In 1996, a DNA study claimed to confirm what the Lemba, a group of people living in South Africa, already knew from centuries-old oral history and cultural traditions: They are Jews.
In “Genetic Afterlives,” Noah Tamarkin, assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences, writes about the Lemba with an ethnographic approach, opening larger questions about the relationship between genetics, citizenship, race, and origins.
“These late-20th century DNA studies catapulted the Lemba into two international debates, one about the racial and religious parameters of Jewishness, and the other about the claims and implications of genomic science,” Tamarkin wrote. “We think that DNA can tell us whether the Lemba are really Jews. This book shows instead that DNA provides more questions than answers.”
In the book, Tamarkin analyzes how Lemba people have negotiated their relationship to Jewish diaspora, African indigeneity and South African citizenship, both before and after genetic tests connected them with Jewish genetic ancestry. “In doing so,” he wrote, “it calls into question where and with whom we locate the meaning and significance of DNA.”
Long interested in questions of identity and representation, and of social and racial justice, Tamarkin said he was drawn to study the Lemba as a way to think about the complexities of Jewish identity – “questions about who and what is a Jew, and where are Jews, and questions about how people are grappling in post-apartheid South Africa in the wake of having been subjected to racial oppression their entire lives.”
Doing research for his ethnographic study, Tamarkin lived with families in Lemba communities. He did whatever they did: talking with neighbors, watching kids play soccer, going to work with people. He also conducted interviews with Lemba leaders.
F.C. Raulinga, a Lemba historian and longtime general secretary of the Lemba Cultural Association, shared with Tamarkin an extensive oral history of the Lemba that refers back to the destruction in 586 B.C. of the temple in Jerusalem. Lemba keep this heritage alive by talking about their culture, history, religion and genealogies during frequent events, particularly funerals and annual cultural association meetings.
In the Lemba history, Tamarkin wrote, origins are multiple, movements are multi-directional and the past is organized around places of settlement and the lines demarcating “Lemba.”
“It explicitly rejects the idea of singular origins and instead emphasizes how identities are formed and re-formed over time, in relation to multiple places and events, and in conversation with interested others,” Tamarkin wrote. “In contrast to the claims of genetic ancestry, this aligns with decades of research by historians and anthropologists.”
There is an existing literature about the Lemba, Tamarkin said, much of it written by researchers trying to determine “who they really are and where they’re really from.” The Lemba with whom Tamarkin spoke are frustrated with this literature, he said, for making proclamations about them, rather than engaging with them.
In contrast, Tamarkin said he’s trying with his book to consider whole people – not just genetic facts about them – when determining genetic ancestry. Research subjects’ knowledge about their identity and origins must be considered alongside DNA, he said.
“I argue that it is through former research subjects’ genetic knowledge production that we can begin to grasp why DNA so powerfully compels us,” Tamarkin wrote, “and what that might say about contemporary political belonging.”
Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.