In my fifth grade class, I often begin my Klal Yisrael curriculum by placing several pictures on the table and asking the students what these faces have in common. I include white faces, black faces, movie stars like Natalie Portman, baseball player Sandy Koufax, singer Sammy Davis Jr. and politicians Frank Lautenberg and Chuck Schumer. These students of a new generation do not hesitate in saying, “They are all Jewish.” For these students, in this Reconstructionist community, seeing Jews of different ethnic groups and different orientations not unusual.
So, when I saw a movie this week about Jews who are black, I was taken aback that there are people who think they are not Jews simply because they are black.
The Commandment Keepers is a documentary about the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation founded in Harlem in 1919. Documentary filmmaker Marlaine Glicksman (full disclosure: Marlaine’s son Yared was a student in my Hebrew school for several years), created this illuminating film about a Jewish world that I knew nothing about. As their website says:
“The film is the dramatic story of a community caught between two worlds, Black and Jewish, a minority’s minority, struggling to hold on to its faith and identity despite the obstacles. A portrait and history of the community, which now encompasses a rabbinic institute and sister synagogues nationally, THE COMMANDMENT KEEPERS challenges stereotypes and the myth of monolithic race and religion.”
One of the issues discussed in the film is whether the members of this community are really Jewish or whether they need to “convert” to become Jewish according to halachic standards.
Still in draft form, this film was shown to a mixed audience at the 92nd Y. Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, the Rabbi of the Israelite congregation in St. Albans, Queens, NY, explained that these people are Jews already so to be expected to convert is insulting. They believe themselves to be descendants of the lost tribes.
It’s a bit ironic to me that the main issue that would prevent the Israelites from being accepted into the mainstream Jewish community is one of halacha. I suspect that for the liberal movements, this would not be an issue at all. But the Israelite community is in fact halachic, following kashrut and traditional Judaism and their practice would have little in common with the liberal movements.
The Commandment Keepers is a fascinating story, giving me much to think about. I hope that the filmmaker, can find the funding to bring the film to completion. Check out the trailer at thecommandmentkeepers.net.