Next year in Harlem

Friday, July 18, 2003 — ‘Teach, Rabbi, teach!” punctuates the rabbi’s bar mitzvah sermon. “Make reverence to the Most High God,” he proclaims, and the congregation calls, “Amen! Hallelujah!” Turning to the bar mitzva boy, the rabbi says sternly, “And I want to tell you to study!” and the congregation, applauding, responds with a hearty “Amen!” The rabbi then admonishes, “When someone comes with the drugs or the cigarettes or whatever, say ‘No!’ to drugs. Think upon God. And pray to God almighty for your strength!” and the congregation replies with a hearty “Hallelujah!”

Unfolding before your eyes is a service at the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Harlem, one of six such congregations in the New York City metro area serving about 8,000 self-described Black Jews, and part of a greater community reaching Pennsylvania, Kansas, Florida, and other parts of the US.

Recognized or not, halachicly converted or not, some thousands of African Americans in the US are going to shul, maintaining kosher homes, nailing mezuzot to their doorposts, and celebrating Jewish holidays and their children’s bat and bar mitzvas.

The Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation was founded by Chief Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew (1892- 1973) in 1919. Today, the number of black Jews in the US is difficult to pin down. Estimates range from 40,000 (Encyclopedia of Black America) to 500,000 (Ascent magazine), though neither source reveals how it arrived at its figures, says Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, spiritual leader and president of Beth Elohim, Inc., a black synagogue in Saint Albans, New York. The eldest son of Chief Rabbi Levi Ben Levy, Sholomo studied Hebrew, archeology, and history at Tel Aviv University in 1985. In 1986 he received a BA from Middlebury College in Vermont, and in 1988, he received an MA from Yale University.

The problem of determining how many Black Jews there are in the US is complicated by the difficulty of determining who is a Black Jew, says Ben Levy. “If one simply took an affinity with the Old Testament and the observance of a few customs as a definition of being Jewish,” writes Ben Levy, “then one’s figures could be quite high, though very inaccurate because they would count as Black Jews segments of what is usually considered the Black Church.”

But Ben Levy says the straightforward halachic definition is not appropriate for this community either. “Since fewer than 10 percent of the… white Jews in America observe Orthodox Jewish Law, this standard cannot be applied to Black Jews unequivocally; nor could I verify [ritual] baths or pricked [sic] penises if I wanted to.”

Nor is conversion a clear issue for Ben Levy. “The fact that Orthodox rabbis hold that they are the sole arbiters of deciding who is a Jew negates the existence or exercise of a divine will that is not channeled through them first,” he says. “In contrast, the ceremony we use serves as a public acknowledgment of a spiritual transformation that has already taken place within the individual.”

Filmmaker Marlaine Glicksman is putting the finishing touches on The Commandment Keepers, a documentary that she directed and produced about the Black Jewish congregation in Harlem.

She agrees that it is hard to determine how many Black Jews there really are in America. “That question has been a perpetually difficult one for me to answer. The numbers are just very unclear and the answer to the question is made more difficult by the fact that Black Jews are not easily defined and do not loudly declare themselves.”

Glicksman says that the various groups that could be gathered under the Black Jewish umbrella include black Jews of mixed white Jewish and African descent, and “purely” black Jews, of which some practice Jewish customs and attend synagogue and some are secular. Then there are the Black Hebrews, many of whom live in Dimona, and the more radical Times Square Hebrews.

“There are also many who consider themselves Black Jews and don’t attend traditional synagogues, yet form some quite serious study groups on Shabbat and the holidays,” Glicksman says, adding, “In fact, there is a history of these Black Jewish study groups that precedes the formation of the Harlem congregation. One of the synagogue’s oldest members recounts his family’s ongoing Shabbat study group long before he became aware of the Commandment Keepers.”

Monica Wiggan, member of the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem, was one of the few Black Jews willing to be interviewed by The Jerusalem Post.

The 42-year-old administrative assistant and mother of two is a vegetarian who keeps a strictly kosher home.

“I buy all our foods only in the Lubavitch neighborhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and only certain kosher products from the health food store and regular supermarkets,” she says.

While her parents did not follow Judaism, Wiggan’s father told her that his parents and grandparents had practiced “Hebraic customs,” so that when Wiggan embraced Judaism, she says, she felt as if she was “coming home.”

Wiggan wears mostly Ethiopian garments, embroidered with a Star of David and fringes. All around her desk at work, she says, are Judaica items and pictures taken of her in Ethiopia with Ethiopian Beta Israel children. Her living room window faces the main street, and a menorah sits in the front window with a stuffed children’s Torahs on each side.

Wiggan was raised “to love and respect all people of different colors and backgrounds,” she says. She works indirectly with Kulanu, a Jewish organization that works with African and Sephardi Jews. She also claims to be “known in the Lubavitch neighborhood in Crown Heights,” where each Succot, she and her children “party with the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights – and boy, can they throw a party!”

Thus inspired by keeping the faith in New York, Wiggan – who says she has been to Israel many times, “spiritually” – has not yet visited the Jewish Holy Land. Moreover, she says she prefers to raise her children in the US, where religious observance has more meaning.

“I am very disappointed to learn how secular the State of Israel has become,” she says. “The Ethiopian Jews, who I have always looked up to and admired so highly, have almost abandoned their way of Torah observance since migrating to the State of Israel – not all, but some have.”

She adds that living outside of Israel is not entirely of her own choosing – and that the move to Israel would come at a time determined by a higher order.

“The Israeli people will come to see and believe that The Creator of the Universe scattered His people to the four corners of the earth due to their disobedience toward Him and His holy laws,” she says. “When He begins to re- gather us and return us back into the land we will be coming back not only white from Europe, but brown from Asia and black from Africa. We are not converts to Judaism. We are B’nai Yisrael from ancestry!”

Many African Americans who practice Judaism today maintain that they have always had a close affinity with the “Hebrews” of the Old Testament, says Ben Levy. Some describe memories of their parents salting their meat or abstaining from pork, while others recall traditions related to observing Shabbat, Passover, and Succot, even though in most cases these practices were fragmentary and observed by people who practiced Christianity as well.

Ben Levy writes that the emergence of Judaism among people of African descent in the first half of this century was made possible by “a strong religious tradition in the background of the person who became Jewish that embodied Jewish practices from an early but unclear source.”

The origins of these traditions may be traced to West Africa, where a number of tribes have customs so similar to those of Judaism that they may have an ancient connection with or descend from one of the ten lost tribes, he suggests.

A more recent connection with Jewish slave-owners and merchants in the Caribbean and North America could also have contributed to the religious cross-over. Either way, he says, there was a foundation – be it psychological, spiritual, or historical – that made some black people receptive to the direct appeal to Judaism that Matthew and others made to them in the early 1900s.

Matthew trained and ordained many of the rabbis who later founded synagogues in the United States and Caribbean. Closely associated with followers of Marcus Garvey, who organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1911, Matthew delivered a message described as one of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism. He strove to instill pride in a people who, says Ben Levy, “were being humiliated through institutionalized racism and cultural bigotry.”

Both Garvey and Matthew attempted to challenge old stereotypes that either minimized or excised a black presence in history or the Bible. They attacked the assumption that all the people in the Bible looked like Europeans, and claimed that the dark skin of the ancient Hebrews would classify them as black in today’s world. This was a revelation to thousands of black people, who had accepted the all-white biblical depictions without question.

The Black Jewish community continues to have its share of identity problems.

After decades of trying to find common ground with white Jews by speaking at white synagogues around the country and at B’nai Brith lodges internationally, and after repeated attempts to join the New York Board of Rabbis, Matthew concluded that the Black Jews would never be fully accepted by white Jews – and certainly not if they insisted on maintaining a black identity and independent congregations, says Ben Levy. Since Matthew’s death in 1973, there has been virtually no dialogue between white Jews and the Black Jews in America, he adds.

Glicksman agrees there is an acceptance problem. “The black community says they’re not really black if they’re Jewish, and the Jewish community says they’re not really Jewish if they’re black,” she says. “I find it extraordinary that the numbers of white Jewish people leaving their faith are so high, while members of this community hold on to who they are despite all the obstacles.”

Identity conflicts aside, for Wiggan, devotion blooms in a New York borough, and her faith is the key. “To wake up in the morning and recite the Modeh Ani is a blessing and a privilege,” she says. “To walk and dress in a respectable way is a blessing and a privilege. To keep the laws, statutes, and commandments as best as I can while still living here in the wilderness of North America is a blessing and a privilege.”

(BOX) Jewz in da Hood

Filmmaker Marlaine Glicksman is in the final stages of her documentary The Commandment Keepers, a profile of the Black Jewish synagogue of that name in Harlem, New York.

Glicksman, who was in Jerusalem recently for a project connected with the Ethiopian community here, was born in New York City. She grew up in a small town in which hers was the only Jewish family. Her parents did not maintain a kosher home, but they attended synagogue on the High Holy Days.

Glicksman attended Jewish afternoon school for a short time. “I didn’t really understand what they were doing there, and I had to miss school for it, and there was a lot of anti-Semitism in the suburbs of Rochester and Pittsford,” she recalls.

Ultra-thin with the whitest of skin, large eyes, and dark black hair, Glicksman has very full lips – “nigger lips,” her peers teased. Uncomfortable with the Catholics and the WASPs in the old colonial town where she grew up, Glicksman gravitated toward the black students from the time she was in junior high school.

Glicksman was interested in photography from a young age. “Even as a kid I loved photography,” she says.

Her fascination with the Black Jews began in the early 1990s. “One day I came across a photograph from the late 1920s. It was taken by the black photographer James Vanderzee and it depicted a Jewish congregation with a strong sense of yiddishkeit. The interesting thing was, all the people were black.”

“The photo somehow brought together my strong connection to black culture and my Jewish culture and community. It really encapsulated so much of who I was then and still am. It was such an inspiration for me. I never understood why Judaism was only a white religion,” she says.

Eager to learn more about Black Jews, Glicksman made straight for her local library and spent 18 months seeking information. “I thought I would write a screenplay. It seemed like a good way to question belief in this monolithic race and religion. People don’t think in nuance, they think that black people are all the same and Jewish people are all the same,” she says.

Learning that Black Jews have been in America since colonial times and that there were Black Jews in Africa as well, she also discovered that a number of New York Black Jews came from the Caribbean, where there was a strong Jewish presence in the 1700s.

“I was angry that this history was hidden,” she says. “Why wasn’t it discussed? Why wasn’t anyone putting the pieces together?”

Glicksman tracked down the addresses of black synagogues in New York and started to attend services. She was the only white person in the synagogue and the worshipers seemed to assume that she was a writer or a journalist. Although they had been “burned” in the past by journalists who had written about them unfavorably, or portrayed them as a curiosity, in 1992 the synagogue board accepted her proposal to make them the subject of a documentary.

Like most struggling filmmakers, Glicksman has had to work hard in other fields to support her true love. “All my savings and every spare cent go into my film,” says the single mother of three-year-old Yared. She has worked as a senior editor at Vibe magazine and at Esquire, as a screenwriter and consultant for a BBC and PBS American Cinema series, and taught screenwriting at New York University until finding her present position as a copy editor at Vogue.

Glicksman received a large grant from the Fund for Jewish Documentary Filmmaking, developed with a lead grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, in 1996, but hit a wall when the synagogue suddenly closed its doors to her after a Newsday reporter wrote an offensive article about the congregation, which led the board to bar journalists for a while.

“I had to back off,” she says, but she found a way to continue filming; a sister congregation gave her permission to film a wedding there.

Amidst debates on the nature of Jewish identity, Glicksman says her approach to the Black Jews is one of “total acceptance.” Explaining her theory as to why this reticent community has opened its doors to her, she muses, “Maybe, because I have always felt that I straddle two worlds, I am interested in others who do the same. I love to be among people of different cultures, but more to discover our similarities than our differences.”


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