Thursday, December 5, 2019

Flashback 1991: Black Jews assert claim to faith

Rabbi Capers Funnye preaching in 1991 (Photo for the Sun-Times by Al Podgorski).

     Facebook dangles potential friends, and most I don't know so let drift on by. 
     But I could not pass up Rabbi Capers Funnye, because in the early 1990s I visited his synagogue and wrote about him.  I really liked going to his synagogue, and meeting people who follow my faith, not because of the accident of their birth, but because they found it themselves and embraced it. Judaism meant something to them. 
    I had just seen his tallis, a few years back, in the Smithsonian's collection of African-American artifacts, along with Dizzy Gillespie's angled trumpet and Oprah Winfrey's microphone (reflecting, somewhat smugly, that I had met all three: how often does THAT happen at a museum?)
     The story stands out for several reasons. First, an editor, Larry Green, did not want to put it in the paper. What, he wondered, was "the hook?" What made it news? It was news, I said, measuredly, trying to contain myself, because people didn't know about it. Then he wanted me to somehow include Sammy Davis Junior, as a topical peg. Cause he's JEWISH. That I would not do.
     And just to show that no good work goes unpunished, it ran, and the complaints rolled in. I had written a sidebar on the Falashas, Ethiopian Jews, and they were aghast that I treated their origins as subject to speculation, and not descendants of the Queen of Sheba, or whatever myth they choose to embrace. I think I heard from every Ethiopian Jew in Chicago. 

     Then, to top it off, Rabbi Funnye complained, quite vehemently if I recall. The photo, which I remember running on the front page. It showed him with his mouth open. He didn't like that, thought it was bad, and I couldn't convince him otherwise.
     Plus there was my own disappointment at how warily mainstream white Judaism treated people who voluntarily took up their heritage. It struck me as mere bigotry, and made me embarrassed, not for the first or last time, that organized Judaism can be as myopic, unwelcoming and mistaken as organized anything else.

     Exodus 25 is not the most exciting chapter in the Bible. It contains complex instructions on how to build the Holy Ark. It includes lists: "violet and purple, and scarlet, twice dyed, and fine linen, and goats' hair. . . ."
     Seven men in succession rise and read the ancient Hebrew words. Some read fluidly, almost singing. Others hesitate and struggle.
     When they have finished, Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr. stands before his congregation and explains how the 5,000-year-old Scriptures apply to the average black Jew living on the South Side of Chicago today.
     "Why are (the passages) so detailed in saying precisely these measurements of the sanctuary?" Funnye asks, marking off the air with his hands. "Why these measurements? They could have just said, `They built the temple.' "
     The two dozen people at Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, 5304 S. Winchester, listen carefully. Occasionally, someone cries out, "Teach on, Rabbi!" or, "Cane, cane," Hebrew for "Yes, yes."
     "It is to teach us to have perfection in our lives, that's why," Funnye continues. "It is so detailed because we're supposed to pay attention to the little things. To learn to take life a step at a time, day by day, mitzvah by mitzvah."
     The congregants of Beth Shalom, and those of at least eight other black synagogues across Chicago, practice forms of Judaism.
     But are they Jews?
     Mainstream Judaism for the most part says no.
     "You can't stand on the corner and say, `I'm Jewish,' and be Jewish," said Rabbi Mordecai Simon, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. "You can study Judaism, you can practice Judaism. But being Jewish is based on being legally a Jew. In Israel, 80 percent of the Jews do not practice Judaism, but they're still Jews because law says if you are born of a Jewish mother, or converted in accordance to Jewish legal proceeding, you're Jewish."
     Funnye said he was "rankled" by the idea that a person without knowledge of Judaism, whose mother is Jewish, is automatically a Jew.
     "He can walk into a Jewish community, and he would be accepted wholeheartedly, and I would have a problem," said Funnye, whose credentials as a rabbi are questioned because he received them from an unrecognized black school in New York. "They would have to quiz me to see what I knew."
     Chicago has as few as several hundred or as many as 8,000 black Jews, depending on your source and your definition of a Jew. Beth Shalom is without question the most traditional by mainstream Jewish standards. Funnye and his family have undergone ritual conversion to the faith. He works for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and his children attend Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School in Hyde Park, along with other children from his congregation.
     "He's very sincere, very committed," said Miriam Schiller, principal of Akiba Schechter, where seven of 44 children in elementary school are black. "He wants his children definitely to be Jewish and be educated Jewishly."
     Most black Jews were not born Jewish. Nor are they Ethiopian Jews, whose roots go back millennia (see story, next page). Rather, they were attracted to the idea of Judaism's sense of victory over slavery, an aspect felt particularly strongly at this time of year, with the Passover seder celebrating the Exodus from Egypt.
     "I could take you to the Torah and show you any number of places that apply to a people who had lost their identity, who came by ships," said Tyrone Handy, a member of Beth Shalom.
     Michael Bridge, born and raised a Baptist in Chicago, voiced the common black Jewish belief that it is the white Jews who are newcomers, historically, keeping the nest warm until blacks could return to the faith.
     "The converts came into it when the real people went to sleep," he said.
     "In the majority of blacks who identify themselves as Jews, there is a quest and a thirst that Islam does not satisfy," said Funnye, "that no form or facet of Christianity satisfies."
     Observant Jews would recognize most parts of Beth Shalom's service, which takes almost three hours. There is the reading of the Torah scroll, with the traditional blessings before and after each reader, and the reciting of the shma, the key prayer in Judaism. The men and boys sit on one side of the aisle, the women and girls on the other, as demanded by Orthodox Jewish law.
     The sanctuary—once a living room, with the blond wood paneling still in place - would be recognized also as a Jewish synagogue, albeit a modest one. The Ark is plywood, covered by a threadbare ceremonial curtain salvaged from a wealthier, white synagogue. Overhead is a simple eternal light. To the left, a menorah. To the right, a shofar (ram's horn) on a stand.
     But a few aspects would be unfamiliar. In this house of worship, God is called "Yah," from the original Hebrew name for God, unpronounced in white synagogues. There is a testimony, where members of the congregation stand, as the spirit moves them, and talk about their week. On this day one speaks of the death of his grandmother ("She is out of her pain"), another of the impact of Paul Robeson, and a third on the joy of faith ("It's a blessing to be in this life and have an idea what you are"). And Funnye and his congregation sometimes inflect their Hebrew with a hearty gospel growl.
     Other black Chicago Jewish congregations have looser definitions of themselves.
     "We're a different branch," said Rabbi James Hodges of the House of Israel Temple of Faith, 7130 S. Chicago, where congregants wear skullcaps and prayer shawls and observe Jewish dietary laws. "We don't profess Judaism in its religious sense; we profess Judaism in its national sense. We are Hebrew Israelites; the original Jews descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We have constructed our own service form."
     Despite the publicity of tense black-Jewish relations, black Jews say they rarely experience anti-Semitism.
     "In our community, it's more a lack of understanding," said Charles Hickman, who also uses the Hebrew name Ben Cayil. "When they visualize `Jewish' they think of white guys with long beards. They don't understand how an African can be a Jew."
     He said that within the black Jewish community, there are differences in perspectives toward the religion.
     "The last time I went to Rabbi Hodges' synagogue, they weren't doing the week's Torah portion," said Hickman. "That is an integral part to me."
     Others include Jesus in their service, which baffles Hickman. "They've got off the path in some way," he said. "Ain't no God but God."
     "I think Judaism appeals to us because it is deeply rooted in the African heritage," said Rabbi Robert Nolan, who heads a congregation in Harvey. "I recall as a child growing up in the Southern part of the United States. There was this sense of Jewishness in the black community."
     "There are a wide variety of different kinds of black Jews," said James Landing, an associate professor of geography at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has been studying black Jews for years. "There are those who refer to themselves as Orthodox Jews, incorporating a lot of Judaistic trappings; symbols, skullcaps. They may speak Hebrew."
     He said others were Old Testament Christians or Baptists "under a veneer of Judaism."
     Landing said black Jews in Chicago did not display "a legitimate interest" in Jewish teachings in their contact with the mainstream Jewish establishment.
     "They wanted financial help," he said. "They wanted buildings. They wanted to be donated old synagogues. But they were not interested in participating in white Jewish life."
     Simon, who has been in contact with the black Jewish community for 20 years, disagrees: "It's not a scam. The black Jews I know are very serious and very concerned with their religious faith, which they describe as Judaism. The organized Jewish community has tried to offer assistance in religious education - supplies, books, texts - which have been received lukewarmishly. They don't want the incursion of the white establishment. They don't want to be patronized; they're proud of what the y're doing."
     Funnye finds it ironic that mainstream white Judaism, which itself is divided into four distinct varieties—reform, conservative, Orthodox and Hasidic—should deny black attempts to form their own interpretations.
     "There are four strands in the white Jewish community; each one of those had a right to define Judaism as they understand it," he said. "Yet, it seems they want to deny our right to define an understanding of Judaism. We have people who are learned, yet black Jews tend to be more an object of curiosity than accepted as sincere."
     Nolan said: "We feel that there is enough historical basis that we have a right to exist as Jews. We don't have to have the approval of someone else.
     "We want to develop and maintain close ties with all Judaism. Jews are the color of the rainbow. It's not a black-and-white issue.

        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 31, 1991


  1. My personal experience of Jews acting in a most unwelcome way was 30 years ago when Orthodox men harassed us as we entered the Mikvah on Touhy to complete my wife's conversion to Judaism. Really left a bad taste on what should have been a joyous day.
    Regarding Black Jews, of course they have a right to exist. Just as, sadly, people have the right to ignore facts and reality and exist as Trump lemmings.

  2. I would be interested in reading the original accompanying piece, if you would print it or link to it.

  3. This is reminding me of a barely remembered (by me) episode of "Sanford & Son" in which Fred somehow gets into his head that he might be Jewish. He approaches a Jewish man who is minding his own business at a deli and starts bombarding the fellow with questions. The guy finally asks why all the curiosity, and Fred blurts out, "I think I might be Jewish."

    The guy just looks at him and says, "You don't have enough problems already?"

    All I really remember is that the episode ends on a rather sweet note, with Fred realizing that he's not Jewish, but his new friend giving him an appreciation of Jewish religion and culture.

    1. Pretty damn funny, for TV sitcom material, but not so much in Real Life, boychik. So much hatred for blacks. And plenty of hatred for Jews. To be both...or to claim to be...would bring a double helping of tsouris (troubles) on one's keppe (head). Why would anyone willingly expose themselves to so much pyschological...and maybe even physical...pain? I'm only guessing here, but even some blacks probably do not feel all that kindly toward them. Are they most likely trekking down mile after mile of a long, hard road? Cane, cane...damn betcha they are.

    2. Bitter, your comment reminds me of an article appearing in the Smithsonian a couple months ago about a Lithuanian Ann Frank. She died, but her family made it to New York and were told by those welcoming them to, "be careful, people around here don't like Jews very much either." One of the refugees, very young at the time of their arrival, wasn't told that she was Jewish until she was 30 years old.


  4. Forgive me, but it also reminded me of a television episode. On Seinfeld, when he suspected that his dentist had converted for the jokes. (Not entirely an unserious topic. Much Jewish humor is based on negative stereotypes, which means that we non-Jews can't repeat Jewish jokes without appearing anti-Semitic.)

    I've had many Jewish friends and acquaintances over the years, and none tried to convert me, which I took to mean that Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. I didn't realize, alternatively, that it could be so exclusionary. An interesting coincidence: today's Washington Post carries a story about an organization in Israel that helps people escape the confines of extreme orthodoxy.

    Living as a border with a Jewish family in London some years back I had occasion to learn that beyond the ecclesiastical divisions of Judaism, national identity can also play a part in Jewish diversity. At one of my landlord's parties a chap asked me if I had heard Rabbi so and so preach, and I explained that I was neither a Londoner nor a Jew, but a Presbyterian from Chicago. He said that explains it. He knew I was American from the way I talked, but said I didn't seem like one of those pushy New York Jews.



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