another congregation that met on Saturdays because they were black Jews. The idea of black Jews challenged to my ill-informed adolescent categories. But even at that time Jacob Dorman was already doing the research for the book that would set me straight, Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions (Oxford, 2013).
The first thing Dorman explains in his book is that the book is about "Black Israelites," that is, black leaders and groups who believed that the ancient Israelites were black and that modern blacks are their descendants. Some of these groups practiced Judaism, but many were Christians. Dorman argues that these late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century groups got their start not because African Americans were descended from the ancient Israelites, or because they had contact with white Jews in the United States, but because they read the Scriptures and tried to emulate the ancient Israelites in order to be more like the earliest Christians. Many of these groups, such as Prophet William Saunders Crowdy's Church of God and Saints in Christ, borrowed ideas and practices from Holiness Christianity, and thus share ancestry with Pentecostal Christianity. The book deals primarily with the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in Harlem, but it extends as far as South Africa and Ethiopia to follow people such as Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford, who moved to Ethiopia and, among other things, played music in the court of Emperor Haile Selassie. The emperor was born Ras Tafari Makonnen, and the belief that he is divine animates the Rastafarians, who also figure in Dorman's work.
|Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew (source)|
Though Dorman is arguing that black Israelites owed their rise to the religious invention and combination of blacks, rather than to contacts with white Jews, that claim is hard to evaluate given that he spends little times discussing the ways in which blacks interacted with Jews. At several moments in the book, we learn that white Jews were worshiping with black congregations, that white rabbis assisted or taught black rabbis, and that black congregations used Jewish prayer books. Most of the book is about groups who did not regard themselves as converts, with the exception of a brief discussion of slaves in the eighteenth-century West Indies and antebellum South, but Lauren Winner has shown that some slaves of Southern Jews were considered Jews either by their choice or their master's. There are also occasional examples of blacks who converted to Judaism throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I mention these pieces of evidence to suggest that there is still room for a fuller picture the context of the rise of black Israelites and their interactions with Jews.
To suggest that Dorman's work is an improvement over my adolescent ideas for religion is faint praise, indeed, and Dorman's book deserves much more. Dorman's book draws an intricate web of connections between Israelites, black Jews, Holiness, Pentecostal, and Anglo-Israelite groups, all with a skilled reading of the meaning of religious symbols.