Religious-studies professor is FIU’s Indiana Jones

Tudor Parfitt, dubbed the British Indiana Jones by the European media, has traveled to the world’s most remote regions in search of the lost tribes of Israel. He’s sipped home-brewed maize beer with the Lemba deep in the heartland of Zimbabwe, discovered what he believes is the remains of the lost Ark of the Covenant in an African museum and written 25 books about his adventures.

So three months after his much-heralded arrival at Florida International University, it seemed entirely in character for the religious-studies professor to invite a handful of students and staff on the spring-break trip of a lifetime: a visit to the Gogodala tribe in western Papua New Guinea.

“It was a surreal trip in many aspects,” said Parfitt, considered a top scholar on global Judaising movements and Jewish genetic identity. “The students, I think, returned transformed.”

And who wouldn’t? The tribe of former cannibals — who believe their ancestors were Jewish and now seek Aliyah, a return to Israel — live in such a secluded area that it took the group 30 hours to reach the village of Balimo. Once they arrived, the welcome was so effusive and genuine, the introduction to a foreign culture so intense and rewarding that participants say they are still processing the experience.

“This trip changed my whole career path,” said Kyle Decker, who just graduated with a bachelor of arts in religious studies. “It helped me focus on what I really wanted to do. I shifted from an academic focus on the history of religion to more of an interest in contemporary religious movements, especially on an international level. Instead of something scholarly, I now want to figure out, What does my work do for the human condition?”

Decker’s indelible memories include receiving a Gogodala name and playing a rugby match shoeless because no one in the village had cleats.

“I’ve never felt hospitality like that,” he said. “Most cultures are very xenophobic. It’s just the way we are, but it doesn’t have to be like that.”

Like Decker, Deborah O’Neil, an FIU magazine editor who traveled with videographer Tim Long to produce a documentary on the trip, credits Parfitt for “a life-transforming” experience. “They seemed very happy to have Tudor there,” she said. “I think our experience would have been very different without him. He’s something of a celebrity.”

The seeds of the FIU trip were planted about a decade ago, when a man who identified himself as the tribal historian of the Gogodala showed up at Parfitt’s hotel room in Australia, where he was lecturing on the Lemba tribe of southern Africa. The Papuan man, who had a hat full of hair that had been plucked from tribe members, asked the renown scholar “to do for us what you did for the Lemba.” The Lemba people are an African tribe whose DNA eventually confirmed Parfitt’s theory that they were one of the lost Jewish tribes that had migrated to Africa.

Though skeptical of the Gogodolas’ claim to Jewish ancestry, Parfitt, then a professor of Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, took two trips to the country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, where he spent several days in the jungle. There he discovered that the Gogodola’s religious belief system was an amalgam, “many layers of religious identity with Christianity being grafted on top of their traditional belief system and then on top of all that a kind of Judaism.”

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.”