On a recent summer morning in the Bronx, an infant, swaddled in woven white cotton, was about to receive her Hebrew name: Emunah. Wearing a flowing patterned robe, his dreadlocks pulled back with a shawl draped over his head and shoulders, her grandfather Moreh Mordekai Gordon spoke in a Jamaican accent to those assembled at the small Mount Horeb congregation, perched on a hill not far from the elevated train. “We must be an example to the rest of the world,” said Gordon, spreading his arms wide. “We are preserving the old traditions and are each links in a great chain.”
Rabbi Yehuda Moshe Benlewi, shorter than Gordon and wrapped in a shawl, nodded his head in agreement. “What we are doing here is Jewish and African,” Benlewi said later in the service. “Judaism is an African religion.”
Gordon and Benlewi are Black Jews who trace their spiritual roots back to Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, the man who founded the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Harlem 95 years ago. Matthew taught that black Americans were direct descendants of the Israelites of the Torah—and though many had been severed from the religion because of the transatlantic slave trade and years of Christian indoctrination, he preached, they should return to that faith.
While this particular branch of Black Jews—whose followers today attend Beth Elohim Hebrew Congregation, Mount Horeb, Beth Shalom, and B’nai Adath Kol Beth Israel in New York, among other temples around the country—has a history nearly a century long, its members have never had their stories and traditions codified in a prayer book. Until now. At the baby-naming ceremony in the Bronx, Benlewi held in his hands the leather-bound prayer book he has just created—the first-ever siddur prepared specifically for Black Jews, whom he prefers to call “West African Jews of the Diaspora.”
“We’ve never had anything like this,” he said to me during the service, turning the pages tenderly. “Our own siddur. We’ve used the Ashkenazi or Sephardic books, but nothing that includes the myths and traditions of our ancestors, the history of our teachers.”
Gordon returned to his theme, shifting his weight from side to side and making eye contact with the 30 worshipers in attendance at the baby-naming. “We have made an agreement with Hashem,” he told those assembled. “If we don’t pass this covenant on, what will happen?”
Matthew left his home country of St. Kitts in the British West Indies on May 9, 1913, when he was 20. Two days later, he landed on Ellis Island. Soon afterward, he moved to Harlem. He worked various odd jobs, and—because he had a strong build— also competed as a boxer and a wrestler. But Matthew also had a deeply spiritual side. His father was born in Nigeria, and (as he would tell congregants and journalists) his grandfather was an Ethiopian Falasha from Gondar who’d moved to Lagos.
Harlem provided fertile ground for spiritual exploration. Variations of Black Israelite religion—which incorporated a strict adherence to the Ten Commandments, observance of the Sabbath, and kosher dietary restrictions—were practiced in New York as early as 1899. Not long after arriving in America, Matthew met a Barbadian-born man named Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford, who would become Matthew’s mentor. Ford was a wealth of knowledge; he spoke Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic, wore a yarmulke (with a turban wrapped on top), and led an Israelite congregation in Harlem called Beth B’nai Abraham. (A close associate of Marcus Garvey’s, Ford eventually immigrated to Ethiopia, where he hoped to found a colony of repatriated black Americans, but he died during the Italian invasion of that country in 1935.)
Matthew had formed his own community of worshipers in 1919 called the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation (the temple is also the subject of a documentary by Marlaine Glicksman). Central to Matthew’s Judaism was the belief that he and other black congregants were not adopting a foreign religion, but returning to something that was theirs and had been theirs since the time of the prophets. Matthew’s religion drew from a range of sources: Judaism, Afro-Caribbean religion, mysticism, and Garveyism. His messages were revelatory. As the years went on, and especially after Ford left for Africa, he became the torchbearer of Black Judaism; Matthew was “like Moses,” one congregant told me. “The Commandment Keepers became the headquarters for the resurgence of Black Judaism,” said Rabbi Hailu Paris, the Ethiopian-born elder of the community and onetime leader of Mount Horeb.
Matthew taught Hebrew classes and also instruction in Kabbalah. Occasionally a band (with guitar, saxophone, tambourines, and a piano) would accompany services. In his book Chosen People, historian Jacob S. Dorman explains that Matthew practiced other esoteric rituals (at times, Matthew claimed to be able to heal and turn invisible). Though it is often cited that Matthew was influenced by Ashkenazi rabbis in the early years of the synagogue, learning prayers and traditions from them, Benlewi bristles at the suggestion. “His understanding Torah was deep,” he said. “To say he was just imitating white Jews undermines his knowledge.”
In 1924, Matthew established the Royal Order of Ethiopian Hebrews, which would later grow into the Israelite Rabbinical Academy. Over the course of five decades, he ordained more than 20 rabbis. In 1940, there were about 200 members of the congregation, and by the 1960s there were perhaps thousands of Black Israelites and Black Jews spread across the country, with congregations in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia.
Some Ashkenazi Jews also worshiped at the temple, and, encouraged by Rabbi Irving J. Block, Matthew applied for admittance to the New York Board of Rabbis (he was turned down). While it’s unlikely Matthew wanted to completely integrate with normative Judaism, his rejection from the New York board was a turning point. “He may have hoped at one time to be accepted, but I think after being turned down he gave up on assimilating,” Paris said. “He got older, he got tired.”
“We’re not trying to lose our identity among the white Jews,” Matthew later said to Diane Shapiro in her dissertation on Black Judaism, Double Damnation, Double Salvation. “When the white Jew comes among us, he’s really at home, we have no prejudice. But when we’re among them they’ll say you’re a good man, you have a white heart. Or they’ll be overly nice. Deep down that sense of superiority-inferiority is still there, and no black man can avoid it.”
Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements each have their own criteria for ordination and recognition of rabbis. The New York Board of Rabbis, which has approximately 800 members split evenly among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox leaders, does not recognize ordinations that come from the Israelite Board of Rabbis. “We are fastidious about granting membership. We only accept verifiable credentials from major international bodies, such as the Rabbinical Council of America,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “But it’s got nothing to do with race—doesn’t matter if you’re black, blue, green, anything—you just have to have a certificate from a place we know.”
Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the world’s largest organizations of Orthodox rabbis, said that while he was not familiar with each specific community, Black Jews are “clearly not a part of mainstream Judaism”; he pointed out that other black Jews, such as Ethiopians who have immigrated to Israel, must go through a conversion process. Neither the Conservative nor Reform movements in this country have affiliations with Black Judaism.
“Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, across the board it’s the same,” said Paris, who graduated from Yeshiva University with a degree in Hebrew Literature. “They don’t recognize Black Jewry.”
Benlewi wants to be counted among the larger Jewish world, but he believes the community shouldn’t have to seek approval from larger normative bodies. “We’ve been seeking validations and only finding disappointment. I am taking a different route: Create a sense of pride and independence, then you’ll get respect. I want our fellow Jewish brothers and sisters to accept us as we are. But if we lose a sense of ourselves, heaven forbid.”
Rabbi Matthew died in 1973. Over a dozen congregations in New York, and more nationwide, trace their spiritual lineage back to him in some way. Rabbi Baruch Yehuda, who leads the community of B’nai Adath Kol Beth Israel in Bedford-Stuyvesant and is the dean of the Israelite Academy, the academic arm of the Israelite Board of Rabbis, says that each congregation has its own traditions. This is one of the challenges of putting together any universal prayer book.
The practices of the Commandment Keepers evolved over time, gradually becoming more orthodox in observance. Today no two temples have the same traditions. At B’nai Adath, services are accompanied by African drumming; Beth Elohim has a five-person choir (they’ve recorded two CDs); and services at Mount Horeb have little singing and are held almost entirely in Hebrew.
Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levi, who is the president of the Israelite Board of Rabbis—and maintains an informative website about the movement—has written before about the diverse groups that grew out of Matthew’s teachings. Though few categories are ever entirely bound, Levi explains that there are Rabbinic Jews who study Talmudic literature closely (all of the temples mentioned in this piece belong to this group); Torah Only, who study only the Tanakh; and Messianic Jews, who follow some of Matthew’s teachings but also worship Jesus, yet do not identify as Christians.
“We’re all different. Like any community, we’re not uniform,” Yehuda said. “While most of us trace our history back to Rabbi Matthew, of blessed memory, some have deviated from his teachings.” Though he will not name names, Yehuda may be referring to the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, the group that preaches from street corners throughout the country (they have been labeled black supremacists by the Southern Poverty Law Center), and can also claim Matthew as a spiritual teacher, but broke away from the Commandment Keepers in the 1960s.
The historian Dorman emphasizes that there is diversity in all branches of Jewish faith, not just Black Judaism. “The concept that Judaism is an ancient flame, carried from Palestine, is an inaccurate way of looking at the story of the faith,” he said. “The mistake Ashkenazi Jews make often is to think we Jews have progressed from one purity to another. That’s not the case, and no religious faith can claim that.”
One middle-aged congregant from a black synagogue in Queens told me that she worships at a Moroccan temple perhaps every other week. An older man (just back from a visit to Israel) told me that he loves jumping around between congregations: He spends Shabbats with Hasidic Jews, Sephardi Jews, Black Jews, any kind of Jew. “We were a mixed multitude when we came out of Egypt,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we still be?”
Benlewi, 48, was raised in New Jersey by a Pentecostal father (“he was fanatic,” Benlewi told me) and played saxophone in the church band. Benlewi’s father taught him that Jesus was the only salvation for sinners, but his mother told him other truths: We are not who the outside world says we are, we are the people of the book.
Benlewi remembers his mother talking about traditions passed down orally, lessons taught privately through the generations. “She would bake challah every Friday. She knew we were Hebrews,” he said. At 25, Benlewi fathered his first child. “It was then that I really began thinking about the traditions I wanted to pass down.” He began attending the Commandment Keepers regularly and later studied with Rabbi Eliezer Brooks and a Sephardic teacher, Rabbi Gershom Catano.
It’s common for Black Jews in America to move laterally between worlds and traditions—Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Black Jewish. Benlewi received his smicha from Catano, and today he worships with three communities: Mount Horeb in the Bronx, a Conservative congregation Newark (Ahavas Sholom), and a Black Jewish minyan that gathers in homes in northern New Jersey.
The idea of compiling a siddur has been floating around the community for years. “I realized that history is written by the victors,” Benlewi said. “We have no real written history of who we are. So much is oral and the griot thing just doesn’t work anymore.” He emphasizes the importance of Jewish law and the concept of b’nai anusim, the “children of the coerced ones.” “We were forced to leave our faith because of the whip,” he said, “Not all, but many of the Africans brought to this country as slaves maintained Jewish traditions. We don’t need to convert, just return.”
The history of African Jewry is at this point well-documented. One widely read book on the subject is From Babylon to Timbuktu, first published in 1969. When I first met the author Rudolph Windsor at a commemoration event for Matthew, he greeted me in Hebrew and called me “brother.” The New Jersey-born Windsor went on to lecture about the long history of Hebrews and Israelites on the African continent and concluded by singing a niggun. Benlewi cites Windsor and his historical research as an inspiration for his work.
It took Benlewi years of research to create the new siddur, which he hopes will eventually replace the ArtScroll and Spanish Portuguese books that line the shelves of Black Jewish temples. “Sephardim are proud of their identity, Ashkenazim are proud of theirs,” he said. “It’s time that we are, too.”
For now, three dozen copies have been printed of the new 300-page siddur, which includes 30 pages of history about Judaism in West Africa and the Americas. Benlewi keeps them in cardboard boxes in his New Jersey home (and is selling them online). The prayer book will likely go through further revisions before it is used widely through the community; this fall, it will be submitted to the Israelite Board of Rabbis for their endorsement.
For Kiddush at Mount Horeb after the baby-naming ceremony, challah, tuna salad, and deviled eggs were piled on plates. We ate on wooden tables with plastic tablecloths, and there were far more women than men. For dessert, muffins and hamantaschen were passed around.
On the walls were news clippings from the Commandment Keepers’ early days, a mounted picture of Masada, and a yellowing photo of the Western Wall. Benlewi chided a young congregant: “You’re trying to grow those peyot again, aren’t you?” No, they’re dreadlocks, the man said, embarrassed.
The crowd trickled out as the afternoon wore on. Benlewi and Gordon stayed, speaking about Torah and their history. Gordon said that he was born in Jamaica but that it was “just one of the recent stops” in his ancestry. A young woman joined the conversation. “When I used to go to camp with white Jews they’d always ask me, ‘So, when did you convert?’ ” she said, laughing at the memory. “Sometimes it was just easier to tell them, ‘Oh I converted at such-and-such a time,’ rather than go through an hour-long debate.”
Benlewi’s two sons sat patiently as their father talked. They wanted to go home; squeezing one boy’s cheek, Benlewi promised them they’d do something fun after Shabbat ended. A house party across the street began, and the music spilled into the temple through an open window, interrupting the conversation.
Benlewi looked from his two sons to the window and back again. “Some people are just like, I want to dance and have a good time, and not learn about who they are,” he sighed. “There are so many distractions.”
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