About Natan Nkosinathi Gamedze
- Rabbi Natan Gamedze is a linguist with an honors degree from Oxford. He is the grandson of a former king of Swaziland and scion of the royal Gamedze dynasty that had ruled Swaziland for generations. Gamedze - who speaks 14 languages and holds an honours degree in languages from Oxford University and a master's from Wits in Italian and German - was first attracted to the Jewish faith through his fascination with Hebrew.
Rabbi Natan Gamedze was born an African prince to the Royal Gamedze clan of the Kingdom of Swaziland in 1963. As a youth, Rabbi Gamedze was educated in private schools in both Swaziland and London, where his father held the position of Swaziland Ambassador to the United Kingdom and EEC countries.
Rabbi Gamedze earned under and post graduate degrees in Modern Languages and Translation, majoring in German, Italian and French. Rabbi Gamedze speaks more than 14 languages.
- In 1986 he received his Honours at Oxford University, and
- In 1988 completed his Masters at Wits University in Johannesburg.
- In 1987 and '88 he was a sworn translator in the German language to the South African Supreme Court.
South Africans seem to be fascinated with him; a South African TV station even prepared a special documentary on his life.
During his studies he had a chance encounter with the Hebrew language. Following a growing interest, he took a course in Hebrew at Wits. This inspired a deep inner search, which became a pivotal point in his life.
At the end of '88 he traveled to Israel after being accepted by the Hebrew University to study for his PhD in Hebrew. Living in Israel led to an increased curiosity in Judaism, which he pursued by attending philosophy classes at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem. After finishing Ohr Sameach, he transferred to the Brisk Yeshiva in the Old City for his advanced studies. Rabbi Gamedze today lives in Jerusalem with his wife and two children.
Rabbi Natan was born Prince Nkosinathi Gamedze in 1963. It was actually Rabbi Natan̓s grandfather, not his father, who was the last king from the family to rule.
During the reign of the last Gamedze king, the British, who had recently defeated the Boers in a long and bloody war, toyed with the politics of the country, redrawing borders and brokering Swazi power. As part of the restructuring, the kingship was passed over to the rival Dlamini clan, the other large Swazi royal tribe.
The last of the Gamedze kings abdicated and spent his final years as a Christian pastor, while his brother took over as chief of the clan. But the clan was not entirely removed from favor. The son of that last king, Rabbi Natan's father, served as Swazi liaison to the British Empire in London, and later as Swazi minister of education. He raised a family of eight children who lived in royal comfort and wealth in the impoverished capital city of Mbabane.
The prince was sent to Johannesburg to study at the University of Witswatersrand. These were still the days of South African apartheid, but the first cracks in the system were showing. Being from the Swazi royal family, the young prince was not required to live in the dilapidated black sections of the city, but instead was one of the first black students to be allowed to live in the white dormitories of the university.
Languages were his passion. He admits today to speaking thirteen languages fluently, but I suspect he is being modest and actually speaks far more. In any case, the thirteen do not include languages he “merely” understands completely and works with in his studies, such as Talmudic Aramaic and Yiddish.
At “Wits” University he studied a series of European and African languages. One day he was sitting next to a student who was doing some homework in a language with bizarre-looking letters. “What alphabet is that?” he asked. “Hebrew,” was the response.
The following semester the Russian language class he wished to take was fully booked. So instead he signed up to study Hebrew. Most of the other students in the class were non-religious white Jewish students with whom he would form many long-lasting friendships.
His brothers and sisters poked fun at him for his choice of courses, nicknaming him “The Rabbi” in jest. Toward the end of his studies there, he was approached by an Israeli professor on sabbatical from Hebrew University. The professor suggested that the prince come to Jerusalem on fellowship to continue his language studies. He jumped at the chance and entered Hebrew University in 1988.
In the fall of 1989, he traveled to Rome while Hebrew University was shut for the religious holidays. One morning he woke up in a hotel near the Vatican feeling hungry and went down to the breakfast room. Sitting there, he stared at the food, but each time he took some in his hand, his arm felt weary and seemed to resist the notion of carrying the food to his mouth.
Back in his room, he recalled that he had heard that Jews have one day a year when everyone, regardless of level of observance, fasts. Curius, he checked his Hebrew University calendar. Sure enough, this was that day – Yom Kippur.
But the real change in his life came a few days later. He stood in St. Peter
s Basilica in the Vatican and contemplated the centuries of suffering the Jews had experienced at the hands of the Church. It was there and then that he made up his mind. He was going to convert to Judaism.
In 1991 he formally converted. He was renamed Natan, the son of Abraham. But conversion was only the beginning. He had decided he wanted to do advanced rabbinic studies and become an ordained Orthodox rabbi. After finishing Ohr Sameach, he transferred to the Brisk Yeshiva in the Old City for his advanced studies.
In the sixteen years since he moved to Israel, he has gone back just once to Africa, where he had a highly emotional reunion with his family.
South Africa seemed like a different galaxy from the one he
d left. It was strange seeing black Africans actually in charge. But he was now the Jewish foreigner in his native land.
By Steven Plaut, a professor at Haifa University.