march / april 2007:
The Prince and I
To many, the African Hebrew Israelites are just an offbeat fringe cult with odd customs. No meat! No caffeine! No medicine! No Chanukah! Multiple Wives! But spend the day with them and you'll find out a whole lot more.
Story by Benyamin Cohen | Photo by Alex Martinez
At this precise moment in time, I find myself sitting wedged between two princes of the African Hebrew Israelite community in the backseat of a brand new white Cadillac Deville winding our way through Southwest Atlanta. Smoke from the exhaust billows out the back on this chilly November day as we wait at a red light by some dusty train tracks and what appears to be an abandoned crack house. As the light turns green, I ask Prince Asiel, the royalty to my left, if he has any children. He tells me he has 15, which is not such an astonishing number once you hear what he tells me next. "Well, you know, from four wives."
Admitting you're polygamous is not normally preceeded with the casual Southern California phrase "you know," but then again nothing I had experienced today could be described as normal.
I tell him I’ve only been married a few years and having just one wife is a lot to deal with. How does he deal with four? He then proceeds to tell me all the glorious benefits of polygamy, of how they can help take care of all the children. “Also,” he says looking me straight in the eye, “when one of them is a niddah, you have other wives you can be with.” Niddah is the Hebrew term for the Jewish law that says a man and wife must separate from marital relations while she is menstruating.
Here I am sitting next to a guy who’s polygamous, yet versed in the laws of the Torah. And, oh yes, he’s black. And a prince. Of something, I wasn’t yet sure.
It’s Thanksgiving. And I had to leave my family celebration with my in-laws to interview a person who’s visiting Atlanta and many people call a crook and a cult leader. “Sorry, guys. The turkey was delicious and I hate to eat and run but I’ve got to go interview a polygamous cult leader downtown who, apparently, doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.”
They look at me oddly, offer to pray for my safety, and I exit stage left.
Stomach full, I venture downtown to meet the Chicago-based American leader of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Yes, I know, it’s a mouthful.
I had been trying for nearly a year to get in touch with him — or anyone from their cloistered communities dispersed in various cities across the U.S. But to no avail. My calls weren’t returned. And, to be perfectly honest, it’s no surprise. The group has been (for lack of a better word) crucified in the press since their inception in 1968. Rumors of cult like behavior and criminal activity has surrounded much of the mainstream press given to the African Israelites, known to many simply as the Black Hebrews.
Like many supposed cults, I had heard bad things about them. I read on the Internet of wild claims, of murders of ex-members who had fled the group, of FBI warrants, and charges of wire fraud and cashing forged checks to the tune of millions of dollars. In 1985, the U.S. government arrested 27 members of the group — including the prince I was driving to meet today — for running a complex credit card and passport fraud ring. The convictions were ultimately overturned, and when prosecutors sought a retrial, the prince pleaded to a lesser charge.
It’s no wonder they didn’t want to be interviewed. They were fugitives.
So it was quite a surprise when my phone rang not too long ago. It was a woman, the secretary of the highest-ranking member of the sect in America, Prince Asiel, the second-in-command to the group’s leader in Israel, Ben Ammi. “The prince will speak to you now,” she said in a very business-like manner. There was a click and a short beat, barely enough time for me to gather myself and finish chewing the bologna sandwich I was having for lunch.
Moments later, a bombastic voice. “Mr. Cohen, so nice to speak with you.” It was the prince. He seemed nice and genuine and told me he’d be coming to town in a week’s time to visit the Atlanta community during Thanksgiving. He said I could come and spend the afternoon with him at the group’s headquarters. I had planned on a day of watching the Macy’s parade and family time but, hey, the prince was coming. You don’t want to mess with royalty.
It’s about 2 pm when my photographer Alex and I drive up to the block of stores that are owned by the local contingency of the African Hebrew Israelites located in Southwest Atlanta, to a part of town where the streets are named for civil rights leaders Reverend Joseph E. Lowery and Ralph David Abernathy. As I help Alex, a South American Catholic, unload his equipment I notice he’s wearing a rather large belt buckle with “Jesus” emblazoned across it. I could only pray his sartorial decision wouldn’t offend.
We walk past their barbershop and welcome center and into the third store, a vegan restaurant called Soul Vegetarian. We’re the only white people in the entire place and everyone is wearing African garb and various forms of head-coverings. I hear people speaking Hebrew at one table. A poster on the wall touts something about “The Genesis Forum: Adamic Man vs. Evolution.”
A waitress greets us and I tell her we’re here to see Prince Asiel. She runs to the back and returns with Sister Yafah, a woman in her 40s dressed in an orange African outfit and sporting a necklace with the Hebrew words “Chai Yah” (God is Alive).
She introduces herself and leads us down a hallway and into a back room. The term back room really doesn’t begin to do this justice. This isn’t Tony Soprano’s boys club in the back of the Bada Bing. It looks more like a hotel ballroom. The dim lights add ambience to the regal table set with fancy silverware and dishes atop black and gold tablecloths. Tribal art lines the walls.
The room is a sea of excitement. A few bodyguards line the room, all dressed in colorful African garb. Several young black women are bustling back and forth putting drinks down on the table and covering them with napkins (a custom I would later learn was to keep dust and germs out of the drinks). Sister Yafah grabs a seat next to Daniella, the prince’s personal secretary. It all seems like a carefully choreographed dance.
Prince Asiel, a towering man at well over six feet, bounds forward to greet me. With his salt and pepper beard, he reminds me a bit of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. He’s dressed in brown corduroy pants, a surprisingly hip sweater jacket, and one of those hats that African politicians wear. Think Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in Coming to America.
Next to him is Prince Rahm, the local Atlanta leader of the group. The African Hebrew Israelites have 12 princes, each corresponding to the twelve tribes. Asiel is the highest-ranking prince in America and the second in command to the group’s leader in Israel.
They offer me something to drink — some tea, juice, even one of their no-sugar smoothies. I opt for the water. I can’t quite bring myself yet to drink from the proverbial Kool-Aid.
After we sit down and exchange pleasantries, I turn my tape recorder on and begin. I don’t want the first thing out of my mouth to be “I hear you’re a convicted criminal” so I opt for a safer query about the group’s origin.
He launches into a 30-minute meandering history lesson, trying to prove that there must have been black Jews in Biblical times. As well, “we see and saw ourselves as part of the Diaspora that was scattered after the destruction of the Temple,” he says, speaking slowly and deliberately. “That’s been a historical, prophetic seed that we held onto for 2,000 years.” He explains that when the Romans destroyed the second Temple in 70 CE, many Jews fled to Africa.
“I bring all this up to show you that this wasn’t just something that grew out of the 60s,” he says with a laugh, obviously saying that since almost all the articles I had read about the group make exactly that point. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, blacks were trying to find a re-energized identity. Some chose the black power movements or Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.
And then there was Ben Carter.
Carter, a factory worker from Chicago, claims that in February 1966 the angel Gabriel appeared to him in a vision and told him to lead African Americans (who he believed were from the lost tribe of Judah) back home to the promised land. Carter promptly changed his name to Ben Ammi (Son of My People) and began hosting classes to spread his new message.
Before they could return to Israel, Ben Ammi told his followers that they would have to cleanse themselves of Western culture during a layover in Africa. So in May 1967, Ben Ammi and a couple hundred followers landed in Liberia where they spent two and a half years “detoxing” themselves from what Prince Asiel dubs the “mentality that America had superimposed upon us in terms of its culture. Then we reconnected with our Jewish roots.”
In July 1969, the first family left Liberia, went to Israel, and eventually settled in the desert community of Dimona, about 30 kilometers south of Be’er Sheva, the biblical city of Abraham. The town, which happens to house Israel’s little known nuclear research facility, was pretty much deserted before they got there.
As soon as he mentions Dimona, I’m reminded of news reports a few years back about Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown making a pilgrimage there. It couldn’t hurt to ask. In fact, the prince smiles when I bring it up as if a crack-addicted pop star’s involvement with his odd group somehow offers them a sense of validity in the grand scheme of things.
“I met Whitney about six or seven years ago,” he says. “She heard about the African Americans who lived in Israel and wanted to visit. Her and Bobby and the family came over and spent a week there. It was a fantastic trip for us as well.”
There are now about 3,000 African Hebrew Israelites living in Dimona, with another 20,000 in American cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, St Louis, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Detroit.
And, despite public opinion otherwise, the Black Hebrews all consider themselves Jewish. It’s why I’ve been trying so hard to interview them. Mainstream American Jewry looks at them, at best, as a circus act and, at worst, as a dangerous cult. Regardless, they claim to be my biblical brother so I wanted to hear them out.
The prince, who rarely grants interviews, was actually intrigued by my upbringing. I’m the son of an Orthodox rabbi who married a minister’s daughter, and the prince thought that made me an open-minded Jewish journalist who could look past the peculiarity (and the decades of poor PR) of the Black Hebrews. It does, to a certain extent, but nothing I had ever been exposed to would prepare me for the bizarre traditions of this group.
“As most Jews who have been scattered, we picked up many of the habits of the African countries that we were in as well as the African American community,” the prince, who grew up in Chicago and nowhere near Africa, tells me. “But I think the common thread that we maintain like all Jews is next year in Jerusalem, the Torah is the basis of our fundamental belief in the god of Israel, a kosher diet, a clean diet, the recognition of the Sabbath as the holy day, these were the things that we maintained. Everything else was pretty much idiosyncratic differences based on where you were.”
He goes on to explain that their goal is to follow everything in the written law (i.e. the five books of Moses) but not the oral law (i.e. the Mishnah and the Talmud). So they celebrate biblical holidays like Sukkot and Passover, but stay away from Chanukah and Purim which weren’t instituted until later in history. They believe in the “biblical diet” so they are strict vegans, don’t eat any processed food, canned goods, or anything with sugar in it. They are so obsessed with their health that they also abstain from all alcohol, caffeine, and even most pharmaceutical drugs.
“Most of the European Jews took the traditions of the Mishnah and the Talmud and the writings of the sages,” he says. “Most of us maintained that because we didn’t have access to those writings, the Tanach was the fundamental document that we stayed closely aligned with.”
Asiel’s use of the word Tanach, Hebrew for the Old Testament, catches me off guard. Indeed, throughout our day together he peppers his speech with mentions of the Rambam (an obtuse nickname for Maimonides) and other Jewish phrases. It was clear he was well versed in halacha (Hebrew for Jewish law — and another word he used frequently). Indeed, he sounded strangely rabbinic.
I ask what seems to me to be an obvious question. While I could possibly fathom that Asiel’s “ancestors” in Africa didn’t have bound Talmuds lying around to study from, nowadays we do in fact have easy access to the Mishnah and the Talmud. You can buy them on Amazon.com. I think I even have one on the backseat of my car.
“We use it,” he clarifies. “But those things that were just based on whether you were in Russia, those habits we don’t necessarily adapt those as being part of the Hebraic historical type.” He pauses. “Look, Reform Judaism grew out of Germany.”
The prince was giving me theological whiplash. Yes, Reform Judaism came out of Germany, but they had access to the oral tradition. They just decided to do otherwise. As if that wasn’t enough, he tells me that the African Hebrew Israelites who live in America don’t hold prayer services like most Jews do. Only their counterparts in Dimona pray three times a day and read the Torah on Saturday. I ask if the prayers themselves are similar to what you would find in a typical synagogue.
“Yes and no. You see, that’s what I’m saying. It’s all relative. How similar is what the ultra-Orthodox do to the Reform?”
Just as I try to make sense of his latest analogy, somebody’s cell phone rings and interrupts the flow of conversation. I look up and notice the secretary taking notes on what I was taking notes of.
Being Thanksgiving, I ask if they celebrate American holidays. The prince riffs on how blacks weren’t at the first Thanksgiving. I interject and ask, if that’s true, then why do blacks in America celebrate Thanksgiving and he doesn’t.
“Yeah, but other African Americans do a lot of things I don’t do. They drink 40 ounce bottles of beer. They drink alcohol by the tons. I’m not with that program.”
He uses this as a springboard to talk about Christmas and Santa Claus, another American invention that was, apparently, not hospitable to the blacks. “It was hard for a fat white guy to get down my chimney in the neighborhood I grew up in. You know, if we caught him in the chimney, he’s going to be in trouble.” This sounds like a Chris Rock routine and the prince continues. “Hey, this guy’s trying to rob us. We catch him with a bag of stuff going out of the house, you know, it’s not like he was going to bring some gifts.”
The prince goes on and on. And somehow it evolves into a meditation on how black performers have somehow brought jazz and soul back to the holy land. I wasn’t aware that (a) there actually was a jazz renaissance going on somewhere in the underground dives of Jerusalem and (b) that it was the African Hebrew Israelites who were carrying said burden on their broad shoulders. Indeed, I have no idea what any of this means and I’m waiting for Prince Asiel to explain it to me.
“I see us enriching Judaism in a very special way,” he says, as he leans back in his chair. “Because in our genes, remember what we brought back to Israel is Miles Davis, Johnny Coltrane, Martin Luther King. We brought the richness of the best of the African American experience to the holy land. We have brought soul back to Israel.”
I still wasn’t sure where he was going with this. At first glance, Coltrane wouldn’t appear to be the very epitome of African American culture to use for this example. After all, wasn’t he born a Christian who married a Muslim, only to end up singing about Hinduism in his seminal 1965 recording “Om”?
Perhaps sensing my confusion, he switches gears. “A brother told me, you find two Jews, you have three opinions.” The prince has suddenly morphed into the black man’s Jackie Mason. Everyone in the room starts laughing. He raises his voice. “So I think it’s that kind of thing. You’ve got two Jews and a black Jew from America and you have five opinions. You know what I’m saying. You got the hip-hop Jew. You got the jazz Jew.”
Maybe the prince had a point. Like the religiously curious Coltrane, Asiel’s group was a holy hybrid of many cultures, a veritable amalgam of the best Jews and blacks had to offer. At least that’s what I think he was saying.
About an hour after I arrive, Asiel and his entourage give me a tour of the facilities. He leads me through the winding hallways of the 19,000 square-foot compound, barely any of which is visible from the main road. On the front of each door is a sign. Except for the actual words displayed, they all looked pretty much the same. Same size, same typeface. One said “Ginger Root Production”. Another belonged to the “Wisdom Hut” bookstore. And yet another to “Braids Unlimited”. I poke my head in and see several women braiding each other’s hair. When they notice the prince behind me, they all sheepishly smile and say “Shalom, nasi. Baruch habah.” — Hebrew for “Hello, prince. Blessed is your coming.”
Another door says “Boutique Afrika” where they are selling tribal garb. And across from that is a spa where, at the moment, a woman is getting a manicure. The prince tells me that, as part of their biblical diet, the women receive reflexology treatment and are required to get monthly massages. Around the corner is another barbershop and spa — these are for the men. A sign on the wall said it was voted best barbershop in Atlanta by a local newspaper. Somewhere, a black anthropologist is smiling.
I feel like I’m getting a tour of the Wonka factory. “In here’s where we make the almond chocolates,” and you see a bunch of squirrels cracking nuts inside. “And here’s where our scientists are testing out a new kind of invisible candy.” I’m just waiting for some little African Oompa-Loompas to come bounding out in song and dance.
We walk through the kitchen of the restaurant and through another labyrinth of hallways lined with photographs of Ben Ammi in gold frames and into a large auditorium. “This is our royal banquet hall,” he says, spreading his arms wide for added effect. People are setting up rows and rows of chairs facing a podium atop a stage. Hundreds of people are expected here in a couple hours from as far away as St. Louis to hear the prince’s remarks.
Off to the side is a closed door which, when opened, leads to a winery where they bottle their own fermented non-alcoholic fruit drink. Inside Sister Yafah serves as the vintner. “Here, take,” the prince says grabbing a bottle. “It’s kosher wine.”
I assume this was the end of the grand tour, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. They proceed to take me down a dark staircase with no exits in sight. I recall the rumors I had read on the Internet — of people who tried to escape and were never heard from again.
The stairs lead us into an underground basement. To your right is an office with dated computers and furniture. “This is our travel agency,” the prince nonchalantly tells me, as if it’s normal for 19,000 square-foot religious compounds to have fully functional travel agencies in their basement. The lights were off and it was apparently closed for the day, but I imagine a lone agent sitting at his desk, patiently expecting a call from 1985.
“And over here is our architecture firm,” the prince says pointing to another area, again very casually. It had it’s own waiting room and mock entrance as if it’s a standalone storefront — yet it’s just facing the travel agency across the room. I feel like I’m in a warehouse of sets from television shows. “And over here is Mike Brady’s architecture office.” I peek inside and see a man sitting behind a drafting table. Of all the shops and businesses inside this building, this one actually makes some sense. Many of the community’s members are in the construction industry. After all, it was they who constructed this compound and all the stores in it. Like the Amish, they take great pride in the detail of their work.
We turn a corner and another room reveals a toilet and a massage table. “This is where we come to get colonics,” the prince says. He pats me on my stomach and, laughing, suggests maybe I need one.
We round another corner and come face-to-face with what appears to be the inside of a state-of-the-art video production facility. There are wires, buttons, and screens all around the room. The prince tells me this is where they make infomercials and educational DVDs, many of which are sold in the book shop upstairs. As well, the group boasts the Kingdom News Network, which includes a 24/7 Internet radio station and, of course, the official KNN blog.
Outside that room are cubicles filled with computers. Each desktop wallpaper features a picture of Ben Ammi. “This is our Internet café,” he says. This is ridiculous. There’s practically a whole underground civilization down here that no one knows about. None of this is advertised from the street level. I snap a mental picture in my head. Nobody is going to believe this.
Back upstairs and outside, the sun is beginning to set as more people are driving in from various cities to see the prince. As we stand on the sidewalk across the street from the raw food market which the group also owns, people approach the prince with hugs and high-fives.
A group of teenage boys with yarmulkes and tzitzit (Jewish fringes), are chatting with the prince in Hebrew. He hugs each of them with a smile. To many of them, some who come from broken homes, the prince is somewhat of a father figure to them.
Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, a pimped out white Cadillac Deville pulls up to the curb and the prince grabs my arm. “Come, let’s go for a ride.” Ok, so this is how they abduct people. “I want to show you our pre-school.” One of the bodyguards is driving the vehicle, my photographer sits in the front, and I squeeze into the middle of the back seat between Prince Asiel and Prince Rahm. The crowd on the sidewalk look on as we speed off. It was all too surreal.
And it’s now, as we drive to a place where children play, that the good prince informs me of his polygamous ways. 15 kids. Four wives. I turn to Prince Rahm and ask him the same question. Turns out he has 12 kids, five grandkids, and a number of wives. Asiel informs me the ideal in their tradition is to have seven wives.
I figure since everyone’s being so open and honest now is as good a time as any to ask about their criminal past. “So I’ve heard some bad things ...”
Prince Asiel cuts me off. “You heard bad things? Bad things about Jews? That we’re greedy money-hungry people? That we run all the newspapers in America? Don’t believe that stuff. That we control the banks? We just continue to show that we win more Nobel Prizes than any other race of people. We show the good things that we do.” I had just entered a bizarro universe where Asiel was playing the Jewish victim card … with a Jewish journalist.
I clarify my question and tell him I’m specifically referring to the bad things I heard about his group.
“But, you see, the Hebrew Israelites are part of the larger Jewish community. If you talk only about that, then guess what? Menachem Begin blew up the King David Hotel. And killed Jews. But he saw himself as a freedom fighter. When you go down the list of what Golda Meir did and what Moshe Dayan did....” Here he goes again with his misplaced analogies. “I’m simply saying that the world wants to see Jews one way and everybody else as freedom fighters. So when the Americans challenged the British, they were patriots. But not to the British. They were thugs and criminals. You have that with any liberation struggle. I was held captive in America against my will. And when the creator awakened me and I realized that I was not a negro, or a nigger, or a coon but I had been designated as such by a society that simply said the color of my skin determines the content of my character. I didn’t accept that. And since they didn’t get my permission to bring me here, I didn’t need their permission to leave. And so what they described as criminal acts, we described as fighting for our freedom.”
Um … ok. But, alas, he continues.
“What god requires a people to stay oppressed? Have you ever been in the U.S. military? If you’re captured, you must try to escape. It is your duty as a soldier. And if not, you can be court marshaled.” He’s animated now and I’m beginning to feel a little uncomfortable squished between him and the other prince in the backseat in a bad part of town. “Well how much more if I’m captured, and someone designates me as a slave and I see myself as a free man. I must accept that plight? No, I’m going to escape.
“So I’m simply putting it in that context. The things that they have designated as being bad, I don’t see them as being bad.” He pauses, looks out the car window, and turns back to me. “So if the Hebrew Israelites are accused of breaking criminal laws, then what’s the movie Exodus about? It’s about Jews. So everything is relative.”
Ok, he’s totally lost me now. But just as I’m about to ask another question, we pull up to the Genesis Early Learning Center. Before the African Hebrew Israelites came along, this property was an abandoned crack house. Now I’m staring at a beautiful building, carefully constructed by the members of the community. It’s a few years old, but it still smells brand new.
They may not celebrate Thanksgiving, but the place is still closed for the day. The bodyguard unlocks the front door and we walk in. I feel like I’m standing in the lobby of a typical Jewish elementary school. Hebrew letters surround children’s Sukkot artwork on a bulletin board.
The first classroom has 13 cribs in it; the school starts at just a few weeks old and goes up until first grade. The place is filled to capacity with more than 100 students, and they have plans to build an adjoining elementary school within the next two years. As we walk through the other classrooms, I notice Jewish names on the cubbies: Esther, Adina … Muhammed? Apparently, this kindergarten is so highly regarded in the community, many of the people who live in the area send their children here. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that it only costs $125 a week — and that includes the vegan meals catered by the nearby Soul Vegetarian restaurant they own.
As we leave the pre-school, the prince points to a row of homes. “You see those three houses? Those are owned by the community. Come, let me show you.”
The bodyguard walks in front of us to knock on the door of the first house. I feel horrible. What if the residents weren’t prepared to welcome the prince into their home? I protest and say we don’t need to see the homes.
“No, no, I want to show you. This way you’ll know that we didn’t prepare this just for you,” he says. Well, he has a point.
When the bodyguard knocks on the first door, an attractive young black woman answers. She sees the prince and bows her head. “Shalom nasi.”
“Hakol bseder?” he asks her.
They’ve lit some kind of incense and the place smells wonderful. In a strange way, this reminds me of a Jewish home. A big dining room table with candlesticks, a traditional couch, and Hebrew artwork on the wall hangs alongside photos of Ben Ammi.
As we walk down a corridor, beautiful young black women poke their heads out of bedrooms. They all bow their heads and say, “Shalom, nasi” as we pass. I feel like I may have stepped into a brothel, or a sorority of sorts. An Israeli one. In downtown Atlanta.
The Black Hebrews consider themselves Jewish and, while the ones living in America may not have daily or even weekly synagogue services, they do have some sort of communal prayers. It’s called the Institute of Divine Understanding. Yes, it sounds a little like Scientology, something Tom Cruise would promote while jumping on Oprah’s couch, but I figured it was worth checking out.
It’s held each Sunday from 2 to 5 PM in the Royal Banquet Hall. When I enter, there’s already about 40 people — men, women, and children — there, but the crowd will balloon to well over 200 before this is all over.
I sit in the back so I can just be a fly on the wall, but no sooner did I put my stuff down did a woman dressed in African garb come up to me and drag me to the front row. She had recognized me from my princely visit a few days earlier and wanted to make sure I had the best seat in the house.
There are two men on the stage. One is preaching about something from Psalms, and anytime he wants to quote something from the text he points to the second guy who reads from the text. The second guy is the Black Hebrew equivalent of a Torah reader you’d see in synagogue. The only difference was their translation substituted the word “God” with “Ben Ammi”. “And we will dwell in the house of Ben Ammi forever,” the reader called out to the crowd. I felt like asking a question, but the two bodyguards at each end of the stage make me think otherwise.
The speaker talks about the ecology of people and how the Black Hebrews are a “distinct Yah species”. Instead of God forbid, they say “Yah forbid”. They often refer to Ben Ammi as “the mashiach (messiah) living amongst us.” I realize I’m witnessing a religion in its relative infancy — and there’s something very poignant about it.
After the speech, another man is called up to tell us the “Divine Current Events”. It feels like a bad parody of Saturday Night Live’s news update segment but, alas, this was real. Wearing a tan African outfit and a purple skullcap, he recites a Hebrew formula. I caught a few of the words: Rabeinu hamashiach (Our master the messiah) … Kol hakavod (He should be honored) … Hallelujah. Throughout the next three hours there would be many speakers. And they would all start off their speeches with this same Hebrew blessing. It’s their own homemade gospel, their own Lord’s Prayer.
Mr. Black Hebrew Cronkite talked about something he had read in that morning’s paper and every time he wanted to quote from the article, he pointed to the other guy on stage who would read from the story.
He delves into a dissertation on heaven and hell. “We live in the Kingdom of Yah, Adoneinu (our god), Moreinu (our teacher), Rabeinu hamashiach” (our master the messiah). The audience responds with a jubilant “Ken” (yes).
“Strip clubs would not exist in the Kingdom of Yah, but since we live in hell we have to navigate around it.” He speaks of “social constructs” and besides quoting from the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, he also quotes from the Old Testatment and a bible-like book written by Ben Ammi.
The more I listen, the more I get the feeling they are a peaceful people stuck in an evil world of anti-Yahs. They may look strange on the outside, but inside they are a conservative, family-values oriented community just trying to get by like the rest of us.
The news update fellow finishes and then a woman in a bright pink African outfit and headdress comes to the stage to give the weekly Divine Health Update.
“How’s everyone feeling today?” she starts off.
“Healthy!” the audience shouts back in unison. You can tell they’ve done this before.
The woman knows what she’s talking about. She works for the Center for Disease Control and is speaking today about a new study she saw on melanin and nicotine — and the evils of Phillip Morris.
She says that it’s much harder for black people to quit smoking because they have increased levels of melanin. “But we don’t call ourselves black anymore,” she explains. “We’re sons and daughters in the Kingdom of Yah.” It’s almost as if she’s willing the melanin right out of their system.
The study also promotes a vegan diet. “I just thought that was so holy,” she says. It’s worth noting that the Black Hebrews’ healthy lifestyle has made them somewhat of a medical marvel. In 1998, doctors visited the sect in Israel and found that only six percent of them suffered from high blood pressure, compared to 30 percent of American blacks. Only five percent of the Israelis were obese, compared to 32 percent of black men and half of black women in America .
“Now what does our spiritual father tell us?,” she asks.
The guy who reads the quotes approaches the microphone and reads from Ben Ammi’s bible, from a chapter called “Trinity of Truth”, which talks about the ills of the tobacco industry.
She finishes her health speech by making an announcement about their self-imposed “National Sugarless Week” which, she says, starts on Yom Shishi (Friday) and ends a week later on Motzei Shabbat (after the Sabbath). She lists off what appears to be a litany of laws regarding what’s permitted and what’s not. Certain kinds of Stevia, for example, are allowed.
Just as she’s finishing, someone on the side of the room shouts at the top of his lungs: “All rise in the presence of the great Prince Rahm!” Everyone jumps out of their seats and shouts back “Halleujah!” repeatedly as they raise their arms in the air. It almost seemed Fuhrer-like. “Yah Chai!” they continue, Hebrew for God is alive, over and over.
It all felt a little cultish, but who am I to judge? As an observant Jew, I do weird things too. I walk in the rain, sans umbrella, on the Sabbath. So they welcome their leader with great dignity and lots of shouting. It could be worse.
Prince Rahm, dressed in a grey robe with gold lacings, ascends the pulpit. He recites the Hebrew prayer each speaker starts with and then launches into a tirade about the AIDS crisis in South Africa. “This is Deuteronomy 28 coming into effect,” he says referring to the biblical curses decreed by God. Rahm reads from an article with the headline: “South Africa approves gay marriage.” There’s an audible gasp from the audience. “It’s a shame!” a few shout back.
The guy sitting next to me doesn’t seem too pleased either. “This is ridiculous,” he says to me. “It’s the work of the devil.”
Prince Rahm continues. “Certainly an African-Edenic mind would never bring that to the table.” He goes on to say homosexuals are nothing more than Sodomites. “In the early 1970s, homosexuality was classified as a psychological disease. Those evil marketing geniuses now got us saying ‘gay’ cuz it sounds nicer.”
“Teach, nasi, teach,” some in the crowd shout back as if they were at a church tent revival … and spoke perfect Hebrew.
Their commitedness to their beliefs is actually pretty inspiring. It’s more than just blind faith, more than merely following the wild teachings of a charismatic teacher. These people, everyone in this room, had made sacrifices. They no longer ate certain things, they no longer dressed the way most people do, they no longer drank beer with their buddies while watching the football game on Sunday afternoon. Nope, they had decided to come here instead. They chose a godly life, a holy endeavor and, to be perfectly honest, I’ve got to respect them for that.
Flash back a few days and my tour of the compound, the pre-school, and the three community homes ends as the Cadillac Deville drops me off in front of the vegan restaurant where my journey first started. It had been just a few hours, but it felt much longer. For a brief moment in time, I was given entrée into a whole other world.
As we exit the car back onto the sidewalk, it’s nearly night. The prince stares off thoughtfully into the distance. Ahead of him, as far as the eye could see, are mountains of time. Decades of telling the story of the African Hebrew Israelites and trying to convince those who are not familiar that he is a man of peace. A man of God.
Time has already begun to heal some wounds. When the Black Hebrews first arrived on the shores of Israel in the late 1960s and expected to be welcomed with open arms under the law of return, they were told they were not Jewish and could not be automatic citizens of Israel. Over the years, the Israeli government has slowly started to recognize Asiel and his community, first as temporary workers and now as permanent residents. Indeed, one of Asiel’s sons is currently serving in the Israeli army.
I bid the prince farewell, wish him good luck on his speech, and thank him for welcoming me into his community. As I lean in to shake his hand, he grabs me by my shoulder and offers me a warm embrace. We promise to stay in touch (he actually invites me to join him on an upcoming trip to Israel) and no sooner had we met, our encounter was over. Kind of like summer camp.
It’s been several months since that fateful Thanksgiving day and I’ve told many friends the story of the African Hebrew Israelites since then. And I always say the same thing. Yes, they do weird things. They embrace polygamy and shy away from modern medicine. But, at their core, they are a people of faith.
It’s the easy way out for those who have never met them or those whose only interaction with them has been on the six o’clock news to have a skewed view of the group. But they are more than the sum of their parts.
While in the back room, the prince had showed me an infomercial he had made about the tiny West African town of Benin. People from Asiel’s community had come to the town and built it up. They set up clean running water, built an auditorium which seats 1000, and even constructed a tofu factory. They established an organic agriculture program planting 14,000 fruit trees, and taught the townspeople how to farm the land. The residents have become self-sufficient, even exporting their fruit to European countries for a profit. Other nearby villages have, not surprisingly, invited the Black Hebrews to come to their towns as well.
When I ask Asiel if, like Christian missionaries in third world countries, he was trying to proselytize and get people to convert to his religion, he looks at me puzzled. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, he reminds me. “We don’t say die and go to heaven, but have heaven on earth,” he explains. “The children of Israel need to be a light unto the nations.”
You see, despite our skin color, our feelings towards steak, and our number of wives we are both pretty much the same. We are people of God and, as such, our governed by a sense of morality. Nothing could be more black and white.
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