The Prince of Light: The Story of an African Prince Who Left Royalty and Fortune to Pursue a Torah Lifestyle

by | in Shavuot

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As Rabbi Natan Gamedze likes to tell it, his path to self-discovery—his transformation from prince to rabbi—was paved with chance encounters, mystical experiences, strange signs and guideposts, all orchestrated to lead him to his present life as an observant Jew. A linguist with an honors degree from Oxford, Rabbi Gamedze is the grandson of a former king of Swaziland1 and scion of the royal Gamedze dynasty that had ruled Swaziland for generations.

He first encountered Judaism in college, while he was taking a class in Italian literature. Rabbi Gamedze, who is fluent in twelve languages, noticed a fellow student scribbling in a script he did not recognize. He was intrigued. After class, the student told him it was Hebrew. “I’m usually slow to make decisions,” admits Rabbi Gamedze. “But right after I spoke to the student, I dashed down to the Languages Department and signed up for an introductory course in Hebrew. I couldn’t really explain my impulsiveness … something just made me do it.” Six months later, the language whiz had mastered basic Hebrew, and was taking Hebrew classes with a native Israeli. “During the first session, I was listening to a tape in Hebrew of parashat Lech Lecha, and the words resonated,” says Rabbi Gamedze. “I felt that the text was talking to me. Hebrew seemed to speak to my soul, and I started reading more and more texts until I came to Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, which struck a huge chord. I loved it. I carried the sefer with me wherever I went, and I shared its teachings with my Jewish friends on campus, who were assimilated and illiterate about their own tradition. Ironically, my enthusiasm for their religion turned them on to Judaism, and they began studying themselves. It was a bit strange that the very person who ended up bringing them closer to Judaism wasn’t Jewish himself.”

One day, in the spring of 1988, Rabbi Gamedze had one of those mystical encounters he refers to often. “I was sitting in the campus restaurant, having a cup of coffee, when a stranger walked in and started speaking Hebrew to me,” he says. Rabbi Gamedze had never met this man before, but the man—a visiting professor from Israel—seemed to know all about him. “Would you be interested in pursuing a PhD in languages at Hebrew University in Jerusalem …. on a full scholarship?” the professor asked.

Photo courtesy of Chaya Lipschutz

If there was one value that the Gamedze family cherished above any other it was education. Rabbi Gamedze’s father, Aron Bhekithemba Gamedze—who had abdicated the throne years before in order to become a Christian (not the national religion)2—had often told his son that “people can take everything away from you, except for an education.” Despite his abdication, Aron Gamedze continued to occupy some of the most important and powerful positions in Swaziland, partly because of his royal heritage but primarily because of his extensive educational background and intellectual finesse. He served variously as the country’s ambassador to Great Britain, minister of education and chief liaison officer between Swaziland and Britain after the former first won its independence in 1968. Most significantly, Rabbi Gamedze’s father was known as the “Eye of the King” in his role as chief adviser to the current monarch. Rabbi Gamedze’s mother was an English schoolteacher who shared her husband’s convictions about education. When they learned of the offer that had been made to their son, they encouraged him to pursue it, never once considering that living in the Jewish State might imperil his Christian beliefs. It would be seventeen years before they would see their son again.

“When I left South Africa, I had a strong feeling that it was for good, that I wasn’t just leaving for a few years, but that I was getting myself into something much bigger than that,” says Rabbi Gamedze. “I felt that the appearance of the professor that day was not just a coincidence—it was a sign from Hashem. I’ve always believed that Hashem is guiding me, and that I have to be attuned to the signs He drops. My motto was: ‘Seize the signs, even if you don’t know where they will take you.’ In this particular case, they took me to Jerusalem.”

As soon as Rabbi Gamedze stepped off the plane, he was overcome by the sensation of everything being very familiar. “I felt that I had come home,” he remembers. Although chaos and frenzy characterized the Jerusalem that he traveled to in October 1988—political candidates campaigned raucously in the streets while student strikes engulfed Hebrew University, paralyzing it for two weeks—his enthusiasm only grew. The crowds, the disorder, the vitality, the life: ”Ijust loved it.”

He loved his studies, but emotionally he felt uneasy, constantly tormented by one question: If Hashem wanted me to be a Jew, then why wasn’t I just born one?

What he didn’t love, however, was the disappointing course of study at Hebrew University. “For two years I was taking classes in Biblical Hebrew, Modern Hebrew, Aramaic, but I felt that something was lacking,” Rabbi Gamedze says. “I couldn’t put my finger on it, but a certain dimension that I had found in Rambam was absent from my studies. I was in a quandary … trying to figure out what Hebrew had to tell me … and I didn’t know how to progress. Then I got a call from the Jewish friends I had left behind in South Africa.”

Rabbi Gamedze remembered that his introduction of Mishneh Torah to his Jewish friends had sparked their interest in Judaism, but he hadn’t known to what extent. “It turned out to be not just intellectual curiosity on their part,” says Rabbi Gamedze. They had completely returned to their faith. In two years’ time, they had become ba’alei teshuvah, and were now studying at Ohr Somayachin Israel.“Come join us,” they urged him.

When Rabbi Gamedze met his old friends, he was dumbstruck by their radically changed appearances (they were now wearing tzitzit and yarmulkes) and intrigued to learn that he had played such a pivotal role in their transformations. “How do you explain that a non-Jew brought Jews closer to their heritage?” they challenged him. In 1990, Rabbi Gamedze left Hebrew University to enroll full-time at Ohr Somayach, where he ultimately stayed for five years. His two greatest influences there were the mashgiach, Rabbi Yehuda Samet, and Rabbi Nachman Bulman, z”l, with whom Rabbi Gamedze learned Michtav MeEliyahu one-on-one. He loved his studies, but emotionally he felt uneasy, constantly tormented by one question: If Hashem wanted me to be a Jew, then why wasn’t I just born one?

Several months into his studies at Ohr Somayach,Rabbi Gamedze decided that he needed a break. “Everything was becoming too intense,” he recalls. “I decided to travel to Rome—the ‘least Jewish place in the world’—on holiday, where I hoped I could put Judaism on the back burner. But the reverse happened. Wherever I went, whatever I saw, somehow everything kept coming back to Judaism. When I went to St. Peter’s, I thought about the glory of the Roman Empire and how it had disappeared. But the Jewish people had never disappeared. I thought about all that the Jews had gone through over the ages: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the autos-da-fe, the Holocaust. I thought of all the Jewish suffering, and I couldn’t stop focusing on how the Jewish people gave up their lives for their beliefs. At this stage, I had not yet taken on any Jewish observance. But when I returned to the hotel, for the first time in my life, I did something Jewish. I said the Shema,and I felt a great surge of energy within me, as if I were serving as a conduit for all the souls who had said this prayer over the millennia, and they were joining me in this prayer now. It was a very moving experience.

“Two weeks later, I was still in Rome, sitting in the hotel dining room, preparing to eat breakfast,” says Rabbi Gamedze. “And then a very strange thing occurred: I put the fork to the food, brought the food to my mouth, put down the fork. I repeated this several times, each time the fork suspended in mid-air. For some reason, I just couldn’t eat the food. I couldn’t shrug off the feeling that something was keeping me from eating the food in front of me. I thought back to the days when I was a student in South Africa, when I hung out with my Jewish friends, and remembered that there was one day when they didn’t eat—even the most assimilated of them—and I would join them in this fast, not eating until nightfall. This set me wondering … so I returned to my hotel room, found a Hebrew calendar that I had brought with me, looked up the date and realized that it was none other than Yom Kippur! I couldn’t believe it. So I left the hotel and headed for the Jewish ghetto. I went to the nearest shul, saw Jews wearing talleisim and watched the service. When [it was over], I decided then and there that I would become a Jew. I believed that Hashem had given me plenty of hints, and my feet were definitely leading me to Judaism. I felt that Hashem had been waiting all these years for me to recognize that I possessed a Jewish soul.”

Rabbi Gamedze did not tell his parents that he was converting. “I felt that there would be some resistance,” he says. They only learned about his conversion by accident. “I wasn’t in constant touch with them, but during the Gulf War, they tried to track me down … they were very concerned. They couldn’t find my current [phone] number, so they contacted my first mentor at Hebrew University, the Israeli professor who had originally recruited me. When they asked him for my most recent phone number, he answered in astonishment: ‘Why are you calling me? Natan’s been at yeshivah for years, and he’s a converted Jew!’”

Despite their initial shock, Rabbi Gamedze’s parents were accepting of the life path their son had chosen to embrace. “I was brought up in a home that emphasized independent thinking and self-reliance … the idea that everyone is responsible for his own decisions, for his own life,” Rabbi Gamedze explains. “My choice was in part an outgrowth of this upbringing. How could they oppose it?”

For Rabbi Gamedze, the decision to convert and dealing with his parents was the “easy part.” “The hard part was getting to know what Judaism means and what is required—the rectification of Self, the rectification of the world, the rectification of life itself. I don’t think it’s possible for a prospective Jew to understand what converting truly involves. Suddenly, there’s a big yoke placed on top of us. The reality was much more difficult than I ever had imagined.”

Rabbi Gamedze’s crucible—his “Akeidah” as he likes to call it—is shemirat halashon, the guarding of one’s speech. “Being cautious about one’s speech, not speaking lashon hara … for me, this was one of the most difficult aspects of becoming frum.” In conversation, his every word seems measured and thoughtful. Although he’s eloquent, lyrical even, he doesn’t speak quickly or easily. A certain reticence or royal reserve shades his sentences. It’s almost a surprise to learn from others that in the public venue, he’s a dynamic and powerful speaker. In private, however, he’s a reluctant celebrity.

“Look, I know that in the Jewish community I stick out like a sore thumb, the only black guy in the room. I’m not the kind of person who likes to be in the limelight,” he says. “When I walk into a new shul, [I know that] someone’s going to whisper, ‘Is it true that he’s an African prince?’ But I had a talk with Hashem, and I said to Him, “Well, if that’s what You want, that’s it. I often think that maybe it’s precisely because I look so different, that I can be a better keili [instrument] for Hashem’s will. Some Jews might pay more attention to me than to a regular white FFB [Jew who is frum from birth]. They might say: ‘Well, if he’s willing to give up so much and change his identity, why can’t I try to be more Jewish?’”

In 1995, Rabbi Gamedze left Ohr Somayach to study at Brisk Yeshiva, one of the most prestigious yeshivot in Jerusalem. He completed his studies in 2000, received semichah and was then encouraged to get married.

When he was introduced to Shayna Gordon, a white ba’alat teshuvah from New York studying at Neve Yerushalayim College, he knew almost immediately that he had found his soul mate. The two became engaged after their third date, and married soon afterward. They initially settled in Betar Illit, where Rabbi Gamedze continued to learn at the local kollel. Soon after,they moved to Tzefat, where Rabbi Gamedze taught a Gemara shiur at Yeshiva Shalom Rav and gave classes in hashkafah (Jewish philosophy) and parashat hashavuah (Torah portion of the week) at another yeshivah. Tzefat, with its panoply of spiritual seekers, mystics and scholars, was the perfect milieu for the couple’s early years together. Here they found both a warm welcome and acceptance as a biracial couple. And it was in Tzefat that their two children were born.

“I know that in the Jewish community I stick out like a sore thumb, the only black guy in the room. But I had a talk with Hashem, and I said to Him, “Well, if that’s what You want, that’s it.”

A spate of speaking engagements has currently brought Rabbi Gamedze to the United States, and the family, now temporarily based in New York, is considering the possibility of making the move permanent. “I’m planning to go wherever Hashem leads me,” Rabbi Gamedze says. “I don’t have a personal agenda. My agenda is finding out what Hashem’sagenda is. I feel that my mission is to influence more and more Jews, and that Hashem is taking me to the places I need to be. I think Hashem is teaching the Jewish people a lesson through its gerim [converts]. I have found the Jewish community to be very accepting, and in fact it gives [Jews] chizuk [strength] to meet me. When they see what I’ve given up to be Jewish, it strengthens their own emunah [belief].”

In between speaking engagements, Rabbi Gamedze waits for his destiny to unfold. “I’m waiting for Hashem to drop His usual hints,” he says cheerfully. “I have no worries; I know He’ll let me know precisely what I should be doing next.”

Why is it that Hashem is so manifest toRabbi Gamedze, but so elusive to others? “Because Hashem has no need to hide if you already know that He’s there,” Rabbi Gamedze says. “The more you believe that Hashem is running the show, the more He shows His Hand to you. Whatever face Hashem shows a person, it’s the same face that the person is showing Hashem. It’s a reciprocal relationship.”

Rabbi Gamedze is passionate about spreading Yiddishkeit across the globe; he is committed to bringing God-awareness to far-flung corners and remote regions everywhere, anywhere, that he is directed. But couldn’t he have pursued his calling equally well, if not better, had he been born a Jew?

“A few years ago, I was teaching a class on the Biblical Jethro, trying to convey what a special person he was,” Rabbi Gamedze says. “And I remembered what I had heard many years ago from Rabbi Moshe Carlebach, who said that the first time the phrase ‘Baruch Hashem’ [Blessed is God] appears in the Bible is when Jethro—a convert—praises God for saving the Jews from the Egyptians. The whole idea of a convert is that of Baruch Hashem, of bringing additional glory to God. That is why Jethro’s name is derived from the word yeter, which means ‘adding on.’ Because someone who comes from outside the Jewish people, [someone] who is Jewish by choice, gives additional glory to God. Not that God lacks anything, but in our eyes, we see it more.

“As I was teaching this in class, I heard a voice in my head saying, ‘Nu? Now you know why you have to go through all this—for the sake of God’s additional glory,’” says Rabbi Gamedze. “God says to Himself: ‘How should I get people more interested in Judaism? So he arranges for an African prince to come around, to make people take notice and think about things. Yes, it’s hard for me. But it’s all about what God wants, not what I want. My story is not about how comfortable it is for me. It’s about glorifying God.”

 Yitta Halberstam is the author and co-author of eight books, including the best-selling Small Miracles series and Holy Brother: Inspiring Stories and Enchanted Tales about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (New Jersey, 2002). Her most recent book is the anthology Changing Course: Women’s Inspiring Stories of Menopause, Midlife, and Moving Forward (Cincinnati, 2004). To reach Rabbi Gamedze, visit his web site at http://www.rabbigamedze.com/

Notes
1. Swaziland is a small land-locked kingdom that borders South Africa and Mozambique. It is about the size of Israel, and its population numbers around one million.
2. The national religion is similar to ancestor worship, which involves venerating deceased ancestors whose spirits are believed to have the power to intervene in the affairs of the living.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2006.

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