Vol. 4, no.2 (Spring 2001)
ISSN 1094-902X




Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism. Edited by Yvonne Chireau and Nathaniel Deutsch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xii, 241. $49.95, cloth; $18.95, paper.

According to the editors' introduction, "this book addresses shared elements in black and Jewish sacred life, as well as the development and elaboration of new religious identities by African Americans." (3) This is a graceful way of stating that there is really more than one book here. First, this book deals with the phenomenon of black Judaism - or Judaisms. This is really the core of its subject matter. Second, it spirals out from the center by concerning itself with some of the ways that African American Muslims and Christians have interacted with Jews and Judaism. Each of these are vast topics, and there is no pretension to completeness in the editors' presentation of their work. Instead, they have given us a kaleidoscopic volume which serves as a thought-provoking introduction over broadly ranging subject areas in which there has been all-too-little scholarship.

Let us follow the editors' procedure by beginning at the center, later seeing where their spirals will lead us. Black Judaism is not a simple movement to describe. It comes in many different varieties. As Yvonne Chireau points out in her opening essay, perhaps the greatest common ground for black Jews was Ethiopianism, which incorporated a strong belief that the story of the Exodus (and the Hebrew Scriptures in general) had been truly the history of black people, along with an unshakeable confidence in the future of African and African-diaspora peoples, as reflected in Psalm 68:31: "Ethiopia shall stretch forth its hands to God." The earliest forms of black Judaism, emerging in the 1880s and 1890s, incorporated selected Jewish motifs into a predominantly Christian thought pattern. Two widely traveled former railroad workers were responsible for the two earliest organizations. F. S. Cherry established the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth for All Nations, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1886, and William S. Crowdy founded the Church of God and Saints in Christ in Lawrence, Kansas, about ten years later. The Judaism of the latter group was evidenced by "the circumcision of newborn boys, use of the Jewish calendar, wearing of skullcaps, observance of Saturday as the Sabbath, and celebration of Passover," but these co-existed with such Christian customs as "baptism, consecration of bread and water as the body and blood of Christ, and footwashing." (60)

Black nationalism, aided by the explosive growth of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, was a powerful added impetus for founding new African American Jewish movements in the 1920s. Arnold Josiah Ford, the UNIA's choir master, became the rabbi for one of Harlem's black Jewish congregations in 1923 and eventually emigrated to Ethiopia. The largest and best-known of the Harlem black Jewish congregations was the Commandment Keepers, founded by a former Protestant minister of Afro-Caribbean extraction, Wentworth Matthew, sometime during the 1920s. Matthew's congregation began with a Jewish-Christian synthesis similar to those forged by Cherry and Crowder, but he slowly moved toward a more orthodox Judaism and sought recognition from white Ashkenazi Jewish rabbis. Matthew applied twice to become a member of the New York Board of Rabbis, but deeming his observance of Jewish law not to be sufficiently pure, Matthew suffered rejection both times. After Matthew's death in 1973, his scrupulously Jewish orientation toward black Judaism, was carried forward by Capers Funnye (pronounced "fu-nay"), who is now rabbi of the Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. Funnye's Judaism is thoughtfully profiled by Bernard Wolfson.

Meanwhile, a dynamic new black Jewish community coalesced in Chicago in the Abeta Hebrew Israel Cultural Center, urgently emphasizing apocalyptic and African emigrationist themes. This group is profiled in two articles in this volume, one by Merrill Singer and the other by Ethan Michaeli. The Hebrew Israelites, as they came to be called, bought land in Liberia, and many of their members emigrated there. Encountering numerous problems in Liberia, the Hebrew Israelites decided to leave, but instead of returning to the United States, the group's leader, Ben Ammi Carter, urged a renewed emigration, this time to Israel. Admitted to Israel on tourist visas, the Hebrew Israelites settled in the towns of Dimona and Arad in the Negev Desert. Their Judaism has several unusual aspects to it. For example, the male leaders, claiming Biblical precedents, have multiple wives. Ben-Ammi is venerated by his followers and seen as a possible messiah. After more than two decades of disputes with the Israeli government, some members of the group were eventually granted legal residence status in Israel, although most retained their American citizenship.

A far more evanescent type of Judaism was manifested by a fascinating group founded by Malachi Z. (originally Dwight) York. York's denomination began with an Islamic orientation, as the Ansaaru Allah Community, analyzed in this volume by Kathleen Malone O'Connor. But then, for a brief period in 1992, Ansaaru Allah switched to a Jewish identity, changing its name to the Nubian Islaamic Hebrews. One stated reason for this switch was the increasing hostility toward Muslims in Western countries, something that York saw as placing his followers at increased risk of suffering violence. In 1994, York changed the group's name again, this time to Holy Tabernacle Ministries. The new Christian orientation of the group, however, did retain much of the Jewish teachings of the preceding two years.

You won't find this kind of linear, chronological presentation of black Judaism in the book, although it is fairly easy to assemble yourself, using the index. The Nubian Islamic Hebrews, Rabbi Capers Funnye, and the Hebrew Israelites are the only black Jewish representatives and organizations to be thoroughly and thoughtfully presented in the book. Cherry, Crowdy, Ford, and Matthew are given only brief and often repetitive treatment in this book. Rastafarians also incorporate many black Jewish motifs, but the editors quite correctly maintain that an adequate exploration of that movement is outside the scope of their volume. The forthcoming work on Crowdy and the Church of God and Saints in Christ by Timothy Miller (not a contributor to this volume) should be quite helpful in regard to that early strand of black Judaism.

Still, what the editors and authors have provided us in the way of analysis of black Judaism is far more than what was available in the scholarly literature before. Certainly there is a large "insider" literature on some of these movements, most notably the Hebrew Israelites and the Nubian Islaamic Hebrews. Three decades ago, Howard Brotz wrote a brief scholarly treatment of Matthew's Commandment Keepers, entitled The Black Jews of Harlem (Schocken, 1970), and various books on the sociology of religion including those by Arthur Fauset (1944) and Hans Baer and Merrill Singer (1992) have included brief profiles of one or another black Jewish movement. This is the first scholarly book, however, that provides any serious, in-depth comparisons and contrasts between the various strands of black Judaism, even if these contrasts are mostly implicit. A chronological outline of black Judaism would have been a useful addition to the book. It would have been nice if the editors had taken a stronger guiding hand and initiated more conversation between their essayists.

One topic on which three essays do helpfully provide some cross-illumination is the ambivalent relationship of black Jews to Louis Farrakhan. Wolfson, interviewing black Jews at a nationwide gathering held at Funnye's synagogue, found a wide diversity of viewpoints on the matter of relating to Farrakhan, with some favoring condemnation, while others, including Funnye himself, worked together with Farrakhan on the basis of a principled, if sometimes critical, engagement. According to Michaeli, Ben Ammi Carter of the Hebrew Israelites "felt a connection to Farrakhan because of their shared goal to improve the spiritual and material conditions of African Americans" (85), but Ben Ammi also felt that Farrakhan's language associated with the Million Man March of a "Day of Atonement" was an inappropriate use of the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur, and hence the March was an event that he could not support. Focusing on the other side of the conversation, Nathaniel Deutsch, writing on "The Proximate Other: The Nation of Islam and Judaism," notes that "Farrakhan's views on Jews and Judaism run the gamut from genuine admiration to condemnation, from a desire to emulate to a desire to displace." (112) The shared ethos of the contributors to this volume, including both a desire to deal fairly with both sides of a highly contentious argument and a refusal to stoop to oversimplifications and caricatures, is well displayed by the three essayists' way of handling this issue.

The final four essays in the book (in Part III, "African American Christianity and Judaism") are each fascinating in their own right, but they do not evidence any unifying theme. Allen Callahan examines the use of the rebuilding motifs in the Book of Nehemiah by some contemporary African American ministers. Susannah Heschel provides an intimate, heart-warming, yet illuminating examination of the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr., and her father, Hebrew Scriptures scholar and civil rights activist Abraham Heschel. Karla Goldman provides an interesting examination of the process of transformation of Jewish synagogues into African American churches by focusing on the city of Cincinnati. This transformation involves many alienating processes as, for example, the former Jewish occupants of the edifice attempt to remove all Hebrew inscriptions, but from Goldman's viewpoint, the alienation is often taken to unnecessary extremes, especially considering similar appropriations of a common Biblical and prophetic heritage by the outgoing and incoming occupants of the sacred edifice. The final chapter is a chilling analysis by Elizabeth McAlister of "‘the Jew' in the Haitian imagination." She closely examines anti-Jewish motifs in Haitian culture, e.g., the Easter week burning of effigies of Judas, who comes to stand for Jews as Christ-killers in general. McAlister theorizes that the Haitians derived much of this material from medieval European culture. In a further unusual twist, some practitioners of Voodoo call themselves Jews in an attempt to embrace a "negative cultural stereotype," and the psychosocial dynamics behind this development are fully analyzed also.

This book should be widely read. It contains evocative subject matter and reliable scholarship that can engage college and university students at any level. Over the past decade at Florida A & M University, I've watched as my students have been fascinated and excited by the representatives of several of these Black Jewish movements as they have visited our campus. At last I have a book to recommend that can provide them a thoughtful follow-up to that kind of stimulating religious encounter.

Stephen W. Angell, Florida A & M University

© 2001 The North Star. All Rights Reserved.