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In the Footsteps of the Black Jews of Harlem

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On the corner of West 123rd Street in Harlem, across from Marcus Garvey Park, sits an elegant, brown-brick townhouse. Grecian columns flank its doorway, supporting an ornate arch that circumscribes a fresco. According to a report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the building is “a particularly fine example of the neo-Renaissance style” of architecture. Its grandeur is just slightly diminished by the fact that it is undergoing refurbishment. A circular hole in the center of the fresco awaits a window, and a bare steel slab serves as a front door. Notices from the New York City Department of Buildings, affixed to the wrought-iron fence that separates the building from the street, state that only limited renovations may be conducted on the house’s externals.

This mansion once belonged to John Dwight, the millionaire manufacturer of Arm & Hammer baking soda. Since then, the Dwight House has had a motley history. Among other things, it’s served as a private clinic, an art school for the WPA, and an SRO housing unit. But for nearly half a century, the house, which was designated a historic landmark in 1971, served a very different sort of public. It was home to the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, the hub of a vibrant—if small—Black Israelite community.

The renovations on the Dwight House are the last visible reminder of an era of Black Judaism in Harlem. The blocks adjoining Malcolm X Boulevard from 120th to 130th Street are peppered with buildings that, for decades, bore Hebrew names. The residential brownstone at 4 West 121 Street used to be B’nai Adath Kol Yisroel. There’s an empty lot now at 204 Malcolm X Boulevard, but this was once the site of Kohol Beth B’nai Yisroel, a dynamic synagogue with a young rabbi that competed with the Commandment Keepers for worshipers in the 1950s. Back then, the Commandment Keepers had not yet acquired the Dwight House. Their congregation was located above a drugstore on 87 West 128th Street, a lot that today is taken up by a Mormon church.

To the casual observer, the Black Israelite community has vanished without a trace. The glass doors of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on West 128th Street hold pictures of an angelic, white Jesus, captioned: “Learn principles of peace from the Prince of Peace.” Early one afternoon on the corner of 128th and Malcolm X, I watched as a small group of young white men in crisp parochial uniforms stepped onto the curb. No one would guess that, just 60 years ago, this corner was alive with Black Israelite religious life.

The Birth of a Community

Dr. Jeffrey Gurock, a Harlem historian and professor at Yeshiva University, described the bustle of what was once the Black Israelite community: “They had their own butcher shops, they had stores, they had their own community in the Central Harlem district.” Today, that community is all but gone. The Black Israelite synagogues have migrated: to Brooklyn, the Bronx, Newark, Chicago, and Jamaica. But their roots are here, in Harlem, where the oldest Black Israelite synagogue remained active until 2007.

For Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who founded the Commandment Keepers congregation in 1919, roots were important. The Commandment Keepers began as a search for the African roots that Rabbi Matthew believed slavery had destroyed. According to Matthew, African Americans were actually Israelites, the children of the marriage of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His claims may seem quasi-mythical, but in a society under the sway of Jim Crow, and in a year known for the most violent race riots in American history, Matthew’s narrative presented Harlem’s black community with a proud vision of African identity.

In his book The Black Jews of Harlem, Howard Brotz, a sociologist and close friend of Rabbi Matthew, recorded how one congregant expressed Jewish identity. “When I stand before the Torah,” the congregant said, “and hear what God told our fathers and mothers, and what we have lost, it’s made me a new person.” Brotz’s book was published in 1963, a year after the Commandment Keepers acquired Dwight House.

They had their own butcher shops, they had stores, they had their own community in the Central Harlem district. Today, that community is all but gone.

The search for African American identity is an old one. According to Gurock, the Black Israelites “fit into the narrative of African Americans moving away from Christianity and the revival of black nationalism in Harlem.” It’s clear that Rabbi Matthew stands in the footsteps of Marcus Garvey, of whom he was a strong admirer. While black nationalism was thus certainly an element of the Commandment Keepers’ identity, the group’s self-understanding was more complex.

In an essay—“Who Are We?”—for the website of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo Ben Levy acknowledges the social and political significance of Rabbi Matthew’s message for African Americans. With his vision of blacks’ royal heritage, Matthew “instill[ed] pride in a people who were being humiliated through institutionalized racism and cultural bigotry.” But Rabbi Levy—a tenured professor of history at Northampton Community College—also gives credence to Matthew’s claims of Judaic descent. He points to Hebraic practices among African peoples, which originate in “an early but unclear source.” The source of such practices, says Levy, may very well be descent from the “ten lost tribes,” whose progeny somehow wound up in West Africa. “In some respects, they see themselves as the most legitimate Jews historically,” Gurock notes.

But the group also believes that, as Levy puts it, “whatever the historical truth was, the present reality is that G-d is spirit and those who worship Him must ‘worship Him in spirit’ instead of pigmentation.” All Jewish communities,” says Levy, have crafted “traditions” of belonging “that come out of their own histories.” There is no reason that the Black Israelites cannot participate in a similar process of group definition. For Levy, the group’s connection to Judaism rests on something more than anthropological claims. He sees a connection between the African experience and the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible—a connection that he and other Israelites believe cannot be mere coincidence. As he points out, the biblical prophecies of Israel “being scattered all over the world, being carried in slave ships to distant lands, and of being forced to worship alien gods” strikingly parallel the black experience in America.

The biblical prophecies of Israel being scattered all over the world, being carried in slave ships to distant lands, and of being forced to worship alien gods.

The relationship between the Black Israelites and the broader Jewish community has been mixed. Although some Black Israelites have undergone formal Jewish conversion, many Israelite leaders question the need to seek affirmation of their identity from Jews of European descent. Most Israelite communities accept a doctrine of shuva, which states that lost Jews can reclaim their faith without external conversion rites. As Levy writes, “in their hearts and minds,” the followers of Rabbi Matthew “were not converting to Judaism—they were reclaiming part of their legacy.” As true Israelites, the Black Jews of Harlem saw no need to seek affirmation elsewhere.

Exodus of The Keepers

The Commandment Keepers lost the Dwight House in 2007, amid a legal dispute between rival factions of the synagogue. And with the loss of the building, the Black Israelite community seems to have left Harlem behind. The Commandment Keepers’ current synagogue is in Newark, and of the seven active synagogues listed on the website of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, none are located in Harlem. Asked why the Black Israelites abandoned the neighborhood, Dr. Gurock says he can only guess that the Harlem’s recent gentrification was the pivotal factor. Higher property prices may have forced the congregation to seek sanctuary and new adherents elsewhere. Certainly, the Black Israelites are thriving. Black Israelite synagogues now exist in four states—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. The group has even established ties to communities in Africa.

As they approach their one-hundredth anniversary, there are signs that the Black Israelites are seeking a closer relationship with mainstream Judaism and—perhaps—a higher national profile. Rabbi Capers Funnye, who was appointed chief rabbi in 2015, is a member of the interdenominational Chicago Board of Rabbis and sits on the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs. Funye, a cousin of Michelle Obama’s, seems poised to inaugurate a new era of Black Israelite leadership; in his first address as chief rabbi, he called for Israelites to “establish a halacha”—the Jewish term for a standard code of practice—“for our community.” But even as the group continues to evolve, it solidifies its century-long religious tradition. The Commandment Keepers website lists an “unbroken chain of Torah transmission” that hearkens back to Rabbi Matthew.

Since passing from the hands of the Commandment Keepers, the fate of the Dwight House was uncertain for a few years—though its facade is protected by the structure’s landmark status, developers were eyeing it for a potential gutting. It wound up, however, in more appreciative hands. The building is now owned by James Fenton, an English poet who made his fortune writing the original libretto for the stage production of Les Misérables, and his partner, Darryl Pinckney, novelist and essayist of the African American experience. (Pinckney’s 2016 novel, Black Deutschland, chronicles a protagonist who moves to Berlin because he “wanted to live where authority had little interest in black men.”) The couple intends to restore the house to its original use as a single-family home, a project that they hope will be completed sometime next year. “It is for me a rather resonant and historical landscape,” Pinckney told the Wall Street Journal when the couple bought the home in 2010. “I find it moving to plan my old age here.”

READ PART 2 OF THIS EXCLUSIVE SERIES ON BLACK JEWS

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* Some pictures featured in this story were generously provided by Matthew X. Kiernan/New York Big Apple Images, July 2006.

Yitzchak Fried

Yitzchak (Isaac) Fried graduated from Yeshiva University with a B.A. in political science and a concentration in political philosophy. He enjoys writing, dogs, good books, good wine and good conversation. He currently hails from Washington Heights, and has been in love with the city for four years.
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