Tulsan Abraham (Abe) Solomon Viner (1885-1959) and his wife Anna (1887-1976) owned the Peoples Building and Loan Association. On the day of the Massacre, Abe went to all of the homes on his block, collected all of the maids from their quarters and assembled them in his living room. He then sat by the front door with a shotgun in case anyone broke into the house.

Smoke billowing over Tulsa during the Race Massacre (Photo: Alvin C. Krupnick Co. / Public Domain via Library of Congress)

Threatening the Klan

The Race Massacre had a far-reaching effect even outside of Tulsa. At the time, Mike Froug (1889-1959), his wife Esther (1889-1967) and daughter Rosetta Froug Mulmed (1914-2003) were living in Ponca City, Oklahoma running a clothing store called the Pickens Department Store. Immediately after the Massacre, several Ku Klux Klan members came to his house at night and set a cross on fire on his front lawn.

Ponca City, Oklahoma, 1920s (Photo: Virgil T. Brown / Public Domain via Library of Congress)

Knowing who the perpetrators were (frequent shoppers in his store), Froug went to the head of the Klan with his gun and told him that if they ever did that again, he would shoot them. This act had such a profound effect on Froug that when he and his cousin Ohren Smulian (1903-1984) opened the first Froug’s Department Store in Tulsa in 1929, they became the first store in the city after the Massacre to allow whites and blacks to not only shop together but to try on clothes at the same time. In fact, Frougs was also the first white-owned store in Tulsa to have black salespeople.


“Get your Jew crew out of Tulsa”

Successful oilman N.C. Livingston was an active leader in the Tulsa Jewish community, heading the establishment of the burial society and Orthodox synagogue, where he also served as president and taught a Talmud class. From B’nai Emunah, 1916-1966, part of the National Library of Israel collections

Jewish Lithuanian immigrant and oilman Nathan C. Livingston (1861-1944) and his wife Anna Livingston (1871-1934) had a newly married black couple named Gene and Willie Byrd working for them in 1921. Gene was the family driver while Willie was their housekeeper. During the Race Massacre, the couple and eight others of their family stayed in the Livingston’s basement and in their garage apartment for several days until they felt safe to go home. The following year, N.C. Livingston’s son Julius received a letter from the KKK telling him and his brothers Jay K. and Herman to “get your Jew crew out of Tulsa.”

1922 Letter to Julius Livingston telling him to get his “Jew Crew out of Tulsa” (SMMJA Livingston Archives)

Staying home

During the Massacre, Jewish Lithuanian immigrant and oil producer Jacob Hyman Bloch (1888-1955) and his wife Esther Goodman Bloch (1895-1927) told their two young daughters, Jean and Sura, to stay away from the windows and no to go to school or outside to play, while hiding their housekeeper in their home.

Jacob Hyman Bloch was also an active member in the local community, succeeding N.C. Livingstone as synagogue president in 1924. From B’nai Emunah, 1916-1966, part of the National Library of Israel collections

Driving to safety

Jewish Latvian immigrant Jacob Fell (1885-1959) and his wife Esther Fell (1886-1980) owned The Mis-Fit Clothing Store in Tulsa. During the race riots, Jacob gathered up several black friends, hid them in his large storage car trunk, and drove them to a safe area.

The Mis-Fit Clothing Store in Tulsa

“But not you Mr. Katz”

In Stillwater, Oklahoma the Ku Klux Klan also had a robust chapter. German immigrant Jacob Katz (1873-1968) started his department store in Stillwater in 1894, becoming the first Jew in the town. Katz was a highly respected merchant and town promoter and was on the Stillwater Board of Commissioners. During the heyday of the KKK, right after the Tulsa Massacre, members marched through Stillwater with anti-Jewish signs (there were only 12 Jews in Stillwater at the time!), along with one that read at the end of the line: “But not you Mr. Katz.”


A version of this article was originally published in the May 2021 edition of the Tulsa Jewish Review. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

In Photos: Jewish Africa

Jono David's 'never-ending Jewish photo tour' led him to document a diverse collection of the African continent's often-overlooked Jewish communities, both new and old

Lemba community members. Manavhela, Limpopo Province, South Africa ©Jono David

In July 1997, I embarked upon a six-week rail odyssey from Beijing, China to London, England.

The journey was the realization of a long-held dream. Its promise was greater than I could have imagined.

Sojourns in bucolic Mongolia and at Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and largest freshwater lake, in Siberia, did not disappoint. Down the line, I would alight in Moscow, St. Petersburg, each of the Baltic states, and Warsaw, before pulling into London’s Waterloo Station, spitting distance from the shabby digs I once called home.

But something unforeseen happened on that great adventure.


Unexpected change of course

In Irkutsk, I stopped into the synagogue and was warmly welcomed by a few locals and an American visitor who was residing there temporarily for a research project. The encounter unwittingly set in motion an entirely different thought approach to the journey.

Irkutsk Synagogue, August 1997. Irkutsk, Russia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

While I was wholly engrossed in everything the train journey in itself had to offer, I became equally focused on my Russian Jewish roots on my father’s side. When I reached Poland, I wondered about my Polish Jewish heritage on my mother’s side and, more specifically, where my great-grandmother’s hometown may be. I knew her — and her latkes — well. She passed away when I was 18.

By the time I got home to Osaka, Japan (where I had been living since 1994) that September, my mind was already made up: I was going to go back to Central Europe in February-March with the sole intent of taking as many “Jewish photographs” as possible.


My first “official” Jewish photo tour

I flew to Frankfurt, then took a train to Prague. From there, the haphazard journey took me to several corners of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Austria.

It was utterly unorganized. No appointments. No advance permissions. No schedules. No benefit of the internet. And poor photo skills.

I could not have known it at the time, but the trip was my first “official” Jewish photo tour. It sparked a lifelong commitment to documenting the Jewish world in photographs.

Photo taken at Auschwitz in February 1998, on the author’s first “official” Jewish photo tour ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

Over the years and many trips of a lifetime later, I realized it was time for something bigger, better, bolder. In 2010, I turned my sights to Jewish Africa. While I had previously visited some parts of northern Africa and traversed southern Africa, those trips — like the Trans-Siberian Railway — were primarily for tourism peppered with a few Jewish photo ops. In other words, they were not Jewish photo tours per se, and they were certainly not structured.

I had merely amassed a collection of images. But Jewish Africa was going to be different.


Developing African Jewish communities

Between August 2012 and April 2016, I embarked upon eight unique Jewish Africa photo tours comprised of some 60 total weeks of travel to 30 countries and territories. Ultimately, I archived some 65,000 Jewish Africa photographs, and I did so with the aim of answering one primary question: Who are the Jews of Africa?

Beth Yeshourun Jewish Community spiritual leader Serge Etele (L) inspects a new mezuzah at the Ambomo family home. Douala, Cameroon ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge
Matzoh Bakery. Hara Kebira, Djerba, Tunisia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

I was particularly interested in the emerging Black Jewish communities in places such as Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Madagascar, Gabon, and Cameroon. Over the last 20 or so years, the phenomenon of religious renouncement and self-conversion to Judaism has – in some cases, such as in Ghana, Cameroon, and Gabon – grown with the rise of internet connections there: Real-time connections are weaving a Black Jewish tapestry across the continent.

Children of the Kasuku Jewish Community. Kasuku, Ol Kalou, Nyandarua, Kenya ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

So far, these small but fervent communities remain largely ignored by official entities in Israel and in the mainstream Jewish world — the century-old Abayudaya community in Uganda is officially recognized by Conservative Judaism, but that is an exception.

Connections with outside Jewish organizations and rabbis are increasing, however, and official Jewish recognition remains an important aim.


European roots across the continent

In my travels, these communities held a particular fascination, but I was equally mindful of the European-rooted congregations. I was curious not merely about their history, but about their manifestations of Jewish life in comparison to the familiar ways in Europe.

The community in South Africa, for instance, began mainly under British rule in the 19th century. They are predominantly Ashkenazi Jews descended from pre- and post-Holocaust immigrant Lithuanian Jews. Between about 1880 and 1940, the community had swelled to some 40,000 (it peaked at about 120,000 in the 1970s).

Ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract), Benoni, South Africa, 1922. From the National Library of Israel collection

It may even be said that a Jewish influence in the region dates back to the 1400s and Portuguese exploration with Jewish cartographers who assisted explorers Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama. But it was not until the 1820s that Jews had any significant presence. In 1841, they built their first synagogue in Cape Town. In the 1880s, a gold rush lured thousands more Jews, mainly from Lithuania.

Over the years, Jews all across the southern African region have had a disproportionately large influence on local society, politics, business, and history. In fact, the same may be said of Jewish settlements from Kenya to northern African nations too.

Upshernish at Northcliff Hebrew Congregation. Northcliff, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

Jewish colonies in what are today Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, and Namibia all thrived. They built their synagogues, schools, and social centers very much in European architectural styles — with some notable exceptions in South Africa, which feature Cape Dutch designs and in the Maghreb, which feature Islamic and Moorish lines — and maintained all the trappings, traditions, customs, and culinary flavors from their homelands. I found these consistencies compelling evidence of the ties that bind Jews the world over.

Windhoek Hebrew Congregation Synagogue. Windhoek, Namibia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge
Rabbi Bisal El Synagogue. Hara Kebira, Djerba, Tunisia ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge
Synagogue at Talmud Torah Jewish School. Sefrou, Morocco ©Jono David. Click image to enlarge

Despite their successes in these far-flung lands, there were hardships aplenty. Early settlers in the southern African region forged across dry and dusty lands to create new settlements. Some sought riches in diamonds, sealing and whaling, and ostrich farming. Others, meanwhile, went on to prominent political and judicial posts. Yet, anti-Semitism had not been entirely left behind in Europe.

Though freedom of worship was granted to all South African residents in 1870, an 1894 law, for instance, debarred Jews from military posts and various political positions. In 1937, the Aliens Act aimed to stem the flow of Jewish refugees coming from Germany. Jews also faced resistance from pro-German Afrikaners. And they waded through the emotional and moral minefield that was apartheid.

Today, while Jewish communities of the southern African region shrink and ancient ones of the Maghreb cling on (notably in Morocco and Tunisia), Black Jewish groups are growing in number, in location, in commitment. Following subjugation over the centuries by both political and religious invaders, motivating factors for this Jewish awakening are rooted in a quest for truth and identity: a truth rooted in the tenants of Judaism and the Torah, an identity founded in self-determination.

Book cover, The Jews of Africa: Lost Tribes, Found Communities, Emerging Faiths

My photographs endeavor to weave together this complex tapestry of the Jewish African peoples segregated by historical, cultural, linguistic, and regional divides yet united by a faith in Hashem.


Since the late 1990s, British-born photographer Jono David has traveled the globe, amassing an extensive archive of contemporary images of Jewish heritage and heritage sites in the world – a growing compendium of more than 120,000 photographs from 116 countries and territories. His recent book, The Jews of Africa: Lost Tribes, Found Communities, Emerging Faiths, is based on years of travel to some 30 African countries and territories. It includes 230 photographs and 14 essays by scholars, rabbis, and members of Jewish African society.

A version of this article first appeared on Jewish Heritage Europe. It has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.