DEBORAH O'NEIL | Florida International University
The man identified himself as a leader of the Gogodala tribe of Papua New Guinea.
He told Parfitt: You’re the guy who proved the Lemba are really Jews? We are the same as the Lemba.
A few days later the Papuan man showed up in Parfitt’s hotel with a hat full of hair plucked from fellow tribe members. He asked Parfitt to test the strands to see if the Gogodala were a Lost Tribe of Israel.
The results were inconclusive but the Gogodala have nonetheless continued to embrace and elaborate a new identity as Jews and they see Parfitt as somehow central to their Judaic aspirations.
They have decided to honour him with a gift, which will be presented to him tomorrow in a great ceremony near the Fly River Estuary.
This year, Parfitt, who has just joined Florida International University (FIU) as a research professor in the School of International Affairs, decided to lead an educational mission to PNG with five FIU students and a team from FIU’s Division of External Relations.
Two New York rabbis representing a Jewish outreach organization called Kulanu, hearing of the expedition, asked if they could come along as well.
“I was going anyway so it was good to kill two birds with one stone,” Parfitt said. “It is such a unique place and such a unique people that it will leave an indelible mark on the lives of the students we are taking along.”
The group of 10 will be greeted at the airport by Gogodala in native costume, community leaders and government ministers. Other Papuan tribes with similar claims of Jewish ancestry are expected to be on hand to meet Parfitt.
From there, they will travel by Army plane to the Western Province village of Balimo, where the Gogodala live and have planned the ceremony to honour Parfitt.
“There is going to be a very highly charged emotional event,” Parfitt explained to the students this week. “The people will be very excited. There will be religious manifestations on the periphery and at the heart of it.”
The students include religious studies senior Kyle Decker, Honours College student Pablo Currea, religious studies graduate student Sabrina Diz, biology senior Keysel Pelaez and education graduate student Olivia Autolino. As part of the trip, each will be leading an individual research project.
“We are all excited about this,” said Diz, who is hoping to be able to publish a paper based on her trip. “I’m interested in gender roles in religious customs.”
Autolino, who speaks four languages and several dialects, is studying foreign language education for her master’s degree. “There are over 800 languages spoken in PNG, around a quarter of all the world’s languages. The Gogodala do not understand the language of their neighbours who live just a few miles away – I want to find out why.”
Peleaz has also taken charge of one of the important non-academic activities of the trip – bringing an FIU Trophy Cup for the winner of a rugby match being planned in Balimo during the group’s stay.
Currea, a psychology major, will be assisting FIU filmmaker Tim Long with cameras. He will also be studying how the Gogodala and the FIU group interact. “I’m interested if people will be noticing differences between us and them and as we get used to each other, will there be similarities?”
Decker will be looking at how the Gogodala, who have been highly influenced by Christian missionaries, view Judaism.
“I’m interested to learn about how they incorporate Judaism into Christianity. I’d like to see how Christianity has influenced certain groups and how Judaism has influenced certain groups.”