Professor Sholomo Levy chooses field of study close to home
For Sholomo Levy, history is more than a matter of intellectual curiosity. It lies at the core of his identity.
Levy, 42, an assistant professor of history at Northampton Community College, is both black and Jewish.
He has pursued both facets of his identity through his scholarship and his spiritual practice. “On the one hand, I teach American history,” he said, “and on the other hand, I’m an ordained rabbi.”
A graduate of Middlebury College, Levy later earned his master’s degree from Yale and is completing work on his Ph.D. from Columbia University. His thesis and dissertation have focused on black-Jewish relations and the history of black Jews in New York, respectively.
He came to Northampton after working at Harvard as an editor on the African American National Biography with renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates. Northampton seemed a good fit; the biography project was wrapping up, and Levy wanted an academic schedule that would allow him to finish his Ph.D.
Still, his identity poses inherent questions for some people, especially white Jews. How can someone possess two identities that seem, on the surface, to be so disparate?
As it turns out, the answer lies in the past – specifically the 1920s.
During that time, African-Americans were consciously defining their culture, including religion.
“This was a moment in history when everything was on the table and they were forming their identity,” Levy said. The prior decades had seen enormous change for African-Americans, including emancipation from slavery, efforts to reconstruct the American South, and the Great Migration from the rural south to urban centers.
One of the leading black voices in the 1920s was Marcus Garvey, whose Afro-centric vision and Universal Negro Improvement Association attracted throngs of followers nationwide. The association sought to promote racial pride, and economic and cultural self-sufficiency. Inspired by Garvey, many black Americans looked to Africa to better understand their history, heritage and prospects for the future.
As Levy put it, “What were we before we became slaves in America?”
Religion was part of this question. Around the same time, the Nation of Islam began to attract adherents. But some thinkers, like Arnold Ford, felt the pull of Judaism. He traced his lineage back to Africa and the tribes of ancient Israel. After all, Judaism, like Christianity and Islam, has its roots in the Middle East, a region straddling Africa and Asia. According to the Bible, the tribes of Israel dispersed through Egypt and Syria. Some interpretations had them moving beyond and into Africa during later epochs.
Seen in this context, being both black and Jewish was not so contradictory. “It’s as plausible as being Christian,” Levy said.
In the Biography on which he worked at Harvard, Levy describes Ford as “the most important catalyst for the spread of Judaism among African Americans.” Ford worked closely with Garvey’s association and sought to influence the religious direction of black Americans. In fact, he served on a committee charged with determining “the Future Religion of the Negro.”
Ford attracted followers. One was Rabbi Wentworth Matthew, who founded the Commandments Keepers congregation in Harlem.
It was into Matthew’s congregation that Levy’s father wandered one day. The experience changed his life, and that of his family. “It was an epiphany for him, a revelation,” Levy said.
At the time, Levy’s father still went by his given name, Lawrence McKethan. But soon after experiencing Matthew’s service, he started thinking of himself as a Jew. Levy’s father eventually converted or “returned” the preferred term among the community of black Jews and changed his name to Levi Ben Levy.
Though he had been raised in Fayetteville, N.C., in a Baptist home and was the son of a deacon in the church, Levi Levy had developed a high regard for the Old Testament, with its narratives of suffering and justice.
Judaism also appealed to Levy’s father theologically. For one, it was the religion that Jesus himself practiced. It also offered a direct connection to God. “We worship the same God as Christians, but we don’t use a mediator or intercessor,” Levy said. When he was a Christian, Levi Levy came to see that he had been praying to Jesus all along, not to God.
Levy practices a version of the faith that is closest to Modern Orthodoxy. This branch of the faith promotes strict adherence to Jewish law, while acknowledging the realities of modern life. As per tradition, Levy wears a yarmulke on his head, maintains what he calls a biblically kosher diet he will eat meat and milk, but not pork or shellfish, observes Jewish law and worships in a synagogue that separates men and women.
But his synagogue, Beth Elohim, in St. Albans, N.Y., also embraces more contemporary sensibilities. It fully recognizes the equality of women and “affirms the brotherhood of all people who worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob without regard to race, tradition, or terminology,” according to its Web site.
Levy also drives to his synagogue to observe the Sabbath. In observance of that holiday, strictly Orthodox Jews are not allowed to operate machinery, use electricity or work.
Levy’s style of observance is also a by-product of history. When Ford and Matthew were forming and returning to their Jewish identities, the predominant branch of American Judaism was Orthodoxy. It proved to be a double-edged sword. White Jews at the time were preoccupied with assimilating and being seen as white. This left them little room to welcome non-white Jews into the fold.
“While the black press accepted the validity of the black Jews,” Levy wrote in the Biography, “the white Jewish press was divided.” Quoting an article in Newsweek magazine in the 1930s, Levy wrote that some ridiculed “King Solomon’s black children” and mocked Matthew’s efforts to “teach young pickaninnies Hebrew.” As a result, black Judaism developed apart from mainstream, white Judaism.
Levy said white Jews still tend to be skeptical about his religious identity. “White Jews want to know if I keep kosher or if my mother was Jewish,” he said, referring to two tests of Jewish identity.
But the black community takes his faith at face value, he said. In part, it is because that community has historically cast a wider net, counting as its own even those of mixed racial lineage, he said. “Black people have to accept people as white as Colin Powell and as black as Michael Jordan.”
Today, Levy estimated there are, at most, some 40,000 black Jews in America. Their representatives have included the entertainer, Josephine Baker, the legal scholar Lani Guinier and the writers Walter Mosley, Jamaica Kincaid and James McBride. Some, like Kincaid, converted, while others were the products of intermarriage.
Their contributions, Levy noted, are far disproportionate to their numbers.