Hi, I’m MaNishtana.
Now, before we start, I’d like us to chant a little mantra.
You know how a square is a rhombus, but a rhombus is not a square? It’s kinda like that, except the opposite:
Black Jews are not Hebrew-Israelites, and Hebrew-Israelites are not Black Jews. Got that? Great. Repeat it aloud a couple of times. Good? Now add this part to it: Hebrew-Israelites are NOT part of the Black Jewish community. If you hear someone say “the Hebrew-Israelite community” and then they pause and add “the Black Jewish community” as if the two are synonyms for one another? You can stop them right there. Because they are wrong.
Thoroughly. And completely.
Are there Black Jews whose first personal or familial exposure to Judaism was through the Hebrew-Israelite movement? Yes. And Malcolm X’s first exposure to Islam was through the Nation of Islam. And then he went to Mecca and became a real Muslim. Because the Nation of Islam and Five Percenters–while spouting Islamic-ish ideas–are not part of Islam. They are not Muslims. They are Black Nationalism mixed with a dash of Islam. And Hebrew-Israelites are to Judaism what the Nation of Islam/Five Percenters are to Islam.
It’s confusing, I know.
After all, hardly an article written on actual Black Jews can be written without SOME kind of mention of one of the varied Hebrew-Israelite sects, thereby portraying that the two exist in the same sphere. Which they don’t.
Oftentimes, people will trot out Temple Beth-El Church of Gd Saints of Christ of Virginia, Congregation Temple Beth-El of Philadelphia, or, as is all the rage most recently, the Commandment Keepers of Harlem, and paint this picture of them being the introduction of Judaism to African-American folk, valiantly withstanding the battering of the White Jewish community on one side and the non-Jewish Black community on the other while just trying to keep an observant lifestyle. In fact this new film Commandment Keepers by Marlaine Glicksman, “explores the under appreciated–and largely unknown–existence of the only African-American Jewish community in Harlem.”
Except it doesn’t. Nor is it an exploration of the “the past and present history of Black Jews”. For that to happen, people kinda need to be Jews.
To elaborate, to be a Jew, one’s mother must be Jewish (or father if you subscribe to the Reform school of thought). If neither one of your parents are, then to be Jewish one must decide to actually, y’know, JOIN THE JEWISH PEOPLE. If you have made no formal declaration, ever, to ANY denomination of Judaism–halachic permissibility of conversions across the denominations aside–or undergo any rituals whatsoever under the auspices of the people you are claiming to be a part of, then you are not ANY kind of Jewish. AT ALL. It doesn’t matter HOW “observant” you are.
Enter the Hebrew-Israelite/Black Hebrew movement and this brief Wikipedia snippet with accompanying history overview:
“While Black Christians traditionally have identified spiritually with the Children of Israel, they never claimed to be descendants of the Israelites. In the late 19th century among some African-Americans, an identification with the ancient Hebrews developed into an identification as ancient Hebrews.”
1896: William S. Crowdy, a former railroad worker, has a “vision” and begins preaching that African-Americans are descended from the ancient Israelites. Forms the Church of Gd Saints of Christ congregation in Virginia which eventually becomes known as Temple Beth-El. It describes itself as “the oldest African-American congregation in the United States that adheres to the tenets of Judaism.” Kinda hard when “Saints of Christ” is in your charter name. Neither Crowdy or his congregants convert to any denomination of Judaism.
1919: Wentworth Arthur Matthew begins preaching that African-Americans are descendants of the Israelites and founds the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of the Living God Pillar & Ground of Truth, Inc, claiming himself and his congregants to be descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba–despite the fact that neither he or any of his congregants are actually Ethiopian. Neither he or any of his congregation convert to Judaism as they believe that they in fact are the true Jews and White Jews are European Khazarian converts, yet Matthew ordains dozens of Black “rabbis”.
1951: Louise Elizabeth Dailey founds Bethel Holy Commandment Church in Philadelphia. In 1973 they stop preaching about Jesus and decide to abandon the New Testament. Neither Dailey or her congregants convert to any denomination of Judaism.
[*When I say "none converted", I mean people who stayed with the congregation. As I said before, some Black Jewish families come from people who were Hebrew Israelites and then, dun dun dun, converted.]
Now, see, it’s kinda hard to say that you are “observant Jews” or that you “adhere to the tenets of Judaism” when you don’t do one very entry-level thing: convert.
If you claim to follow Judaism, then you know that–even if you ARE descendants of Jews–the fact that your practice has been “lost” over some generations means that you STILL have to go through a conversion, even if its a lesser version of what actual converts have to go through. See: anusim, conversos, Igbo Jews, Kaifeng Jews, et al. And those are all communities with MUCH less of an ambiguity concerning their origins.
So pretty much, if you’re a bunch of Black Christian folk who just up and decide one day that you are actually Jews, largely based on “feeling” Jewish essentially, that’s fine. But feeling like you’re Jewish doesn’t make you Jewish anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car. You actually need to do the do.
For example, I can’t get a bunch of friends together, decide to study anatomy and physiology REALLY intensively, declare ourselves doctors, and tell people it’s totally legit for us to perform surgery on them. Because that’s illegal. I might just very well have the necessary knowledge and skill to perform open heart sugery. But unless I’ve actually taken the MCATs, gone to medical school, and received my M.D., I’m NOT a doctor. And DEFINITELY not a surgeon. It doesn’t matter that that’s not how one used to became a doctor 400 years ago in medieval France or 3000 years ago in ancient Greece or whatever. Because this is how things operate NOW.
Now, aside from the general confusion Hebrew-Israelites cause vis a vis identifying as Black Jews (which, by the way, is a new development. Before, they were content to call themselves “Hebrew Israelites” or “Black Hebrews”), what’s even more infuriating is how permissive our enlightened liberal white Jewish brethren are.
It’s like if it even looks like Judaism they’ll fall over themselves to accept it and say it’s ok, like they’re afraid of getting wished to the cornfield or something. Despite the fact that a large majority of Hebrew-Israelite dress, worship and ideology is either counter-Jewish thought or very obviously Judaism-plated Christianity. It’s all very emperor’s new clothes.
If the tables were turned however, and the psuedo-Jews were white, there wouldn’t be any of this nonsense. If those same white Jews walked into a white “synagogue” on Shabbat–with the elaborate costumes and preachiness and everything-but-the-Jesus gospel songs and organs and tambourines and whatnot–they’d very quickly step back outside to see if they somehow stumbled into a Seventh Day Adventist church. Put it in blackface though and they’re willing to ignore all the glaring evidence against it. They commiserate with these congregations on the “White Jews don’t accept us as Jews because we’re Black” boat, instead of just straight up saying “Um, they don’t accept you as Jews because you’re actually NOT Jews, like, at all. You just HAPPEN to also be Black.”
What’s additionally sad is that not only do us Black Jews who state these glaring facts get considered as being elitist or self-hating or whatever, but Hebrew-Israelites believe that the “open-minded” white Jewish folk who are accepting and including them regard them as equals, when in reality, they are actually patronizing and pitying them.
It’s sort of like the “whistling dog” syndrome. Sure, the dog can’t do it very well and all the fur in its mouth kinda muffles the sound, but how much whistling were you expecting a dog to be able to do in the FIRST place? So it’s really amazing he can do it at ALL. Swap out “whistling dog” with “Hebrew-Israelite” and you get “Aww, it’s okay that you can’t do the Jewish so good, but gosh darn it here’s some credit for trying. You want a treat?”
Now if you REALLY wanna talk about the past and present history of Black Jews, talk about Billy Simmons, the first recorded–emphasis on recorded–Black Jew in America. Talk about the converted black slaves who fought for the Confederacy. Talk about the Igbo Jews who got swept up with their Nigerian countrymen and became part of American slavery. Talk about why synagogues had rules in their constitutions which banned “people of color” and declared their congregations to be for “white Israelites only”. But don’t talk to me about Hebrew-Israelites and tell me that’s where Black American Jews came from and who they are.
Do the research.