Religion & Beliefs

Polygamous, Black, Vegan Jews

Maybe you're all a step ahead of me, but I had never even HEARD of the Black Hebrews until today.  Little did I know there was a booming population in my own town.  But this article in American Jewish Life … Read More

By / April 10, 2007
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

Maybe you're all a step ahead of me, but I had never even HEARD of the Black Hebrews until today.  Little did I know there was a booming population in my own town.  But this article in American Jewish Life Magazine is (as we say here in Atlanta) off the chain.    Astounding.  You need to read it!

Maybe you didn't know about this particular flavor of Judaism (which is often described as a cult in the American media).  But it seems more Jewish than a lot of what I see in the secular Jewish world (albeit a little crazy) and it's growing:

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.

While the group traces their roots back to the assumed existance of black Jews in biblical times, their written history really begins with a man named 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.

Now, I realize that this all sounds nuts, but  before we make too much fun, I want to say that these people are HARDCORE Jews, if we grant that they're Jews at all (and it would seem that Israel has.  Black Hebrews are servng in the IDF right now). They keep rigid (vegan) dietary laws, observe the Sabbath, speak Hebrew, wear Tzitzit, read Torah. 

Do you?

Reading the (very long) article today, learning about about their polygamous lifestyle, their amazing compound in Southwest Atlanta, I didn't know what to think…  All of my definitions of observance and culture were challenged in some way by this story. 

Most of all, I had to put my own aesthetic instincts aside.

I can't possibly do justice to this story in a blog post, but I want to stress that the day that AJL editor Benyamin Cohen spent with Prince Asiel makes for a compelling read.  And it seems to be that it's part and parcel of my ongoing question here…

About who is a Jew.

One thing the story doesnt address directly is whether any of the members of the earliest generation of Black Hebrews converted legally.  But it does go into the way they've had to fight to be accepted in Israel by the law of return, so I'm inclined to think that they did not undergo a legal conversion at any point.

Still… they really do seem to be living Jewish lives. 

If the Jews had spent a little while shacked up with Mormons.