A letter to James, who had the same Buddhist teacher as me—Nagy.
You told me that a new friend of yours wanted to connect with Hebrew Israelites.
I found the group’s headquarters in Los Angeles.
4395 Leimert Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90008
They should be able to connect him with like minded folk.
Times Square with my dad—in filthy old New York City of 1985. Stabbings rarely happen in the daytime, but they happen. Disnification is decades away.
We are leaving Colony Records at 49th and Broadway. Dad bought me two Bill Cosby, one George Carlin, and three Richard Pryor cassettes—which he will keep in his closet in individual bags and dole out to me as “prizes” over the next weeks or months. I can’t remember exactly why and when I’d ask for a cassette. Just that he doled them out piecemeal.
When we get to the street, we see Black men and women in royal blue and purple, beautiful African-inspired outfits featuring accents of silver menorahs and stars of David.
There is a banner with Hebrew lettering that I can’t read.
I’m confused—they are using what I was told were my group’s symbols—but they don’t look like me.
Dad and I listen to their street preaching African-American-gospel, call-and-response-style.
“Exodus is a prophecy, not a history.”
“Amen. Amen. Amen. Say it again.”
“Exodus is not a book of historical liberation, but a prophecy that we—God’s chosen people—would be enslaved for 400 years and then freed.”
“Genesis 13: Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘Your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.’”
“Amen. Amen. Amen. Say it again.”
“400 years of slavery to white Pharoah. And, now we—the true Israelites—are at the shores of freedom.”
I was told Exodus was a history book—our history, my history—not a prophecy for them.
I have inconsistent thoughts.
How can I know that they are wrong so I can be right?
Maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe I’ve been lied to?!
Contradictory information simultaneously occurring.
I’m right, right?
Dad and I turn to walk uptown.
It’s too uncomfortable.
I decide they are nuts.
I don’t examine this line of my thinking for decades—until I get your request for the mailing address of Hebrew Israelites.
Maybe it’s not either-or, but both-and.
Exodus can be about past, present and future redemption.
Isn’t that the point of Passover, anyway?
The seder ritual makes it clear that none of us are free unless we all are free.
(The question was rhetorical.)
I know a good number of Jews of color—descendants of African-American who have embraced the Judaism I know.
And, I have friends among the Abayudaya, Ugandan Jewish community, who just celebrated 100 years of practicing ‘mainstream’ Judaism.
The African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem (aka the Black Israelites, Black Hebrews, or Hebrew Israelites) are something different. They originate sometime in the early 1800s after we whites published and gave to African Americans what has come to be known as “the Slave Bible”—a heavily redacted version which includes the enslavement of Joseph’s descendants, but has no mention of Exodus, Moses or the movement of Israelites to freedom.
I wrote “we whites published” even though most of my readers probably feel I or they had nothing to do with a 1807 book made in London, England.
Saying “I didn’t do it” doesn’t help repair the harm done.
People who look like me did. For the people who look like the people who were harmed, the hurt is still there and needs to be addressed.
Tim Wise, an antiracist essayist, writes about waking up in New Orleans to a kitchen made messy by roommates who the night before made gumbo. After a few days of no one cleaning, Wise realized, “I might not have made this mess, this may not be my fault, but I’m going to clean it up, simply because I’m tired of living in the funk.”
Let me try an analogy from the other end of it—when I visited Berlin in 2019, I was heartened to see a sign at the train station mentioning “It was from this location from which we deported and killed our own citizens.”
In 1969, the African Hebrew Israelites gained international recognition after Ben Carter, a retired steelworker, claimed to be God’s representative on Earth and a cohort of his followers settled in Israel.
I admire anyone who claims to be God’s representative on Earth.
Also from the 1980’s:
The Hebrew Israelites got into altercations with the US government after raking in millions of dollars forging passports and airline tickets.
When your leader is God’s representative on earth, the laws of the land are a bit easier to ignore.
The Hebrew Israelites proclaim the 12 tribes of Israel to be Judah (Blacks), Benjamin (West Indian Blacks), Levi (Haitians), Ephraim (Puerto Ricans), Manasse (Cubans), etc.,
Me—100% European Ashkenazi Jew—a rabbi, no less—not a Jew, but a descendant of the Biblical Esau, not Jacob.
Some in the Hebrew Israelite community say my people are liars—quoting Revelations 3:9—saying my people worship at the synagogue of Satan.
In 2019, two shooters, who expressed interest in the Black Israelite movement—though not formally, killed a police detective and three people at a New Jersey kosher market.
Dearest Brother James,
I thank you for asking me to do a favor for someone who I thought hated me.
It has made me realize how short sighted I have been.
I cannot imagine any of your friends would hate me.
Your request has reminded me that there are good people everywhere.
Even in Pelican Bay State Prison.
I love you.