There is a fascinating array of combinations of African and Jewish identity. The best known in ashkenazi American Jewish circles is probably the Ethipian Jewish community in Israel. It may come as a surprise to most white Jews that at one point there were more Black Nationalist Jews than there were Black Nationalist Muslims in the US. Several years ago while visiting friends in New York, Max Levis asked me whether I’d like to join him for shul the next morning at a Black shtiebel. It sounded interesting so we walked to Harlem.
When we arrived I found a congregation the likes of which I had never experienced. First, it was quite hard to get in. Who are you? Where are you from? How did you hear about us? Lots of questions came before the door was opened. When we went upstairs to the sanctuary it looked rather like a small frum shul with a Hammond Organ. There were 9 guys and about 8 women there when we arrived separated into front and back sections. The guy on the bimah said, “great now we have a minyan.” They had the nylon tallitot like one would find in most suburban synagogues. Most of the davening followed the nusach and general musical modes i am used to finding in a conservative or orthodox shul. Things proceeded quite ordinarily, except that Max and I were the only white guys, until after the putting away the torahs (or maybe before taking them out, i don’t remember exactly) the shaliach tzibur turned to face the open ark and torahs, lifted his palms and began to pray in english in preacher’s singsong intonation for the benefit of the congregation. It reminded me of some of the intercessory stories about the Baal Shem Tov. I heard and studied. The other leader gave a homely of sorts. He spoke about that week’s torah portion after the full portion had been read aloud from the scroll. While he was speaking the congregation responded with phrases such as “preach it rabbi”, “oh yes”, and “say it loud”. It was a lot like the response to preaching i heard while I was visiting churches in the south.
The congregation in Harlem was pretty clearly similar to ashkenazi congregations of various sorts. This contrasted with a congregation i met while at Brown Hillel. That group was much less clearly aesthetically and theologically similar in the way they designed their worship to what I am used to. They would occasionally say Jesus and fall into the broader camp of Black Israelites who mix Judaism and Christianity. Mike Rozensher sent me the clip below. It is a fascinating profile of a Black Shul in Chicago from WTTW Channel 11′s Chicago Tonight.
Beth Shalom members mostly consider themselves Hebrew Israelites. Many of the Hebrew Israelite movement concentrated on bible study but not the torah service or shacharit/mincha/maariv. This is discussed at 4:43 in the clip above. Since the 1940s a shul in New York has used full chanting with shacharit, the torah service, and a full kriyah. I presume the shul refered to is the one in Harlem i described earlier. The Chicago Congregation’s Rabbi Funnye was the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
Some folks who are Black and Israelite are also halchically Jewish but most haven’t converted and have an unclear connection with Rabbinic Judaism. How should we regard folks in these congregations? We should clearly be understanding their history, culture, and identities better and connect more. Perhaps we can share niggunim and work together towards common causes. Should we accept the claim that folks are Jewish for ritual purposes? Should one offer an aliyah or invite a Hebrew Israelite to make Kiddush? Would anyone in that community make the claim that they are rabbinic/halachic Jews?
Really, I have more questions than answers having experiences several wildly different folks with combinations of African and Jewish identity from the shuls in mentioned above to the guys in tunics i encountered at the subway station while growing up in philadelphia. those guys preached on the sidewalk with mics and generators about things like how real descendants of the Israelites are black and invented Kung Fu. The identity questions are fascinating and complicated. In many ways the Exodus narrative speaks more loudly and clearly to American descendants of Slaves than descendants or European merchants. How does one gain the right to a narrative? Who is legitimate? Frankly, I don’t have a lot of good answers, only interest.
Here is a pair of resources in case folks are interested: