Unexpected Paths: Exploring Identity, Connection, and Hospitality in Madagascar

View of Antananarivo, Madagascar

View of Antananarivo, Madagascar.

By: Judy Leserman

“You must come for Shabbat,” Moshe insisted. The invitation was given towards the end of an interview I conducted on my first day in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. A prominent journalist and a leader within the Kabbalistic Jewish community, Moshe had come to meet me at the hotel courtyard with an entourage of security, as well as priests from an associated group. Elysha, our translator (and community member and accomplished scientist to boot) turned to us, “He really would like for you to join him, so are you going to go?” Given the retinue, the urgency of what he communicated in the interview, and the adamant request that I join him for Shabbat, I was unsure of what to make of this invitation from a stranger.

I traveled to Madagascar in the Summer of 2023 to meet a small community that converted to Judaism in 2016. Not well known to the broader international Jewish community, I had heard about them through word of mouth and a few videos and articles here and there online. It is possible to access practical information about this group, such as how they learned about Judaism and who converted them, but not much else is available. Converting to Judaism is often a difficult and prolonged process because according to Jewish belief, one does not need to be “part of the tribe” in order to be a good person or achieve salvation, so conversion is generally discouraged unless one feels deeply compelled. As an extrovert, I wanted to meet the individuals who spent years studying as a community to assume this new identity—one that I share with them. I was curious about the possibility of connection in an unlikely place.  As a poet, I wanted to visit Madagascar to experience a new world, meet new people, and learn a new terrain. Both of these pieces of myself and this experience were to ultimately contribute to my broader work on identity and its connection to land, to books, and to the stories and histories we tell.

Judy and Moshe, a prominent journalist and a leader within the Kabbalistic Jewish community.

So though I had only met Moshe that one time, I accepted his invitation and planned to join him and whomever else he included the following week. That Friday Gabriella, my travel partner, and I took a cab for about an hour and a half into the suburbs towards a town called Ambatofotsy. On the way, we passed crowded streets covered in white, red, and green flags in preparation for Independence Day. Along the road, we watched the old French architecture turn into newer homes where eventually zebu plodded through rice paddies. The car zipped over mountains and onto dirt roads until it kicked up dust through a small market where meat dangled in the Winter heat and rice and cassava were waiting to be bought. 

Finally, the car parked in front of a hotel called Le Carat. Our room was a little bungalow overlooking a lake. Before I could finish turning the knob to enter, a round face smiled through the window and opened the door. Moshe had invited two young women named Sarah and Rivka to keep us company and to translate for us over the twenty-five hours of Shabbat. After a quick and somewhat awkward greeting, we finished our preparations for Shabbat before the sun went down. 

The first synagogue ever built in Madagascar.

Everything was lovely. The newly built synagogue was beautiful, the prayer was moving, and the dinner was delicious. Still, the atmosphere felt somewhat stilted. There were eleven of us total, but, probably owing to the language barrier, the evening was lively, but largely polite. At the end, three gentlemen offered to walk Gabriella, Sarah, Rivka, and I down the road to our hotel.

The week prior, Gabriella and I had visited the remote Masoala rainforest. To get from Antananarivo to Masoala, you have to take a plane, a car, and a boat. As little-visited as Madagascar is, this peninsula receives even fewer visitors. Masoala is a magical place that boasts 2% of all the species of plants and animals on the planet, which is a mind-boggling number for only 930 square miles. 

In Masoala, the rainforest spills into the coast and makes for some incredible sunsets.

Our tour guide, Alden, was an expert naturalist. He never formally studied biology or anything of the sort in school, but he spoke about the forest with a marked reverence and love. To supplement his knowledge and his own research, he had gathered scientific information from the researchers whom he guided through the forest over the years. 

Though we were to spend an entire week together, Alden did not seem interested in hearing more about Gabriella and I, nor did he offer anything personal about himself. We of course respected this boundary, but for two effusive and inquisitive women, it was a somewhat new experience. He showed us red-ruffed lemurs in the canopy, pointed out geckos on the beach, and led us to the best spots to snorkel around coral reefs, explaining everything to us with a wealth of encyclopedic knowledge. 

Alden was generous with facts, but himself remained a mystery—that was, until I almost sat on what looked like two bugs on a rock. On closer inspection, they appeared to be small lizards. I asked Alden what they were and he looked at me in disbelief. “Most tourists can’t find these. They are Brookesia nana, male and female.” In that brief moment, we spoke a similar language, we shared an eye in Masoala, and a true friendship began immediately. For the rest of our week-long trip, we shared stories of our families, he offered insights from his beliefs and asked us for ours, and we were even invited to the memorial ceremony for his mother that is scheduled to take place in a few years. In her life, he was a devoted son, and in her death, as he explained to us, he was looking forward to honoring her according to an ancient tradition.

Judy and her travel partner, Gabriella with the two nano chameleons (Brookesia nana) in the Masoala rainforest.

There were approximately thirty yards between Moshe’s home in the hills of Ambatofotsy and the entrance to the hotel next door. However short, the road was uneven and the only lights to guide us were the stars and the moon, which was extra radiant for the lack of any competing light source. Because it was Shabbat, we couldn’t carry a flashlight down the path. Along the way, I slipped on a crack in the pavement, but Sarah linked her arm in mine and saved me from a fall. After a treacherous few feet, we arrived at the gates of Le Carat, only to find them closed and locked. Without access to our phones and assuming that any staff was already asleep, I expected that we would not be staying there that night. 

That was until Rivka yelled, “odiyo!” Sarah turned to me and translated, “It’s like ‘knock-knock,’ but in Malagasy.” “Odiyo,” Sarah added, while our three chivalrous guards rolled their eyes. Self-consciously, I contributed as well. “Odiyo!” we screamed together at once, hoping our combined voices would reach a decibel high enough to reach the ears of whoever was in charge of opening the door. 

After what felt like hours (but was probably around twenty minutes), the door opened, followed by a concerned look from the front desk. We scrambled to the bungalow, laughing in relief. Had things turned out differently, we probably could have stayed at Moshe’s house, so the stakes were pretty low, but at that moment, the four of us were exceedingly grateful for the little room we shared. We passed around toothpaste and somehow we ended up spending hours talking about Torah, about being Jewish women, about all sorts of things. The following Saturday, when the sun was out and the path was clear, we passed the day with jokes and dancing and singing. Many songs were familiar and I belted along with them. Some songs were new, and what a pleasure they were to learn.

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Judy Leserman (she/ her) is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She is a current MFA candidate in poetry at George Mason University and received a BA from Yeshiva University and an MA from CUNY Lehman College. Judy is the editorial coordinator and a reader for Poetry Daily. She is also a speech-language pathologist working with high school students with different abilities in Virginia.