Monday, January 15, 2024

Unknown Tidbits Of The Intersectionality Of Jews And Blacks In America


Unknown Tidbits Of The Intersectionality Of Jews And Blacks In America

 For the video of the discussion

Torah portion—this weekend, is Vaera-in Exodus- Ch 9:1.It includes in it the famous phrase, in Hebrew, “Shlach et Ami V’yavduni”- Let my people go, that they shall serve me.”

We all recognize that the phrase “ Let My People Go” became incorporated into a spiritual that had its roots in the struggle of black slaves to be free from their chains. The phrase was made part of the introduction between my Professor, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose memory we honor this weekend:

“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.”

Relations between Jews and Blacks have been mixed, especially in recent years, from a Louis Farrakhan or a Kanye West. Some of it stems from the influence of the first Christians to preach to their slaves, way back, and teaching them the “ Christ-killer” narrative.

 Yet, on the other hand, as the words of the song “ Let my People Go”, there was also an identification with ancient Israel.

There was as well a lot of mixing that took place, over the centuries—Alexander Hamilton, one of the great framers of the Constitution, may have been of mixed African and Jewish heritage. A few years back, we did an on-line zoom session with members of the Jewish community of Jamaica, which is very much a mixed-community of Jews of Sephardic and African ancestry.

Here's a reminder: Avinu Malkenu with a Caribbean beat:



 One of the founders of the very influential black civil rights movement, SNCC ( Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) , Julius Lester, converted to Judaism, influence by the fact that he had a Jewish great grandfather who married a freed slave. My sociology professor, back in thee 60’s, pointed out that then, the predominant mixed race marriages were between Jews and Blacks. Later, I hope to bring in some outside participants to talk with us about their experience as Jews of Color, or Black Jews, or just plain Jews.


So, I want, this Shabbat, to dabble in the theme of intersectionality, to use a contemporary politically loaded word, as it relates to positive connections between our two groups.

First, let’s talk about music. Gershwin introduced Jewish musical themes into a musical about blacks- Porgy and Bess. Al Jolson pretended to play a Negro in blackface, as was done a century ago. But what about the other way around?




Tevye der Shvartzer Khazn

The story of Thomas LaRue Jones, the Black cantor from Newark who captivated the Jewish world with his songs BY EDNA NAHSHON

JUNE 16, 2022 Tablet Magazine

The writer notes:


“Working my way through a mass of colorful theater posters that featured Yiddish divas and matinee idols, I glimpsed an old black-and-white illustrated placard with a cameo like portrait of a serious-looking young Black man with soulful eyes, dressed in festive cantorial regalia. Titled “Tevye, der shvartzer khazn” (Tevye, the Black Cantor), he was, the undated print declared, “The Greatest Wonder of the World.” A small-type English-language byline at bottom of the poster announced that “Thomas La-Rue” was “the most phenomenal cantor-tenor in America” and “the only one of his kind in the world.” “Tevye,” the renowned Black cantor, the poster announced in Yiddish, “has taken America by storm” with a multilanguage repertoire of Jewish folk songs and cantorial compositions by Yossele (Joseph) Rosenblatt and other Jewish composers.


Here is a little visual about him:

Run to 16:29


Sample of his singing, on the theme of Jewish suffering and hope!

go to 29:16


African Zionism

Today, South Africa is leading the attack against Israel at the international court, part of a historical trend in South Africa of the past several decades. It ignores, not only the role that Israel played in the support given to the newly emergent nations of Africa after colonialism, but also the inspiration that Jewish history gave to prominent leaders of the early civil rights movement:


Zionism, Pan-Africanism, and White Nationalism- Tablet Magazine

What we learn about Israel’s ethnocentrism by looking at groups inspired by Zionism



“Black Zionism has its roots before the formal advent of Zionism: in the Pan-African writings of William Blyden and Martin Delaney, and then later in W.E.B Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Stokely Carmichael.”

“West Indian-born Edward Blyden wrote about it as a resolution to the slavery question in the 1850s, focusing on the newly founded country of Liberia in1847. Blyden had no particular ideology of Black Nationalism and viewed colonizing Liberia in the way proto-Zionists in the 19th century viewed Jewish immigration to Palestine, as a return to the homeland (although Blyden did not have the messianic tenor of some Jewish proto-Zionists or later Pan-Africanists). Blyden published The Jewish Question, a pamphlet, in 1898 (underwritten by his Jewish friend from Liverpool, Louis Solomon), two years after the publication of Herzl’s Der Judenstaadt, which Blyden read and admired. In 1903, a year before Herzl’s death, Blyden noted in a lecture “West African Problems,” using a biblical metaphor, that the idea of the black colonization of Africa “give[s] to the African the fullest opportunity for self-development and self-advancement.” Blyden viewed Zionism as a model for his idea, coining the term “Ethiopianism”and calling on blacks to return to Africa to redeem it. In The Jewish Question, Blyden writes, “The Jewish question, in some respects, is similar to that which at this moment agitates thousands of descendants of Africa in America, anxious to return to the land of their fathers.”


“This idea reached a wider audience in W.E.B. Du Bois, who coined the term “Black Zionism” to describe his Pan-Africanism. Du Bois openly stated, “The African movement must mean to us what the Zionist movement must mean to the Jews, the centralization of race effort and the recognition of a racial front.” Du Bois, an ardent fan of Zionism, pinpointed the racial component in Zionism that many overlooked.”

One of the best defenses of Israel’s right was given by a speech by Martin Luther King Jr, just a short time before he was murdered. I was there then.


 Rustin, the movie, failed to cover Bayard Rustin’s battle on behalf of Israel, when he and A. Phillip Randolph founded  Black Americans to Support Israel Committee (BASIC) in 1975 . He declared: “Since Israel is a democratic state surrounded by essentially undemocratic states which have sworn her destruction, those interested in democracy everywhere must support Israel’s existence..( “

As a former communist and openly gay, he would have been shocked by the devotion of so many in the LGBTQ community to the cause of Hamas.


How about African Americans who felt they were the original Jews. Many years back, as a young Rabbinic student, I went on Shabbat to a synagogue in Harlem, The Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, led by Rabbi  Matthews.


Black Jews, The Commandment Keepers In Harlem, 1910 (

Black Jews, The Commandment Keepers In Harlem, 1910

JULY 1, 2016

Black Jews started forming Harlem congregations in the 1910s, based on the conviction that Africans were descended from ancient Hebrews and that Christianity was a religion imposed on them during enslavement in America. But few traces of their presence remain in the neighborhood.

(documentary filmmaker Marlaine Glicksman ) Her film in progress, called “The Commandment Keepers,” will be screened on April 17 at 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. It traces the congregation’s history, from the early black rabbis’ sermons and writings about their commitment to Jewish rituals to their followers’ persistence in the face of racism and anti-Semitism.

From Wikipedia

Commandment Keepers

Main article: Commandment Keepers

The founder of the Commandment Keepers, Wentworth Arthur Matthew holding a Sefer Torah.

Wentworth Arthur Matthew founded the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem in 1919.[5] Matthew was influenced by the non-black Jews he met as well as by Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. Garvey used the Biblical Jews in exile as a metaphor for black people in North America. One of the accomplishments of Garvey's movement was to strengthen the connection between black Americans and Africa, Ethiopia in particular. When Matthew later learned about the Beta Israel—Ethiopian Jews—he identified with them.[59]

Today the Commandment Keepers follow traditional Jewish practices and observe Jewish holidays.[35] Members observe kashrut, circumcise newborn boys, and celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and their synagogue has a mechitza to separate men and women during worship.[60]

The Commandment Keepers believe that they are descendants of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.[61] Matthew taught that "the Black man is a Jew" and "all genuine Jews are Black men",[62] but he valued non-black Jews as those who had preserved Judaism over the centuries.[5] Matthew maintained cordial ties with non-black Jewish leaders in New York and frequently invited them to worship at his synagogue.[63].

Some years back, I served as a Rabbi in Newport News, Virginia. Across the James River was the city of Portsmouth, and I was told that there had been a  community of Black Jews there. At one time, when I was driving through the countryside, I saw what looked like an abandoned church that had a very visible Magen David in the window, but I could not determine if that was the synagogue. However, I did find some references to them online:

  • Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. is the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. He is also the first cousin of former First Lady Michelle Obama. He was born in Georgetown, South Carolina, but his family moved to Portsmouth when he was a child. He attended I.C. Norcom High School and Norfolk State University before joining the Israelite movement.
  • Louise Lucas is a state senator and a civil rights activist in Virginia. She is also a member of The Links, Incorporated (Portsmouth Chapter), a national organization of Black women who are committed to civic and cultural engagement. She identifies as a Black Hebrew Israelite and follows the dietary laws of the Torah.
  • Michael Twitty is a culinary historian and a James Beard Award-winning author. He is known for his work on exploring the African roots of Southern food and culture. He is also a Black Jewish convert who practices Conservative Judaism. He was born in Washington, D.C., but he has traced his ancestry to enslaved Africans who lived in Portsmouth and other parts of Virginia5 .

As I pointed out, we have our own very important intersectionality between our communities, whether it be Jews who are descended from the ancient communities of  Ethiopia, like our two young technical crew, or Jews who come from more recent Jewish heritage, or Jews who themselves chose to formally join Judaism, whatever their original ethnicity or religion. Welcome aboard.


Sunday, December 24, 2023

How Jews Spent New Years Eve in Berlin, 1936


How Jews Spent New Years Eve in Berlin, 1936

 For video:



I am proud to announce that there is an exhibit that opened this week in Frankfurt, Germany, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the reestablishing of the Jewish community after the Holocaust.


As  you may know, my father, Rabbi Dr William, or Wilhelm at that time, served as the first State Rabbi of the region of Hesse, the environs of Frankfurt, when the community was reincorporated. This followed his service establishing adult education programs for the survivors in the Displaced Persons Camps in the Salzburg area of Austria.

Here is the invitation, which I share with you:

It’s running from Dec 20 through May 26 of next year.


My father is featured prominently in the opening panels of the exhibit, that refer to the founding years ( and I get “honorable mention” for providing some of that material.

Exhibit Displays

 New Beginnings Exhibit


My father with the great Chief Rabbi of Germany through the Holocaust, Rabbi Leo Baeck.


At the dedication of the Westend Synagog




Here is the recording , broadcast over German radio, as my father lights the Eternal Lamp for the first time in the reconstructed Westend Synagog:



At the dedication of the synagogue




I want to shift the tenor of my talk today, though, away from the heavy lifting that my father was engaged in at that time, to a reflection of a lighter mood in the decade preceding, before anyone could know the severity of the tragedy to unfold.  This last quarter of 2023, or the first quarter of 5784, has been very heavy for us all, especially for our families in Israel, but for us here as well. So, I thought of an unusual document that had been sent me by a researcher in Germany, one that opened a little light in an otherwise already gloomy time.





My father, who had been leader of the Jewish Student Zionist organization in Vienna and then leader of the Jewish student’s organizatiuon in Berlin, had been in studies in Rabbinical school at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums in the early 1930’s. However, family funding for his studies had been running out, so he left Berlin for Zurich to earn extra money as a tutor. While there, he basically was caught in a scheme that was intended to bring him back to Berlin and  his studies, but instead, landed him in prison, first in one called Moabit, then later in Brandeburg Prison.

I am surprised what good record keepers the Germans are, till today- I was sent his entire dossier!



 Berlin Kangaroo Court Indictement



          The archivist at Brandenburg found, among the legal documents, a personal letter to my father from a friend of his, Oskar Gellman, dated January 17, 1936, with an extra note by Erna, whom I assume to be his wife.


          His friend not only decided to appraise him of the mundane events of his acquaintances during the time her was in prison, but also to entertain him and keep his spirit up. Why the wardens would have kept just this letter, I have no clue, but the writer is so very vivid and ascerbic in his wit, that perhaps they kept it as an example of how funny these Jews could be. His writing verges on the Rabelaisian and he pokes sharply at his friends and acquaintances.


          It is a window on the mood of Jews in the early years of  the Hitler reign, as the Nuremberg laws were taking effect while the ultimate horror  awaiting them was something as yet unimagineable. Clearly, the author says nothing at all about the Nazi regime, since he is aware that the letter will be read by the authorities and understands the potential impact on my father’s pending appeal of anything at all material to his incarceration. He can only make reference to it as a one –time moment of stupidity that does not match my father’s fine personality and sterling character, which he pointedly emphasizes ( as does Erna). In light of the fun he pokes at his circle of friends, one can see how highly he regards my father in contrast. There is no reference to the status of Jews, per se, but clear references to the general difficulties in finding secure employment or economic security for some of the people involved and a general sense of wishing to leave. The one reference to politics is to the Italian occupation of Ethiopia and the fear of war between the British and French against the Italians in the Mediterranean.

          His language is full of idioms and verbal hyperboles that are sometimes hard to understand ( and hard to read). The text of the letter was transcribed for my by Omer Van Voorden.





My dear Willi,


          In the meantime, since Christmas, there  were only two days that were worthy of note: New Years and my birthday. I didn’t want to celebrate Sylvester [Ed.- New Years] in the way one could understand celebrate. I tell myself- if Willi is not here, but instead he is in B [ Brandenburg Prison], then there is no way to celebrate anything. It was clear that for your sake I could think of no reason I could celebrate. You know that when my sprit is lousy I am against any celebrating. I told to Roman that he and Moehrchen should come and reminisce over a glass of tea. However, I wanted to make Erma happy, so I bought Roman, Morchen, Erma and myself tickets to the Comic Opera at 0.75 ! [ Ed.- 75 pfennig, worth, in todays US dollar, about $5, or about twice the cost of a “Dreigroschenoper”, (Three Penny Opera). I do not know if his “!” is because was so cheap-or so expensive at the time] . However, it worked out differently than I had planned. On New Years eve, at 6 PM, Erna’s ex- husband and his current wife suggested that following the opera they would come to spend New Years with me.


          Out of politeness rather than out of joy about this implausible event, I said yes. Hardly had they come here, than there also appeared a couple from the outskirts of Berlin (whom I myself this summer more or less had befriended) with the same suggestion.

Again I explained the plan, but also gave notice that I would provide no alcohol and for that everyone would need to fend for him. Finally, they also bought tickets for the Comic Opera (at 0.75!). After completion of the cultural event, the whole social gathering took place in my apartment where a table was set. Served were: sausages and potato salad and again sausages and potato salad and for dessert  a salad made with peas and beans was passed around, with what afterwards turned out to have as bad consequences as could be. To my greatest shock I noticed that in addition to other bottles, the provincial couple had brought 2 bottles of whisky, 2 bottles of wine + 3 bottles of champagne to make us foggy.


          Everything naturally fell apart as I take note of my weakness for alcohol.


          Roman tried to get me drunk with downright sadistic pleasure. He cheered me with “prosit” constantly and I had to respond willy-nilly every time with another drink. Erna was soon very tipsy and glowed like a red bulb. (You might think this was due to an intensive sunlamp cure!). I don’t believe it. And you?  Around midnight, the company was already half wobbly and looking for me to systematically finish everything. Lion Braun was pale as a corpse and Roman began to target the wall with pancakes as for a mural. (The traces can still be seen). Here come true the old adage "who digs a pit for others...”


Roman had become totally wasted in the course of the evening. Afterwards, as the senior member here, I went first went for the toilet and, as a decent man, locked the door. I heard an urgent knock from the outside and opened the door.


Who rushed forward to me with a mouth full of seltzer water? The fat Roman! I have never seen anyone so pale... As he lay there, the poor guy and provided me with highly varied companionship. After some time, he gave himself to philosophical considerations about  comparison of human life with the famous “Huehnerleiter” [Ed.- There is a book by Alan Dundes ,Life Is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder , which explains this popular German saying that life is like a chicken coop ladder, full of filth] Is it still the bleakest? The Huehnerleiter got rid of his ruined shirt and ran again as half dull madman by the long corridor, until he fell tired and exhausted on shaking knees at the other end and with his gigantic chest covered the ice cold floor.

…In this mixture of human nourishment and blessed drunkenness, we other weak-kneed creatures let the Colossus sleep up to 4 o’clock in the morning.


Despite our muddled senses, and perhaps because of our heavy mass, we thought of you and communicate with you from a distance as the card that you've certainly received proves.


          We were drinking to your health and our card's contents clearly expressed our deep feelings. I hope our wishes have arrived. In addition, Willi, I personally have found myself completely out of balance since your fall and I must confess that only the idea that still keeps me going, you get the feeling, is that you still have an old friend in Berlin.

          I know that this is illogical, but I hope that my stay here can give you a little bit of calm. If not for you I would have left after Baby was engaged, but I will stay here and wait until you have finished your sentence for this one time nonsense. As I've known you as a constitutionally sound and logical man, I hope to God that you will well weather this difficult time, especially since I was able to convince myself that the institution you are in is very humane and you receive decent treatment. I am convinced that after your release a few weeks of nursing by your mother will be enough to get you afloat again. And I think that your professors and colleagues will forgive this inexplicable and unexpectable prank of yours.


          You are known as a fine and decent human being and I hope that we later will see your act as I see it, as the derailment by unusual circumstances of one fundamentally decent person.


          Now back to the Sylvester. Later on Erna’s sister-in-law and husband and another family known to you came by.


          After having brought Lion in a fully apathetic state to his home, we remained together until the New Year’s morning. The only ones who stayed sober were the provincial couple. They cooked us over stitch and thread and let no one sleep. On the New Year’s morning at 8, we went together to Erna’s in-laws to enjoy a decent breakfast.


          So, the 1st of January was spent in good chit-chat until the evening and then we moved on to our own homes to go to bed as soon as possible.


          One should not plan things; it comes out differently from what is planned.

[The letter goes on with some chit-chat about various and sundry common friends.]





          The world in general is continuing its old routine. Up till the military conflict between Italy and Abyssinia, the world events continue on the same old tune. The members of the League of Nations are striving to resolve the dispute by means of economic sanctions. There are some dark clouds on the political horizon.

One can only hope that after some dramatic moves, considered objectively, a “happy end” will finally be achieved. I personally can hardly believe that there is a serious basis to the threatening portent of a transfer of the conflict to Europe, in which England and France are one side, Italy on the other side coming to blows in the Mediterranean. I believe every European Government would be able to deny a material interest in this.

Italy could act out of desperation in the event that all other ways to back off, but that is not a foregone conclusion.


          ..Now, my dear Willy, don’t let your head hang down, everything will be over and I hope I can soon get from a letter from you. I will visit you again at the next possible opportunity. Goodbye, my good young man! Oskar.


My father was released from prison after hist initial sentence was cut to two years, on the condition that he leave Germany forever. Ironically, because Brandenburg, in this years was a prison focused on rehabilitation, he had relatively easy conditions, and was able to finish his Rabbinical studies by correspondence.  He made his way to Austria, published three essays on the dangers of facing contemporary civilization ( psychological, biological, and economic determinism) , escaped to Czechoslovakia with the Anschluss, and was again caught with the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, and this time, thrown into a notorious prison for subversives, the Spielberg castle of Brno, and then, sent on one of Eichmann’s first trains out to Poland, and form there, escape to the Soviet Union.