The United States has the world's second-largest Jewish population. The Chicagoland area has the third-largest Jewish U.S. population with New York and Los Angels areas being first and second.
In either 3rd or 4th grade Sunday school we had a classroom discussion about the 12 tribes of Israel and the 10 lost tribes with our Rabbi, Joseph M. Strauss (who lived to be 98 years old), and was the founding Rabbi of Temple Menorah in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, leading the discussion.
Rabbi Stauss told us that some Indian tribes have some Jewish type traditions. I can recall him talking about the Cherokee tribe (which I address further in the article) and Indian tribes in the midwest. After my intensive study of the Mississippi Valley Indian tribes, I can see where some of the tribes of the Illiniwek treat the Great Spirit similarly to how Judaism teaches.
NOTE: This article does not try to prove or disprove the theory of an Indian tribe being one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. I'm interested to see who else has heard of this theory.
In the 8th century BCE, the Assyrians dispersed the Kingdom of Israel, giving life and legend to the Lost Tribes. The repatriation of these lost tribes eventually became an integral part of the Jewish–and Christian–messianic dream, and there have been Lost Tribe speculations about numerous “discovered” populations. One of the most fascinating — and unfortunately forgotten — such discussions centered on the Native Americans. How did the greater Jewish community in America respond to this?
The Theory Begins
|Notice that the man in this photograph has "Payot," or long-curled or braided sideburns. Payot is worn by some men and boys in the Orthodox Jewish community based on an interpretation of the Biblical injunction against shaving the "corners" of one's head. Literally, Payot means "corner, side, edge," in Hebrew.|
The notion was revived after James Adair, a 40-year veteran Indian trader and meticulous chronicler of the Israelitish features of Native American religion and social custom wrote The History of the American Indians…Containing an Account of their Origin, Language, Manners, Religion and Civil Customs in 1775. Even Epaphras Jones, an American Bible professor engaged the theory in 1831, claiming that anyone “conversant with the European Jews and the Aborigines of America… will perceive a great likeness in color, features, hair, aptness to cunning, dispositions for roving, etc.”
Some of these writers were interested in Native American history, but most of them were just interested in the Bible. Indeed, the Lost Tribe claim should be seen as part of a general 19th-century fascination with biblical history. Explorations of Holy Land flora and fauna, the geography of the Holy Land, the life of Jesus-the-man, were very much en vogue. A close identification among some 17th and 18th century Americans with the chosen people of Scripture helped Christian settlers see their colonization of New England as a reenactment of Israel’s journey into the Promised Land.
It also contributed to a more general religious myth-making scheme that helped define the national identity of the United States. To cite just one example, in a 1799 Thanksgiving Day sermon, Abiel Tabbot told his congregation in Massachusetts:
“It has often been remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel, than any other nation upon the globe. Hence, ‘OUR AMERICAN ISRAEL,’ was a term that was frequently used; and common consent allows it apt and proper.”A curious incident that drew considerable attention and “proved,” at least to some, that Native Americans had ancient Israelite origins unfolded when tefillin phylacteries (Pronounced: tuh-FILL-in. These are the small boxes containing the words of the Shema that are traditionally wrapped around one’s head and arm during morning prayers) were “discovered” in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in the early 19th century.
|Phylacteries (Tefillin in Hebrew)|
Prominent Jews Respond
Around the time of the Pittsfield tefillin incident, Mordecai Manuel Noah, the journalist, playwright, politician, and Jewish American statesman began writing about the subject. Noah wrote a play She Would be a Soldier; or, The Plains of Chippewa (1819), that resolved the tension between the Yankees and the British by identifying the Indian Great Spirit with the God of the Bible. Noah’s ideas about Jewish Native Indian affinities grew in a distinctly political manner when he invited Natives Americans to help settle “Ararat,” the separatist Jewish colony he hoped to establish on Grand Island on the Niagara River around 1825.
Noah’s writings on Jewish Native Indians came to their full expression with his Discourse on the Evidence of the American Indians Being the Descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel (1837). The work documented a host of theological, linguistic, ritual, dietary, and political parallels between Jews and Native Americans. Most importantly, he identified several essential character traits shared by the Jews and the Native Indians, all of which were, of course, highly laudable. For Noah, the conflation of Indians and Jews sanctioned the latter as divinely ordained Americans.
Another notable Jewish-Indian incident occurred in 1860 when stones hewn with Hebrew inscriptions were found in ancient Indian burial mounds near Newark, Ohio. The story unfolded over the course of many months and was followed closely by The Israelite, The Occident, and The Jewish Messenger, whose respective editors represented the intellectual vanguard of American Jewry.
|The Newark Holy Stones, a set of artifacts, discovered in 1860 within a cluster of ancient Indian burial mounds near Newark, Ohio. The set consists of (1) the Decalogue with its sandstone box which has Hebrew inscriptions on all four sides (3) box top lid, (4) box bottom, (2) the Keystone, and (5) a stone bowl.|
|The letters on the Decalogue stone appear to be very early Hebrew. For the past 1000 years or so, Hebrew has most commonly been written with vowel points and consonant points that are missing on both the Decalogue and Keystone. The absence of points is therefore suggestive, but not conclusive, of an earlier date. NOTE: The Torah is written with No vowel or consonant points.|
From a historical and scientific point of view, the Native American Lost Tribe claim is clearly narishkeit (Yiddish for foolishness). But even a brief exploration of it — who was making it and why, who was refuting it and why, reveals important insights about American Jewry. Popular thought about who Jews were — their place in America, with whom they could or should be associated — helps us understand how Jews negotiated their place in American society. Theories about Ancient Israelite Indians should not be dismissed as mere fantasy. Rather they are important precisely because they are fantasy.
Jews responded to the Lost Tribes claim about Native Americans in sermons, plays, public statements, scholarly works, and popular writings. The critical responses are more understandable: from the perspective of Reform and science, the theory is flagrantly nonsensical. But there are other reasons some may have rejected it: so as not to be associated with that which was thought of as naive, primitive, and barbarian, so as not to be thought of as atavistic or lower on the evolutionarily ladder than other Europeans, so as not to be thought of as imminently disappearing from history, and so as not to be in need of Christian civilizing (i.e. missionizing). Advocates, on the other hand, had to go against the scholarly consensus and side with religious figures who could be dismissed as fanatics.
Accepting Native Americans as ancient Israelites held several — sometimes mutually exclusive — implications for American Jews. Foremost, it meant that the Indians were, in some way, related. It could buttress the sentiment that America was the New Jerusalem. This was the destined place where the original exiles, scattered to unknown corners of the world, were ingathered to their God-chosen Promised Land. They were not “lost” at all. Rather, the near aboriginal connection of Jews to the American soil served as evidence of the end of exile, and another reason to support a new American Jewish identity.
The connection between Native Americans and Judaism seems clear. Among the Cherokee tribe, they carried an ark into battle, celebrate seven feasts, kept the seventh day of rest, had cities of refuge, and didn't eat pork.
Many of the major figures in 19th-century American Jewry weighed in–in one manner or another–on the Jewish-Indian controversy. The practical stakes were never high, but the claim — so ubiquitous and so fluid (since it was used for so many different functions by so many different people) — was taken seriously and fretted over by Jewish leaders of very different orientations. The Lost Tribe theory had significant symbolic stakes — for Jews, Christians, and Native Americans. Linking America and its earliest inhabitants with the Bible and its theology, meant staking a claim on America–and championing God’s plan for the New World.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.
 The lost tribes are one of the biggest mysteries of Jewish history and have inspired multiple theories. Maybe the Igbo Jews of Nigeria are one of the lost tribes? Perhaps Bene Menashe, in Northern India, can claim the title. Or the Pashtun people of Afghanistan. Or Native Americans. These groups and many more have claimed to have descended from the lost tribes of Israel.
 The ten lost tribes were ten of Twelve Tribes of Israel that were said to have been deported from the Kingdom of Israel after its conquest by the Neo-Assyrian Empire circa 722 BCE. These are the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Manasseh, and Ephraim. The other two tribes are Levi and Benjamin.