According to the broadest definition, there are approximately 9 million Jewish adults in America. Of those, 5.3 million are Jewish because they practice the Jewish religion or who have a Jewish parent and consider themselves Jewish. Non-hispanic blacks make up 2% of that population. (A Portrait of Jewish Americans) Blacks constitute such a small percentage of the Jewish population that they are often considered to be obviously “not Jewish”. This was the experience of Rabbi Shlomo ben Levy.In an article entitled, “Who are we? Where did we come from? How many of us are there?”, Rabbi Levy describes his feelings of marginalization triggered by an advertisement for Levy’s Jewish Rye. The advertisement features a black boy eating a sandwich and the caption “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”. The idea was to present a child who was clearly not Jewish enjoying Jewish bread but for Rabbi Levy who is both black and Jewish it was yet another message that denied his existence. (Who are we?)
His experience is not uncommon. In fact, the denial of black Jewish existence goes back at least to the renaissance. In 1591, Gincarlo Bruno was among the first to try to classify people by race. He observed that Jews and Africans had different colored skin and thus, they could not share the same ancestry. He insisted that Ethiopians had to be descended from a Pre-Adamite race and could not under any circumstance be Jews. (Parfitt 1-3) Bruno’s theory was completely incorrect and clearly demonstrates ignorance of Jewish law but, the perceptions of Jewish ethnicity persist to the point where, in present day America, Jews of any color other than white are an oddity. (Kaye/Kantrowitz 9) This is largely because most American Jews are Ashkenazic, the descendants of immigrants from Eastern Europe. It is not uncommon for white Jews to view black Jews as the products of conversion or intermarriage. (Kaye/Kantrowitz 1) Meanwhile, it is not uncommon for black Jews, who usually prefer to be called Hebrews or Israelites, to describe white Jews as the products of conversion or intermarriage and that Judaism is the true religion of their African ancestors. (Parfitt 84-88) This dynamic shapes the mutual mistrust that exists between black Jews in America and the overwhelmingly Ashkenazi majority.
The problem of marginalization began with the waves of Jewish immigrants from Europe who fled the Russion pogroms and later the Nazis. In their homelands, these people were Jewish, but in America they had the opportunity to be white. In cementing their status as white, these Amnerican Jews further alienated the small minority of Jews of African descent and others who do not fit nicely into the white race group. Despite this, the black Jews of America share a diverse cultural history that is both African and Jewish.
The Commandment Keepers, are one of the largest and best known black Jewish congregations in America. (Chireau 25) Their founder, Wentworth Arthur Matthew, is regarded as...