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Conversation with…Jeff L. Lieberman

Filmmaker brings The Jews of Nigeria to Fairfield County

By Cindy Mindell

Jeff Lieberman with members of Tikvat Israel Synagogue in Abuja, Nigeria

Jeff Lieberman with members of Tikvat Israel Synagogue in Abuja, Nigeria

Jeff L. Lieberman is an award-winning journalist, producer, and documentary filmmaker who currently produces for CBS National News.

His 2012 film, “Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria,” explores the newly energized Jewish culture in that country and provides a window into the life of Jews who have only recently discovered their Judaism. The film introduces the world to the Igbo people, who claim Jewish roots, and a handful of passionate, committed, and diverse characters, each striving to fulfill their historical legacy and maintain Jewish communal life with few resources or recognition by Western Jewish communities. Individual stories are woven together with key facets of history, tracing the Igbo from Biblical times to the 1960s, when more than one million Igbo were killed in the Nigerian-Biafran War.

A central character is Shmuel, a young man whose story exemplifies the journey toward finding Judaism. Today, he is a leader in his community who teaches and chants Torah, and has big dreams of becoming a rabbi. But like almost every Igbo, he grew up surrounded by Christian colonialism, and the road to discovery has been fraught with misunderstanding, wrong turns into Messianic worship, family exile, violent prejudice from both Muslim and Christian neighbors, scorn from Jews he has contacted in the Western world, and frustration due to a lack of funds to further educate himself through Internet access. Yet, it’s also been a discovery of community, helped by the support of an American rabbi who has been working with both him and the larger Igbo community.

Lieberman grew up in Vancouver, Canada and attended a Conservative synagogue with his family that became egalitarian around the time of his bar mitzvah. He was active in United Synagogue Youth (USY) on the local, regional, and international levels, and took part in two summer USY trips, one around the U.S., and one throughout Eastern Europe and Israel. He continued to participate with Jewish organizations through his college years, and has “loosely” belonged to synagogues as an adult. Currently, he attends B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, as well as Jewish cultural events throughout the city.

“Re-emerging” has been included in film festivals across North American and has received praise from reviewers and audiences alike. The film will have its Connecticut debut on Saturday, Aug. 31 at Congregation B’nai Torah in Trumbull, as highlight of a multi-synagogue Selichot service.

Lieberman spoke with the Ledger about his journey to the Igbo.

Q: What inspired you to make “Re-emerging”?

A: I was sitting in my office in L.A. one day when I got an email from a synagogue I sometimes attended. It was an invitation to a lecture and slide show from a Maryland-based rabbi who would be talking about his recent trip to Uganda and Nigeria. On a lark, I went. I thought the subject would be really fascinating, as I always had an interest in different forms of Judaism, as well as a love/interest/curiosity about Africa. Viewing Rabbi Howard Gorin’s pictures, I was mesmerized. One picture stands out in particular – a hut in the forest with a Star of David above the door. The rabbi explained that it was a synagogue. After the presentation, I approached him and asked him why he didn’t have more pictures and why no video. He said it had been just him and a small camera on his visit. I told him that the next time he returns to Nigeria, I would love to join him. He later told me that he didn’t think I was all that serious, but I followed up with him for several months, and some time later, he called and said that if I was really serious, to go get my shots and a visa, because he was going in February (2006).

Q: Did anything you learn during the filmmaking process influence your own Jewish identity, journey, practice, etc.?

A: I had several little experiences in Nigeria that you could perhaps call epiphanies. It was while interviewing some of the younger people and listening to them explain the long lengths they sometimes endure to practice Judaism, or the desire for books and Judaica that they might never see. I couldn’t help but feel moved by the fact that I had access to all these items and experiences, and at the time, I took most of them for granted. For me, Judaism had always been a buffet – a choice of things to do and practice when convenient, aside from the High Holy Days. When I returned to the U.S., I looked at Judaism somewhat differently, and now whenever I attend synagogue or light Shabbat candles, I can’t help to think about many of the people who would so desperately love to have these same experiences.

Q: Is this your first film exploring a Jewish topic?

A: Yes. Most of my previous long-form work had been in Hollywood, and documented the making of feature films. Some of my short-form video work was on Jewish topics, including several light-hearted news stories I reported for the New York Post. One was on rabbis who were arming themselves against terrorists for the High Holidays. Another was about a Jewish chef who opened a restaurant called Treyf near the Hasidic section of Williamsburg. More recently, I co-directed and edited a hit election viral video, “Call Your Zeyde.” The video was aimed at young Jewish people and encouraged them to call their Florida swing-state grandparents to talk about the misinformation surrounding the presidential election. My company was hired by Schlep Labs, who produced the Sarah Silverman election videos.

Q: By and large, black Jewish communities have not been embraced by “mainstream” Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere. Do you know whether your film has inspired conversation around this issue, and/or helped to improve this dynamic?

A: It’s difficult to say, but I hope it has. I have experienced some very positive interactions between white and black Jewish communities in the last few years, but I know that many people still have misconceptions and/or suspicions surrounding Jews who do not look like themselves. I know from Jewish friends of color that they often feel overly-questioned in regard to their Judaism, and origins, and not accepted at face value. However, I think that those who have seen the film end up having their eyes opened a little bit wider to what Judaism sounds, feels, and looks like when it comes from a community of color. Most of the time, I get the sense that people either have an open mind and open heart to the idea, or they are so closed that they don’t wish to be informed or enlightened.

Q: Your film is an interesting theme for the basis of a communal Selichot service. What do hope it brings to a Selichot-minded audience in particular?

A: Selichot is about preparing ourselves for a new year and new beginnings. It’s the start of the process of examining our lives and our actions of the past year, and making corrections for the year ahead. One must humble oneself and take a departure from the insignificant parts of everyday business. With that open mind, it’s a great time to be inspired by a community of people who have gone out on amazing personal journeys to seek out their true identity, the faith of their ancestors, and a like-minded community. These are journeys that most people never take, let alone over the course of the High Holidays. For several synagogue communities in Connecticut to want to come together and learn from this joyous and inspiring story is a true mitzvah, and one that can only help enhance their High-Holiday experience.

Communal Selichot Program featuring Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria with filmmaker Jeff L. Lieberman will be held on Saturday, Aug. 31, 9 p.m., at Congregation B’nai Torah, 5700 Main St., Trumbull, and is co-sponsored by Congregation Beth El (Fairfield), Congregation B’nai Israel (Bridgeport), and Congregation Rodeph Sholom (Bridgeport). For information call (203) 268-6940.

Comments? email  cindym@jewishledger.com.

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