I start to think these fables might be true as the Air Madagascar jet--affectionately known as Air Mad--makes its steep descent in the pitch black early morning. The capital city, Antananarivo, lies phantom-like below.
Since Marco Polo, travelers' tales have fueled fantasies about prehistoric beasts and wild men inhabiting this "most noble and beautiful island" off the coast of Africa. European traders thought they had discovered in Madagascar an earthly paradise "better than ... America," where the natives were "the happiest people in the world."
Of course, before I departed New York, my wife Jessica pointed out that Madagascar contains no Jewish shrines to explore. Even South African-based Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the spiritual leader of the African Jewish Congress, knows of no Jewish community in Madagascar. So I travel not to a place, but back in time, to a lost vision of an alternative future. Like a chameleon, as the Malagasy saying goes, I have one eye on the past and one eye on the future.
Early Zionists debated a host of proposals to settle Jews in remote regions of the world, and one of them was Madagascar. I'm an American-born, naturalized Israeli citizen and sometimes I think it might have been better had Herzl dreamed of a Jewish state in a place less embattled than the Middle East. That's why I am so curious about this would-be promised land that, at least until a recent military coup, was a relatively pacific republic in the Indian Ocean.
But as the plane lands at five in the morning, there's nothing promising about it. It's the dry season, and yet it's raining. And it's cold in July in Antananarivo, where the elevation exceeds 4,000 feet.
The city is built on a series of hills split by a ridge of rocky cliffs from which Christian martyrs were thrown to their deaths by the bloodthirsty Queen Ranavalona I in the mid-19th century. Dust kicked up by our Renault panel van clouds my view of the narrow roads that bend across the hills alongside rutted footpaths and past shambling figures carrying colorful bundles on their heads.
Each time we cross a bridge, my driver, Solofo, honks twice to ward off evil spirits. The smoke from 10,000 wood fires fills the air. Wagons pulled by zebu, muscular oxen with humped backs and long horns, veer to the side to let us pass. Mud-daubed homes with thatched roofs sag at odd, exhausted angles. Built from the same red soil on which they sit, the homes look elemental and comfortless. The tombs that dot the hills, however, are made of solid gray stone and concrete. "Why aren't the houses built with stone, too?" I ask. Homes are for the living so they don't need to last, Solofo explains, but death is forever.
As we make our way through the capital, the city wakes up. Faces appear in the small roadside snack bars, hotely, that serve traditional meals of rice and meat. Steeples spread across the cityscape and church bells ring out on Sunday, but there's no sign of Jews. No synagogue has ever graced this skyline. Even Chabad doesn't have an outpost here. And diplomatic ties with Israel have been sporadic since Madagascar achieved independence in 1960. So I almost can't believe my eyes when we see a truck flash by with a mazal tov sticker on its windshield.
One of the most persistent Malagasy legends is that the people here are descended from the Lost Tribes. While this story may be no more credible than those of man-eating trees, some Malagasy I spoke with believe it. As early as 1658 the island's French governor, Etienne de Flacourt, affirmed the Malagasy's Jewish origins in part because he witnessed tribes practicing circumcision, a custom that remains nearly universal here. Englishman Daniel Defoe, best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, helped popularize the connection between Jews and Madagascar. As the ghostwriter for the popular 1729 Madagascar: Or, Robert Drury's Journal, During Fifteen Years Captivity on that Island, Defoe outdid Flacourt, suspecting that "the Jews derived a great deal from [the Malagasy], instead of they from the Jews. …