On short notice, I boarded a train from Boston to New York last Wednesday to attend the funeral of a man who had recently become a friend, and who forever opened up my thinking about the boundaries of the Jewish people. Rabbi Hailu Moshe Paris, born in Ethiopia on October 17, 1933, was a gifted teacher, a role model, and the intellectual leader of a black Jewish community spread across many American cities.
I met him in 2009, through a lecture I gave about Ethiopian Jewry at a black synagogue in Chicago. After my talk, Lorand Kenon, visiting from Brooklyn, introduced herself and bought a copy of my book for Rabbi Paris. Weeks later, she called me in Boston to say the rabbi would like to meet me. Wheelchair-bound, he lived in an Orthodox nursing home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I visited on my next trip to New York and dozens of times afterwards. Hours flew by in his small room as we dove deep into conversation about Jewish history and identity. We had a unique rapport, in my mind—a rare comfort in each other’s presence. I felt privileged to tap into his deep reservoir of understanding. It was a special bond.
Attending his funeral last week, along with 200 other mourners, I realized I wasn’t the only one he had cast a spell over with his wisdom and warmth. White-robed Israelite rabbis wearing regal mitres or turbans chanted Psalms, told personal stories, and recounted Rabbi Paris’s many honors and accomplishments, all of which had helped to define and elevate the Jewish community of color active in New York since the 1930s. The rabbis and other speakers shared memories of this warm, brilliant, gentle Lion of Judah.
That Rabbi Paris’s birthplace was Ethiopia was crucially important to him and to his community, who see the Ethiopian Jews as their spiritual ancestors. He was brought to Harlem in 1935 as the adopted son of Eudora Paris, who had gone to Addis Ababa to join a handful of black Jews who moved there in 1930. Hailu Paris personified the link between black Jews in America and Ethiopian Jews.
He loved to tell the story of his life-changing journey. When the ship pulled into the port of Bremen, Germany late in 1935, Nazis boarded looking for Jews. His mother was carrying a Torah that was being returned to their synagogue in Harlem. It was wrapped in a blanket, which also covered her young son’s shoulders. “They rounded up everyone sitting nearby,” he told me, “but they ignored us, because they never thought black people could be Jews.” He added with his ever-present chuckle: “As you know, there are many white Jews today who still feel that way.”
It was just like him to be amused, rather than angered, by what has been the prevailing attitude of mainstream Jewry toward Jews of color: lack of acceptance and interest. But Hailu Paris was immune to bitterness, negativity, and anger.
Rabbi Paris influenced my thinking in the way he kept the big, often complicated picture in focus. I once asked him how there came to be Sephardic Jews in the first place. He began his answer talking about the Moors, Arabs, Jews, and Visigoths and within a minute or two had drawn the lines from Spain across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and South America. Like the Bible, he seemed able to span centuries with just a few sentences of exposition. He taught me that the populations in the ancient world who were connected to the Jews were more diverse than conventional historical scholarship is comfortable with; and conversely, that the antecedents of Ashkenazi Jewry are more complex and circuitous than is commonly believed.
He also taught by example that you are Jewish because of the way you live and see yourself, not because of halachic decisions. When I asked Rabbi Paris if his birth parents were Ethiopian Jews, he was unfazed: “No, but because of where they lived, in Gondar, they were probably descended from Beta Israel who were Jews.” I knew that he was right because 40 percent of the 135,000 Ethiopian Jews currently in Israel are also descendants of Christian Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors had converted to Christianity. I noted that if he hadn’t been adopted by Eudora Paris, he would have been one of them.
“What do you think of that?” I asked. He gave me a familiar grin: “I guess Hashem arranged it so I would be brought here.” Rabbi Paris readily acknowledged an active role for the divine, even as he passionately pursued the study of empirical history. “I got the academics from my Yeshiva University education, but I was raised in the synagogue,” he once told me by way of explanation. “History and faith are different ways of understanding things.”
Rabbi Paris never married and considered his community his family. He had two close, much-younger friends, Monica Wiggan, who accompanied him when he visited Ethiopia in 2005, and Lorand Kenon, who became his adoptive daughter. Together they diligently watched over him in his later years as though he was fragile stemware, supervising his housing, travel, and medical care.
As I realized during his funeral, my own friendship with Rabbi Paris was that of a comfortable intellectual companion, and our bond was not as unique as I had thought. Still, perhaps I am the only one who stopped at the grocery store across from the nursing home to buy him fresh fruit before every visit. Peaches in the summer and apples in the winter. He loved crunching on a crisp apple, and I loved the smile it brought to his face.
Len Lyons is the author of The Ethiopian Jews of Israel: Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land. He writes and lectures about Ethiopian Jewry and other Jews of African descent.