A Black-Jewish perspective on the Jazz Age

The 1920s—the Jazz Age—were also an emergent era in the modern cultural nexus of Jews with Africans and African Americans. Embarrassing images of Al Jolson in blackface are not the most interesting. Instead, take African American performer, Reb Tuviah, who enthralled Jewish audiences in the 1920s starring in a Yiddish play, Yenta Talebenta, and offering a rendition of Eli, Eli that the Forvertz said “conveyed more deeply and movingly the Jewish sorrow, the Jewish martyrdom, the Jewish cry and plea to God, than . . . could have ever been imagined.”

Of greater significance were Black Jews like Arnold Josiah Ford, because of his relation to “Black Zionism.” Josiah Ford. The son of an Evangelical minister in Barbados, Ford came to Harlem in 1911 and at first pursued a career as a musician. Joining the Marcus Garvey movement. He was also associated with the Moorish Zionist movement led by a fellow Garveyite Mordecai Herman. As Garvey’s musical director, Ford composed “Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers,” the Garveyite “national anthem” which New York’s Yiddish papers called “the Negro Hatikvah.”

As many as 600 Black Jews marched in Garveyite parades in Manhattan. But Garvey, who founded his own African Orthodox Church mirroring his Catholic upbringing, rebuffed Ford’s repeated efforts to convert him to Black Judaism. With the help of white Jewish benefactors, Ford—who knew quite a bit of Yiddish and Hebrew—founded his own congregation, Beth Bnai Abraham, an offshoot of the Moorish Zionist Temple.

Ford was electrified when he discovered the existence of Ethiopia’s “Black Jews.” Polish Jewish adventurer and Zionist Jacques Faitlovich devoted his life to the cause of the Beta Israel (then called Falashas), establishing the American Pro-Falasha Committee in 1922 and bringing Taamarat Emmanuel, the first Ethiopian Jew to come to New York, to study in the U.S. around 1931. Ford may have been the first Black-Jewish leader to urge the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine to be shared by whites and blacks.

He supported the Palestine Foundation Fund, showed Holy Land movies to his congregation, and promoted Jewish-Arab reconciliation efforts. In 1930, Ford made aliyah to Addis Ababa where he established a school but died in 1935, just before the Italian invasion.

The first wave of American “Black Jewish” synagogues, founded around 1900, were typically “Hebrew Christian” in that they retained belief in Christ while introducing the Saturday Sabbath, Passover celebration, and the new doctrine that God and Jesus were black—as were the Patriarchs, Moses, Solomon, and Sheba. They were influenced by the Pentecostal movement and the desire to return Christianity to its earliest origins. The Church of the Living God, Pillar of Truth for All Nations, and the Church of God and Saints of Christ were founded, respectively, by F. S. Cherry, a seaman and railroad worker, and William S. Crowdy, a cook for the Santa Fe Railroad. Both were born as slaves and brought up as Southern Baptists.

Crowdy’s itinerant ministry through the Midwest and Northeast led him to preach Black Judaism in the streets of Harlem in 1899. Crowdy’s intellectual world was influenced by far-reaching currents including African American Masonry as well as the Anglo-Israelite movement as well as white Pentecostalists. In 1903, he ordained a young South African who carried his gospel back to Pretoria. In 1921, Enoch Mgijima, a former follower of Crowdy’s, was at the center of “the Bulhoek Tragedy” in which South African authorities killed 163 Black Israelites and wounded and jailed hundreds more. Cherry’s church, headquartered in Philadelphia, spread to Chicago where it strongly supported Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalist movement in the 1920s.

There is a complicated succession from Cherry’s congregation to Black Hebrew Israelites, also originating in Chicago, who eventually settle in Dimona in the Negev who settled in the Negev at Dimona. Founded in the 1960s by Ben Ammi (“Son of My People”) Carter, the Black Israelites consider themselves the “blood descendants of the ancient Hebrews.” Initially, their predominant messianic hope centered not on Israel but on a return to Africa timed with Passover.

After a quarter of a century of deterioration, African American attitudes toward Zionism and Israel stabilized at a level of low to moderate favorability. Finally, the log jam over the Black Israelites’ status was broken during the 1990s. Illinois legislators brokered an agreement, negotiated in 1990, and finalized in 1992, permitting them to hold jobs and receive social benefits. Ben Ammi Carter moderated his anti-white Jewish rhetoric. Permanent status, including the right to serve in the Army, was granted in 2002. That year, a Black Israelite—the first born in Israel—was killed by Palestinian terrorists at his Bar Mitzvah.

Today, African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (AHIJ) in Dimona, numbering some 4,000, celebrate an annual New World Passover. There are almost always celebrity guests from Africa and African America. The late singer Whitney Houston was an especially prized friend of the community. The Black Israelites maintain complicated relations with both the Israeli society in which they live and the African American culture which they left behind yet hope someday to redeem. Their vegetarian “soul food” restaurants are a success, and they even maintain development projects in parts of Africa.

Ben Ammi Carter has gone to his reward, but his people are a permanent, unchallenged part of the Israelis scene.

This post is extracted from my forthcoming book, coauthored with Ephraim Isaac: “From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans” (Africa World Press).

About the Author
Born in the shadow of the old Yankee Stadium, I grew up in Los Angeles where I did my undergraduate and graduate work at UCLA. I spent 10 years teaching at American universities before joining the Wiesenthal Center. I've published widely, both in journalism and in scholarship. My new book, coauthored with Ephraim Isaac, "From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans," will be published next month by Africa World Press.