Reading the Torah in Abuja, and how the Talmud Became a Bestseller in South Korea

This is from The Economist:

In Abuja, the capital, there are at least four small communities of Igbo-speakers that have opened synagogues. (Jews joke that every town needs at least two so that members can hold a grudge, and refuse to attend one of them.) In one, on the outskirts of the city, there is a gospel lilt to the songs: members taught themselves to read Hebrew and then had to make up the tunes, says one…..

It might seem odd that people would sign up to join a small faith whose members have suffered centuries of oppression. Yet Uri Palti, Israel’s ambassador to Nigeria, reckons there are more than 40 such communities across the country. Daniel Lis, an academic, thinks there may be thousands of Nigerians who practise Judaism. Millions more of the Igbo tribe (sic) believe that they are descended from biblical Israelites. Across Africa as a whole there may be thousands more self-declared Jews. One community in eastern Uganda, the Abayudaya, adopted the faith almost a century ago. Its rabbi was recently elected the country’s first Jewish member of parliament.

And this is from the New Yorker:

About an hour’s drive north of Seoul, in the Gwangju Mountains, nearly fifty South Korean children pore over a book. The text is an unlikely choice: the Talmud, the fifteen-hundred-year-old book of Jewish laws. The students are not Jewish, nor are their teachers, and they have no interest in converting. Most have never met a Jew before. But, according to the founder of their school, the students enrolled with the goal of receiving a “Jewish education” in addition to a Korean one.

When I toured the boarding school last year, the students, who ranged in age from four to nineteen, were seated cross-legged on the floor of a small tentlike auditorium. Standing in front of a whiteboard, their teacher, Park Hyunjun, was explaining that Jews pray wearing two small black boxes, known as tefillin, to help them remember God’s word. He used the Hebrew words shel rosh (“on the head”) and shel yad (“on the arm”) to describe where the boxes are worn. Inside these boxes, he said, was parchment that contained verses from one of the holiest Jewish prayers, the Shema, which Jews recite daily. As the room filled with murmurings of the Shema in Korean, the dean of the school leaned over to me and said that the students recited the prayer daily, too, “with the goal of memorizing it.”

Both are pretty interesting reads. Definitely worth your time.

Persistence of Culture (and Institutions)

“How persistent are cultural traits? Using data on anti-Semitism in Germany, we find local continuity over 600 years. Jews were often blamed when the Black Death killed at least a third of Europe’s population during 1348–50. We use plague-era pogroms as an indicator for medieval anti-Semitism. They reliably predict violence against Jews in the 1920s, votes for the Nazi Party, deportations after 1933, attacks on synagogues, and letters to Der Sturmer. We also identify areas where persistence was lower: cities withhigh levels of trade or immigration. Finally, we show that our results are not driven by political extremism or by different attitudes toward violence.”

That is Voigtlander and Voth writing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Their paper speaks to my previous post on the challenges of institutional engineering given the stickiness of institutions (and by extension the cultures that create and then reinforce them). Of course culture is a dicey subject that is often misused to explain economic and social outcomes. Instead of using the amorphous term “culture” I prefer to hear more about the reward systems that make it beneficial for individuals and communities to engage in certain cultural practices.

On a more positive note, the paper provides some evidence of the power of economic opportunities to dis-incentivize engagement in hateful cultural practices:

“Instead of reinforcing persistence, we argue that economic factors had the potential to undermine it…… Our results also lend qualified support to Montesquieu’s famous dictum that trade encourages ‘‘civility.’’