Abshalom ben Shlomo adjusts his saxophone reed, clears his throat and blasts a soulful jazz riff. On the stage behind him, twenty robed men and women thunder gospel tunes. Members of the audience sway, sing the impassioned spirituals and clap hands.
"You play it brother! Sing for the Lord! " some shout.
Ben Shlomo and the New World Choir aren't performing in a Southern Baptist church or a cavernous Harlem jazz club, but in the heart of Israel's Negev desert. Their music is jazzy gospel, but it makes no reference to Christ and focuses on the prophets, places and heroes of Israel.
Ben Shlomo and the members of the New World Choir are some of the 2,000 African-American ex-patriates living in Israel. These Black Hebrew Israelites believe they are descendants of the biblical tribe of Judah, one of the twelve tribes of Israel mentioned in the Old Testament. Jews in the "tribal sense," their beliefs and practices combine elements of Judaism, African traditions, and customs from their own experiences in the US.
The Black Hebrews have been in Israel for three decades--but not by invitation. Like other groups seeking rights to the Holy Land, the Israeli government and Orthodox Rabbinate refuse to grant them legitimacy. The Black Hebrews seek permanent residence under Israel's Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews that are born to a Jewish mother or who have converted.
"If they say they're Jewish, they have to prove it (with proper documentation) or convert," said assistant to Israel's chief religious authority, Rabbi Raphael Dayan in an interview.
In 1969, the Black Hebrews entered Israel with conditional temporary status. After this status expired, they remained in Israel illegally for two decades. During that time the Israeli government refrained from deporting them for fear of being charged with racism, according to US Embassy officials. Only in the late 1980's did Interior Minister Arieh Deri finally review their case. Now, the Interior Ministry declares that, as long as their status is under review, the Black Hebrews are legal in Israel.
Like Moses did with his tribesman ages ago, spiritual leader Ben Ammi ben Israel led his loyal flock from the steel factories and autoplants of Detroit and Chicago to the land of milk and honey. Then a 26-year-old metal worker, Ben Carter says that a vision of the Angel Gabriel instructed him to lead his community back to their biblical homeland. Altogether some 300 devotees departed with him during the race riots of the late sixties.
"America was our Babylon, our place of bondage," says Ben Shlomo, jazz musician, and community leader of external affairs. "Black people in the States are still wandering in the desert. They're living with the leftovers of slavery."
The Black Hebrews view their slavery in the Americas as divine chastisement for their ancestors' breaking the Ten Commandments. And like the ancient Israelites, their return to Israel is their deliverance from bondage. They even celebrate a New World Passover, commemorating their exodus out of America.
On their journey to Israel, which they consider to be in Northeast Africa, the group settled in the Liberian bush for two years of lifestyle cleansing.
"We had to rid ourselves of bad habits and adjust to a more natural lifestyle--eat food that didn't come from cans," says Ben Shlom." Some of us had to quit cigarettes, drugs and alcohol."
Harsh conditions in the West African bush forced more than three-quarters of the original settlers back to the US. The remaining group of some 40 tenacious souls finally emigrated to Israel in 1969. The community, which has since spawned three generations and thousands of followers, is believed to be the largest organized settlement of African-Americans outside the United States.
The former urbanites are concentrated in Israel's southern desert town of Dimona, also home to a nuclear reactor. Though their box houses are flimsy and the surrounding town is an industrial eyesore, the settlement fosters a fairytale feeling. Women are wrapped in the indigo cloth and headdresses of African royalty. Sandaled men stroll with staffs. Aside from their Hebrew names, practically everyone has a regal title denoting their place in the administrative hierarchy-- holy princes, divine ministers, divine orders of the crowned brothers and sisters. Smiling children greet adults with a polite "Shalom." Photos of bearded spiritual leader Ben Ammi decorate the walls.
Another part of the mystical atmosphere in Dimona is that people look much younger than their years -- eyes sparkle, skin is smooth. They exercise often in their gym facilities, don't smoke or use drugs and are strictly vegetarian.
"You get no nutrition from what is dead," said Ben Shlomo.
According to Ben Shlomo, in the near 30 years that they have lived in Israel, no one has died of disease. Indeed, the Black Hebrews seem to have escaped the ills that haunt many communities. They say crime and drug use within the community are non-existent. Streets are safe.
"My sister back in East Orange, New Jersey, her kids can't even play outside because it's so dangerous," said sister Bahtiyah.
Like Israel's socialist kibbutzniks, Black Hebrews function communally. Food and supplies are distributed in a central cantina. Ninety-percent of their clothing is hand-sewn in tiny workshops. They share profits from their vegetarian restaurant in Tel Aviv and outside jobs.
Their community is also known for their music. Israeli and international audiences love their upbeat jazz. Proceeds from their world tours are evenly distributed. Ashalom ben Shlomo sharpens his sounds in a modest studio attached to his house, where posters of 1960s jazz idols cover the walls. John Coltrane is his favorite.
Black Hebrews eat, pray and party together in community centers. Children study mainstream and spiritual lessons together in the newly constructed "Brotherhood School" funded in part by the US embassy in Israel. According to a Jerusalem Report article, "American Embassy officials are almost effusive in their praise for the group."
As for their relationship to traditional Judaism, Black Hebrews follow the Old Testament or Torah, but ignore all commentaries on the law. Most are fluent in Hebrew and English. Their unique mixture of cultures creates rhythmic sentences like, "Ma sholm cha brother?" (How are you brother?)
They observe the Jewish holy days mentioned directly in the Torah such as Passover, Yom Kippur and Succoth. They follow the laws of circumcision and traditional cleanliness. For instance, women are separated from their husbands during menstruation and undergo a bathing purification process.
Like the patriarchs in the Torah, the men are polygamous. Spiritual leader Ben Ammi has four wives and 15 children. Women married to the same man are called "sister wives." A family unit, typically comprised of a husband, two or three wives and many children, lives in the same house. Sister wives help deliver each other's children in the "House of Life," a natural-childbirth center. When one sister wife is ritually separated from her husband during menstruation, the other attends the household and husband's needs.
Women in the community actually applaud male polygamy. "It works out well. I really respect my sister wife. Also, the monthly separation is for our benefit, believe me," said Sister Shamiyah, as she shifts the toddler she's holding from one hip to another.
Ben Shlomo added, "It's not about being with many women. We denounce sexual promiscuity. As men, we have a moral responsibility to respect, honor and care for our wives. In our community, you have to be emotionally and financially equipped to get married."
Women aren't polygamous because, as Sister Shamiyah puts it, "You don't go around planting all different seeds in the same place. That would be chaos. One man's seed per egg, that's the natural order of things. And besides, there are many more women in our community than men."
For all their apparent harmony and settlement successes, the Black Hebrews have had their share of problems. Restless and curious about life outside the insular community, some young people have left the community. A few say they had been victims of physical abuse. "We support the authority of the parents. Families are not democracies," said Ben Shlomo. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" is a phrase frequently echoed in Black Hebrew circles.
The Black Hebrews are perceived as violent and undesirable by many Israelis. "What are we going to do, let everyone who wants to come to Israel just come in?" said Yoel Parnasa, a resident of a neighboring desert town.
Their biggest problem, however, remains with the Israeli government and the assertion of Jewishness.
Claims to Judaism are a touchy issue in Israel, dividing even mainstream Jews. Debates over "Who is a Jew" have caused conflicts between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. (A bill is currently pending that would grant Orthodox Jews rabbinical courts exclusive jurisdiction over those seeking to convert. Non-orthodox conversions and religious status have already begun to be challenged in the parliament.)
In any case, the Black Hebrews won't convert. "It's a matter of principal," Ben Shlomo explained with the peculiar logic typical of his group. "We're our own spiritual community. We're not a religion. Religion has nothing to do with God."