Though DNA testing was inconclusive in the case of the Gogodala, Parfitt was amazed during the FIU trip in March to see how much the tribe had embraced Judaism since his last visit. More members were wearing yarmulkes, speaking a smattering of Hebrew and celebrating Jewish holidays.
More trips like this are expected for the FIU community, says Nathan Katz, the chair of FIU’s Department of Religious Studies who lured his friend and colleague Parfitt to Miami. While Parfitt is an expert on Jews in Africa and other remote areas, Katz specializes in those living in India. Between them, they have cornered much of the scholarly market on the growth of Israelite movements around the globe.
In the planning stages: expeditions to Zimbabwe, China and India.
Some of their joint work, however, will happen in town. The two scholars are building a Global Jewish Communities program — the announcement of a donor is forthcoming — that will be housed at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in Miami Beach. It will focus on the diversity and plurality of the Jewish people, especially the most remote, exotic and marginal Jewish communities.
Parfitt, hopes Miami’s proximity to Latin America will also provide an entry point for the study of conversos (Hispanics who trace their Jewish ancestry to 14th and 15th century Spain and Portugal) and groups in the far reaches of the Andes claiming Semitic roots.
. “I’m hoping our joint expertise is going to put FIU on the map of Jewish studies,” Parfitt said.
Born in Wales and raised in England, Parfitt is not Jewish, but grew up in a family that had “an intense admiration for the Jewish people.” Fascinated by Israel, at 19 he spent a year with the Voluntary Service Overseas in Jerusalem, working with handicapped people, including survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.
In the 1980s, after writing a book on the exodus of the Falashas from Ethiopia to Israel, he lived with the Lemba, who claimed to be a lost tribe of Israel. After researching their social and religious traditions, he backed the claim and was mocked by colleagues. But in 1999, DNA tests determined the Lemba’s priestly cast carried the genetic marker for Cohanim, or Judaism’s Temple priests.
Parfitt says it was his initial work with the Falashas that changed his career path. Before writing about the airlift of the Ethiopian Jews in his book Operation Moses, he said he “wrote academic articles that maybe three or four people read. In Ethiopia, I decided I wanted to be an adventurer and I wanted to be a traveler and I wanted to write for a bigger audience. I was no longer going to be a traditional scholar.”
That he is not, and numerous documentaries have tracked his world travels, including several for the BBC. Luring him to FIU was regarded as a coup for Miami’s only state university. It means, said Katz, “certainly a much higher profile for us at FIU.”
Parfitt’s presence will likely attract money for research and expeditions, too. “He brings a lot of attention,” FIU graduate Decker said. “To have a name like his at the university, well, I’m sure it’s going to mean funding, too.”