Tudor Parfitt,
The Thirteenth Gate:
Travels Among the
Lost Tribes of Israel

(Adler & Adler, 1987)

The Thirteenth Gate's author, a British scholar and a non-Jew with a personal fascination with Hebrew studies, derived the idea for this book from a quotation from Dov Ber, an 18th-century Hassidic leader: "Twelve of the thirteen gates of Jerusalem correspond to the twelve tribes, through which the prayers of each of them ascend to the heavens. ... The thirteenth gate is for him that does not know which is his own tribe."

Tudor Parfitt writes in lucid, engaging prose, a blend of personal narrative and expository text about his journey along the trade routes from the Middle East to Japan, and then to Ethiopia and the Transvaal -- in search of the outer limits of the Jewish Diaspora -- the widely scattered variety of peoples who claim descent from Abraham. Living on the far edges of the mainstream of Jewish life, the members of these disparate communities have exceedingly varying backgrounds, practices and beliefs, yet all however, call themselves Jews. They include the Syrian Jews of Damascus, the rival Bene Israel and Baghdadis of India, the dwindling community of Singapore, the Makuya and Beit Shalom groups of Japanese who are convinced they are descended from Jews, the Falashas of Ethiopia and the Lemba of South Africa.

The author devotes a chapter each to the little-known fringe enclaves mentioned above, explicating their rich and intriguing variety, his interviews revealing a startling diversity in their feelings about their religion, their "homeland" of Israel and what they think the future holds. Parfitt reveals that these lost tribes of Israel are doubly lost, for they are minorities within their own countries and within the conventional Jewish world. While some groups remain large and flourishing, others -- forgotten, persecuted, or attenuated by emigration to Israel -- are dying out.

This colorful, penetrating and utterly fascinating account, in which truth is stranger than fiction, stirs the readers imagination with its sensitive portrayal of people on the margins of Judaism and gives the question of who is a Jew whole new dimensions. This book, published in 1987 and unfortunately out-of-print, is definitely worth tracking down for the inherent fascination of its subject matter and its valuable information; it deserves re-printing in updated form. The reader is left dying to know what further developments have befallen the communities in question. The Thirteenth Gate's value is enhanced by tantalizing photos (there should have been more of them), a glossary and a bibliography.

[ by Amy Harlib ]