Enjoy the Kosher Collard Greens, But Understand This: Hebrew Israelites Have Something to Say to the Rest of the Jewish Community

Rabbi Tamar Manasseh is ordained in 2021. Image: Tamar Manasseh

At the 1995 Source Awards, Outkast’s Andre3000, delivered his now iconic shot across the bow in which he informed the hip-hop world that “The South Got Something to Say.” Moving from the margins of the culture to its center, the Atlanta emcee was putting the hip-hop community on notice that Southern rappers had their own style. They didn’t need to imitate the content, norms, and styles of their East Coast and West Coast colleagues, because they had a distinct and culturally-rooted approach to the genre. 

Similarly, in the wake of public outcries about antisemitism and religious animosity, Andre3000’s message to the world of hip-hop has foreshadowed Hebrew Israelite* and other African Hebrew communities’ more contemporary message to mainstream Judaism: “We have something important to say!” 

As W.E.B. DuBois reminds us in The Souls of Black Folk, African-American spirituality has often been treated as a problem by Western society. The Black indigenous forms of Christianity, Islam and Judaism that developed during both the Antebellum and post-Emancipation period placed the experiences of Black folks at their center, much to the chagrin of both African-American assimilationists and non-Black believers.

Whether detractors challenged their orthodoxy or their orthopraxy (i.e. whether they believed and practiced in the right ways), Black spirituality has often been criticized as either a poor imitation of traditional Abrahamic religion or an outright heresy—particularly if it strayed too far from the doctrines, rituals and conceptual norms of Europeans. 

In the contemporary American religious landscape, the problematizing of Black spirituality promotes what we call “slave-shaming.” The phrase is in quotes because technically there’s no such thing as a “slave.” From antiquity the label of “slave” was used to designate people as “things” (i.e. the living property of another). But no human being is merely a thing; to call someone a “slave” was a way of denigrating their full humanity. On the societal level, this denigration occurs when people’s religious or cultural practices are deemed inferior simply because they’re not adequate representations of “free” peoples’ cultures.

Historically, “slave-shaming” Black American spiritual traditions meant, at best, affirming a moral equivalency between enslaved and free persons, so as to disavow the notion that oppressed people’s spiritual traditions were superior in value to the religious faiths of human traffickers.

Take Hebrew Israelism, for example, the primary spiritual tradition embraced by the authors of this article. When writers outside of our community add the unique problem of ortho-ethnicity (right people and/or right identity) to the standard problems of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, inquiring minds read their words and ritually “slave-shame” our community. Being a Jew has always been about far more than simple religious adherence. It’s ethnic, cultural and historical.

So by narrowly focusing on cherry-picked doctrines and ignoring our actual Hebrew identities, writers outside our communities add shameful depictions of us to the ever-growing canon of literature on Black urban cults. As a result, the shaming of our community becomes a five-act liturgical drama that gets recycled in the general and Jewish media every two or three years: 

Act I: A celebrity comes across some aspect of Hebrew-Israelite thought. 

Act II: Hebrew-Israelites are depicted in the media as angry, hyper-strung Black cultists or criminals who are ignorant of basic categories of history and culture. 

Act III: Books, journal articles, newspaper stories, documentaries and dissertations appear, collectively buttressing the careers of (mostly White) social scientists and academics. 

Act IV: Our community’s indigenous history and literature is summarily ignored. 

And finally:

Act V: Novices to traditional African Hebrew cultures (including some prominent Jews of color) spill gallons of ink trying to explain our community’s legitimacy—or lack thereof—to the “wider” American and “mainstream” Jewish world.

But this drama of American Jewish history is actually nothing new. Whether in the form of debating the Hebrew traditions of Olaudah Equiano, Mordecai Noah’s vision of a multi-racial Zionism or the relationship of Judaism to the non-White relatives of people like Judah Benjamin, David Yulee or Judah Touro, from the Colonial period to the 20th century people of European backgrounds discussed our communities extensively. 

And if one examines that literature, the consistent theme is that our community’s existential connection to slavery’s victims poses a problem for Jews of European ancestry. And why? Because our mere existence is a living prooftext that “mainstream” American Jews did not have the fortitude to address problems of slavery and colonialism any better than their Christian neighbors.

In recent years, there have been many sincere efforts to deal with the issues connected to Jewish slave-shaming. Joint religious services, outreach programs, and other structured attempts to foster interracial understanding have been undertaken between liberal White Jews and friendly Hebrew Israelites. As cultural performances meant to promote intergroup harmony and civility, this is an admirable goal; however, it seems that in such cases, Hebrew Israelites are often relegated to certain pre-established roles and “acceptable” modes of being. 

The assumption of our syncretic impurity usually saturates these events. White Jews marvel at the Gospel- or Caribbean-inspired melodies of Hebrew Israelite renditions of rabbinic liturgy. While being amazed at our intricate clothing and different hair texture, they also admire our leaders’ oratorical skills, holding them up as examples of Jewish diversity (despite these same cultural traditions being shared with the larger African diaspora).

The segregationist logic behind these Jewish (and sometimes “Black” and “Jewish”) diversity events are rarely pointed out and transcended. Plus, perhaps due to the assumption that all Black people are the same, the possibility that such diversity has been culturally normative in Israelite communities for centuries frequently goes unacknowledged. 

Meanwhile, kosher collard greens, and vegan soul food delight the taste buds of the attendees’ White Jewish brothers and sisters. On other occasions Hebrew Israelites are invited to give lectures and addresses to largely White Jewish congregations, usually during the MLK holiday or in February during Black History Month. They use these opportunities to share the histories of their respective communities or respond to questions about Jewish diversity and multiculturalism. 

But the problem is this: such a narrow framework in which it’s acceptable for Black Jews and Hebrew Israelites to appear renders them perpetually silent on the actual practice of Torah, particularly in the context of American Judaism. So, to paraphrase Andre3000, we implore American Jews to go beyond kosher collard greens and Jewish Reggae and understand that Hebrew Israelites have something to say. 

A recent story in the Forward highlighted the work of one of this article’s authors, Chicago-based rabbi,  Tamar Manasseh and her Christmas caravan. But wait!… A Jewish rabbi and a Christmas caravan? Isn’t she confused? Jews don’t celebrate Christmas! What about Hanukkah!?

For many Israelites, a religious tradition like Christmas isn’t an opportune time for a trip to the local Chinese restaurant. Instead it’s a counter-observance that deconstructs the holiday’s origins. This is where Manasseh’s intervention offers a Hebrew Israelite approach, not to “celebrate” Christmas but rather to maintain Jewish values (and even more controversially, Jewish practices) through helping less-fortunate Christians “observe” Christmas. Rather than see Christmas as something to dread and ignore, Manasseh regards this as a time to act in accordance with ancestral wisdom. According to her:

“I learned all I needed to know about caring for other people from my grandmother, who was a descendant of slaves. She taught me, no matter what, take care of your people. I imagine that started way back when her ancestors who were new arrivals believed, no matter what tribe you were from, or what language you spoke, to stick together. We must be for one another. That message wasn’t wasted on me and I’m constantly aware of it. And if the enslaved and the grandchildren of slaves understood that, why shouldn’t I?

Most Israelite congregations are surrounded by Black folks who have no interest in being Jewish. But that does not absolve me of my responsibility to treat them as ‘my people.’ I could spend hours in a building talking about tikkun olam (repairing the world) or I can use that same time and energy working towards tikkun olam by trying to prevent gun violence. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we bring the Creator to the block, we have Yom Kippur on the block, Shavuot on the block. There is no desire to proselytize anyone but to bring the lessons of Torah to the block and ‘my people.’ No preaching, just living Torah on the block!”

The rabbi’s words stand writ large. We Israelites are the cultural descendants of Africans whose spirituality not only demanded a direct engagement with the Torah, but demanded it while being cast as heretical to European religious authorities. But so be it. If you want to know what Hebrew Israelites have to say, begin by considering the principles behind Rabbi Manasseh’s approach to Torah observance: As a first principle, the proper observance of Torah must always be a categorical resistance to both the practice and historical consequences of slavery, colonialism and human/sex trafficking. Period. 

In our spiritual life, we will first affirm the dignity, equality and humanity of the survivors of such kinds of violence—no matter their educational level, wealth, skin color, identity, etc. We will never consent to the slave-shaming of any conquered people. Second, we believe the fact of slavery changed Judaism forever. And if we listen to the voices of all our enslaved ancestors, “no matter what tribe… or what language,” we will all learn far more Torah from them than simply the wrongness of slavery itself. 

*The authors have chosen to exclusively use the term Hebrew Israelite throughout this essay. While different groups of African Americans who identify with the biblical Israelites differ in preferred nomenclature it is the authors’ contention that writing as Hebrew Israelites is an act of self-determination in and of itself by challenging the problematic dichotomy of good Black Jews vs. bad Black Hebrew Israelites often portrayed in the popular media.