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The world’s first ‘Internet Jews’

In “Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey,” William Miles, a professor of political science in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, tells the story of the world’s first “Internet Jews.”

The Igbos of Nigeria, Miles explains in his forthcoming 10th book, have embraced rabbinic Judaism over the last three decades and learned the Hebrew language through songs and prayers found on the Internet. Bolstered by customs recalling an Israelite ancestry, several thousand Igbos have adopted Jewish holidays and rituals such as Hanukkah and the Bar Mitzvah.

The Jewish Studies Program and the Department of Political Science are co-sponsoring an event celebrating the release of the “Jews of Nigeria” on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in 215 Snell Library.

“I hope that the book will raise the profile of the community in a way that would dispel suspicions and myths about what Judaism in Africa entails,” said Miles, the second holder of the Stotsky Professorship of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies.

Many Igbos, he explained, feel compelled to suppress their Jewish identity for fear of reprisal. According to Miles, “Igbos don’t leave burning Hanukkah candles in their windows because they will be accused of being in a cult and practicing witchcraft.”

Miles visited the Igbos in December of 2009 for Hanukkah and again in June of 2011 for a Bar Mitzvah of a boy named Hezekiah. Three years ago, he brought dreidels and Hanukkah candles to the Igbos, which they placed in a makeshift Menorah fashioned out of Coca Cola bottles.

Miles described last year’s Bar Mitzvah as a Judicially authentic ceremony. “Hezekiah was chanting from the Torah and reading passages from the Old Testament,” he said of the coming-of-age ritual, which took place in a synagogue constructed by the Bar Mitzvah boy’s father. “There was joyous singing and dancing.”

Miles has spent some 30 years conducting research in West Africa. He is a featured expert in a new documentary on Igbos called “Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria,” which will be screened at the West Newton Cinema on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

After graduating from college, Miles entered the Peace Corps, and began teaching English in the French-speaking landlocked country of Niger. He is currently planning a Dialogue of Civilizations program to the French-speaking country of Senegal.

“My introduction to West African life was in a totally Muslim environment,” Miles explained. “It is fascinating to discover this new Jewish angle in a part of a world we thought we knew so well.”