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Kept in a cage for telling a Jewish story



“They threw us into a cage that was three or four steps across. It was completely dark,” says Rudy Rochman. He is one of three filmmakers who were held for 20 days by Nigerian authorities after they arrived in the country to make a documentary about the Igbo, a community with Jewish links. They were finally released on 27 July following international pressure, and they aim to continue to tell their Jewish story.

Yet the memory of their captivity will stay with them for years to come. “There was writing on the walls of people who had clearly been there a long time,” says Rochman. “There was mould everywhere, and bottles of urine from people who were there before us [relieving themselves]. There was no bed. We slept on the floor surrounded by bed bugs and mosquitoes. There was no air conditioning in terrible heat.”

It was in these conditions that he, Noam Leibman, and David Benaym spent a large part of their detainment. They spent three Shabbatot there, but managed to mark it in various ways. On the first Shabbat, they asked for grapes and crackerbread over which to make the brachot, and in later weeks, they were given challah by Chabad.

“I’ve never missed a kiddush in my life,” says Rochman. “Even in these conditions, I managed to say it.” They were also able to mark Tisha B’Av with a siddur from Chabad.

“On the sixth day [of detainment], they let us shower for the first time. It’s not a shower like you might think. In Nigeria, they don’t use toilet paper, they use a bucket of water and their hands to clean themselves. So we had to use that same bucket with water from the sink.”

At one point, they were moved into a cell which had more space and light, but it also had two new cellmates. One was accused of orchestrating a bombing, the other of selling guns. Both had been held for about seven years. The absurdity of the situation hit the Israelis hard, as they realised they were being detained with criminals. The filmmakers hadn’t even been arrested, and never were. After 20 days, they were deported to Israel. They were given back their passports and phones only when they were on the plane.

Rochman says Nigeria has a complicated history of ethnic divisions. One group, the Igbos (or Ibos), are a minority, but are the most educated and entrepreneurial. In this context, they have been persecuted and oppressed. They fought for independence in the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). Although they lost, some separatists are still calling for change. It was these people who tried to hijack the filmmakers’ visit, linking it to their demands for freedom on social media.

Meanwhile, amongst the Igbo are those who see themselves as the descendants of the Israelite tribe of Gad. They practice Jewish traditions like brit milah and kashrut, and have a strong sense of community. “Their culture and how others treat them is almost identical to the Jewish experience,” says Rochman.

It was in this context that he and his team went to Nigeria to make a documentary series titled We Were Never Lost about communities in far-flung places that have Jewish links. Their first episode would focus on the Igbo, and they brought a Sefer Torah with them to give as a gift.

“We had a few days of amazing filming, but our guide told us that our social-media posts were going viral with conspiracy theories. We made a social media post clarifying that we were there only to make a film.” However, the police arrived the next morning.

According to Rochman, “There were 15 armed men with ski masks. They said it was a ‘friendly invitation’ to answer a few questions.” However, considering the fact that they were armed, the filmmakers felt that they didn’t have a choice, and agreed to go with them. They were taken to a location two hours away, and their passports and phones were taken from them.

They spent their first Shabbat in Nigeria on the floor of a cell. The next morning, they were awoken at gunpoint and driven nine hours to the capital. It was there that they were placed in the cage. Rochman realised that if they weren’t arrested, they wouldn’t be given the rights of a prisoner. They were left completely alone on the Saturday and Sunday, and were questioned on the Monday. After five days, they finally saw an ambassador.

They were given bread, but asked for kosher food from Chabad. They hoped that this connection would get word out about where they were.

Not knowing if and when they would be released was the toughest part. “But our spirit was that we needed to fight this,” says Rochman. “I looked for ways to make weapons as we may have had to defend ourselves against the other prisoners. I broke off a piece of metallic curtain rail and sharpened it. We protested as much as possible, but there is only so much you can do.”

When they were told they could leave, they didn’t believe it at first. They were deported to Israel, and it’s been a whirlwind experience ever since. “I don’t think any of us have really slept yet. It’s overly stimulating after three weeks with nothing.” They were told of how thousands of people said tehillim 24/7 and prayed for their release. They believe that without this spiritual support as well as efforts behind the scenes, they would still be locked up.

They have been working on a video on what they went through, but ultimately, “We want to turn the conversation back to the communities. We went to tell a story, and unfortunately, we became the story.” They still plan to feature the Igbo, although they won’t be able to go back to Nigeria. “But we will go back to Africa,” Rochman says.

“We called our series We Were Never Lost because they knew who they were,” he says. “They’ve just been lost to our consciousness. My father is Ashkenazi, my mother is Sephardi, and their families come from all over the diaspora. Yet, they all had the same experience of suffering and expulsion.”

He says his own family history shows how scattered Jews are and yet how we’re all connected. Interacting with these peripheral communities “is like finding out you had a brother you never knew about”. He strongly feels that “every Jew comes from Israel. We were just born and raised in other places because we have been displaced over generations.”

Rochman was born in France and lived in Israel until he was three, when his family moved to the United States. But he always saw his destiny as being in Israel, and made aliyah at the age of 17. He defines himself as a “Jewish and Israel activist”, and his days include speaking, educating, and creating conversations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Rochman believes there is a big difference between being an advocate and an activist. “An advocate is like a fan on the sidelines, while an activist is playing the game.” For him, the latter is the only way to be. “My tikkun olam [healing the world] is to help am Yisrael [the people of Israel] to transcend their problems, unite, and achieve their purpose.”

Asked about the trademark scarf he wears, he says, “It’s a sudra – a native Jewish head covering. The patterns on it are Magen Davidim. I created it, and am working to revive the sudra, which was worn 3 000 years ago.”

It’s just one of the many ways he is building a connection between the Jewish past and future. Meanwhile, the Torah that he and his team brought to the community in Nigeria is still there – creating a link between Israel and a people who may just be one of the lost tribes.

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