Kenyan political exile finds Jewish home, soul in S.F

Kenyan exile Siele Rotich, 27, couldn't help thinking of his grandfather during his bar mitzvah Saturday at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

"He loved Americans for the freedoms they represented," Rotich recalled. "`Americans don't concern themselves with where you came from as much as where you go,'" his grandfather, who lived to 105, told him.

Rotich often thought of those words this past decade while he struggled to find a social and spiritual niche here, after fleeing Kenyan political persecution at the age of 17, and again when he started a record label for black musicians, Elan Media of San Francisco.

But it was in the music business that Rotich discovered that his grandfather's American dream is not so simple.

"Black artists perceive that the entertainment industry is controlled by Jews," Rotich says. "Artists know them as big Scrooges. They may not have been paid. Some come to the label thinking, `Finally, a black person.'

"They tell me, `You've got to learn to work with these Jews because they will f–k you over.'"

To which Rotich responds, "They won't f–k me over. I'm a Jew."

The ups and downs of the music industry aren't easy for any of its players, but it can be particularly trying for a Kenyan Jew who seeks hip hop, R&B and other black music acts. By revealing himself as a Jew, Rotich says he risks losing some of his black clients.

Although he belongs to two peoples, Rotich found himself falling into a cultural gap between blacks and Jews. The black anti-Semitism made him realize that he felt more at home in the Jewish community than in the black community — something that his grandfather, David Collier, had discovered two generations earlier on the other side of the world.

Collier had resurrected his Jewishness after being raised among Kipsigas, the fourth largest people in Kenya known for their farming and athletic prowess. His birthparents had been killed when he was an infant.

Because of his mysterious background, Collier was never accepted in the Kipsigas community. This caused the young man a great deal of pain, so he set out to the city of his birth to find out what he could about his biological family. There, he discovered relatives who chronicled his Jewish lineage all the way to King Solomon, Rotich says.

"There are only about 400 [native Kenyan] Jews left, but we are part of the lost tribe," he maintains.

Collier could not be married off on account of his outsider caste. So, he enlisted in the British army, which accepted the 6-foot, 9-inch soldier. He traveled around the world and also studied Torah every chance he got.

Collier eventually returned to Kenya, married an Abyssinian Jewish woman and raised a family. Rotich says Collier passed on to his 10 children a sense of military discipline, the value of education and a love for the Bible.

Rotich noted the uncanny parallel between his and his grandfather's lives of wandering and subsequently returning to Judaism.

"Blacks may see me as part of their community, but my Jewish friends really gave me a sense of belonging," Rotich says. For the first time ever, "I began to think seriously, I may belong somewhere. And it's in Judaism."

Though he was born Jewish, Rotich was never confirmed in his religion. Last week at Emanu-El, the emigre finally made official his marriage to spiritual life as he chanted his Torah and haftorah portions to the synagogue.

"A bar mitzvah was something that I missed and I felt that a part of my identity was not complete. You want to be at peace. Now is the time, so I can move on with my life."

Rotich's elder brother flew in from Kenya for the occasion, though he missed the ceremony when his plane delayed. It was the first blood relative Rotich had seen since he left his homeland.

The exile says his faith gave him the courage to adapt to the American lifestyle when he immigrated in 1987.

"When you come from Africa and land in New York City, it's a jungle," he says. "I made the Scriptures my friend and lived by them, and that's what got me through. I went to synagogue and started making friends."

Still, the teen emigre yearned for a meaningful path and familial relations. He constantly thought of returning to his family.

A New York Jewish friend who understood his anguish suggested that the West Coast might be a better fit.

"People in the West are more laid back and sociable. There are also more opportunities for start-up [businesses], which I was interested in," Rotich said.

He decided to give it a shot, and enrolled in a communications program at Stanford in 1990.

Rotich also worked as a developer of alternative energy resources in the Third World and started a T-shirt business in Palo Alto just before he launched his music publishing company.

The five-year-old label specializes in providing artists with creative freedom from the lyrics to the package design, which is unheard of elsewhere in the music industry. Rotich says he tries hard to be a friend to his struggling musicians, from giving them a place to sleep to buying Christmas presents.

"We take care of them in the Elan family," he says.

But while the Elan Media family has prospered, political troubles for his Kenyan family have worsened. His father, Siele Ayub, narrowly escaped death last year when political assassins followed him in the morning fog down a lonely two-lane highway near Kericho and ran his car off the road, Rotich recounts. Siele Ayub, who had been mayor of the city, lay in a coma for weeks before making a full recovery.

Rotich's sister was not as lucky. A Kenyan assassin followed her to India, where she was studying, and stabbed her to death, Rotich says.

Before Siele Ayub entered the Kericho political fray in the early 1970s, life had been relatively trouble-free. He had moved to the town with his family several years earlier. He had his own farm and also ran a successful metalsmithing business.

"We were the only family from the immediate area who were outsiders. We started from nothing and became the most prosperous family."

Siele Ayub became a political voice in town as chairman for Planned Parenthood and as a member of the local chamber of commerce. As an outsider and non-traditional figure, he rocked the political foundation for years before becoming mayor in 1983, Rotich says.

The grassroots politician promoted Kericho, which became the third largest tea-growing region in the world. He secured resources from his international contacts to bring running water to every home, his son says.

"He would find his own ways to fund a project when the local ministry didn't go for it. He would bypass them.

"It wasn't a homogeneous community, and that made him succeed. It drew a lot of resentment from the establishment who saw him in bed with [local] Indians, Muslims and other non-Kipsigas.

"They painted him as a long-nosed Jew, as a blood-sucking foreigner…They poisoned our farm animals and harassed us," Rotich says.

When Siele Ayub lost the 1987 mayoral race, he also lost his status as well as the bodyguard protection that came with his job. It was then that longtime threats from political enemies turned to violence.

The harangued politician feared for Rotich who spoke frankly and showed no fear toward the family enemies. The youth knew that he would have to leave to live freely.

After years of searching since his exodus, Rotich says he has finally found a home at Emanu-El.

"When you don't expect love and it comes your way it takes you by surprise," he says of the warm welcome he found there.

"I'm an outsider. That's not a bad thing. But Jews are Jews. We share a common heritage."

Apparently, more than a few in the bar mitzvah audience felt the same way.

"The whole congregation was crying," Rotich says.

And he recalls an elderly Russian emigre telling him in broken English, "I don't know what you're saying but I feel it."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.