Saturday, 26 December 2009

African Hebrew Community: Initial thoughts

I've been at the African Hebrew Israelite Community in Dimona for close to a week now. I wrote some of my thoughts about the community and being here last night. This is quite an academic entry, with no photos. It may be beneficial to read the wiki pages before this for more background on the community and history.

It's 3AM on Boxing Day, and I've just been woken up by two cats doing the weirdest ritual meowing ever. I can't sleep now, so I'm taking the opportunity to write some of the thoughts I've had since being at the AHIC. I've had many different thoughts since being here. The principle feeling of the community is that it is very peaceful, very positive and forward-thinking. I've seen no negativity, not heard a single raised voice since being here. The people are always smiling, greeting each other and myself with shaloms and boker tovs as I walk around the village. Everyone here seems genuinely happy. The community is entirely vegan, something I find immensely comforting. I hadn't realised before how nice it would be to live in a community which shared and were committed to this single ideal - the need not to explain myself and then face judgment, criticism or debate. That said, I have been constantly asked my reasons for being vegan - they have all been surprised and impressed when they learn I've been vegan for 13 years. They usually ask me why I made the choice and I had expected some difference of opinion, as my own reasons are largely due to animal rights rather than any health benefit. However my response has been met with a respectful smile. It's really nice not to simply be told "Oh that's good but I could never do it because...", or even to face an insulted attempt to justify and argue for a different diet (the two most usual responses in the UK), but instead be able to talk about how easy and positive the choice is.

The food has been great. Perhaps a little heavy on the tofu for my liking, and not as much carbohydrate as I'm used to but very tasty and filling. We get two meals a day - a big breakfast at about 9, and dinner at about 4. The food is always prepared by women. The cooks are very possessive over their kitchen, refusing to let me do anything and seeming quite uncomfortable if I even try to wash up a plate I've used. I was met with confused scowls when asking if I could boil some water for my coffee - this was both to do with the consumption of caffeine (an addictive stimulant they have no place for), and my apparent intention to use the kitchen myself. The first time they boiled some water in a pan for me, and the next day a kettle had appeared on the counter/serving hatch for me to use. My one criticism of the food (OK, two): it appears with no forewarning. The first day I got up, sat reading for a couple of hours then took a walk. People asked whether I had enjoyed the breakfast. I hadn't been told there was such a thing - surprising, as it was now 10.30, and I had been in the kitchen several times. I returned and found a plate on the side, now cold and wrapped in a plastic bag. I wasn't sure why no one had told me it was there for me (or even written my name on it so I might know once I had found it). This seems to relate to a larger issue about guests or volunteers which I'll return to. Secondly, depending on the day's cook we may at breakfast get either a big cooked plate or a plate of fruit salad. The salad is lovely, but very unsatisfying as a breakfast. Again, my dependence on stodgy grains and carb is unfamiliar here. To be fair, eating brocolli for breakfast is also unfamiliar to me.

Yesterday I attended the Shabbat service. I was driven to the flat of a family where we ate a meal together before sundown. Avraham and Negilla and their two children live in a small apartment, beautifully decorated, and were very warm and friendly. Negilla is 33 and was born in Dimona, whereas Avraham came here from the US several years ago. He became vegan the day after finding a branch of the community in the US, and moved here not very long after. I wasn't sure what to expect but the meal was very pleasant (even if I still can't stand seaweed). They, like everyone here, are totally committed to the ideals of the community. Avraham in particular speaks with awe about his life now compared to what it was and would be in the states. He is a very gentle and sincere man. Like the guest house kitchen, roles are quite strictly stratified: Negilla cooked and washed the plates, leaving Avraham and I to discuss important matters. She joined the conversation occasionally, particularly to ask me if my studies had led me to conclude what constituted Jewishness. I answered that this question vexed even Jewish thinkers, and no one could really agree whether it was a race, a religion or a culture, or all three. During a tour provided for an American Jewish group of teenagers, it was explained that here marriage is seen not as an equal partnership - this was a western ideal which the community had attempted to divest itself of, seeking to return to the spirit of the Torah. In Genesis, Eve is described as a 'helpmate' to Adam, and this is what a wife should be. This did not engender a kind of oppression but is merely a system of ordering society. The guide explained that women can be whatever they want and do whatever they want, but in terms of marriage, the wife's role is to support and offer succour to the husband first and foremost. This is easy to criticise, yet I repeat that everyone here does seem very content within their roles. The guide further explained that there is no pressure to stay: if people are not happy here, they should leave to find another way of life, as the lifestyle can only be followed willingly. A few people do leave, some of those return.

The service was mixed, men and women sit together in a hall with speakers at the front. Avraham and I (Negilla is on her "14 days" so cannot attend service) arrived slightly after it began, and more people filtered into the hall during the duration. The service was informal, and charismatic - not unlike pentecostal Christian services. Individuals in the crowd often called in agreement or encouragement with the speaker. The first speech was to do with Christmas - not unfairly - though I was amused to find it quickly become a deconstruction of the historical basis for the festival, and a hearty refusal to join in, or to accept that it has any validity for anyone, whether Hebrew or Christian. The speaker quoted a section from Jeremiah (I think) which described and condemned a winter festival where people cut down then decorated trees. He also had something to say about the celebrating of New Year in the middle of winter. Really this all amounted to a standard 'do not engage in pagan practices, follow the word of the Lord', found in most revealed religions. It was interesting to hear it from a charismatic black American though.

We were provided a song by one particular gentleman named At-Tai (I think). This guy had twice represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest - 1999 and 2006. He had an amazing voice, plus a heartfelt story to tell about his journey into fame and glory but only finding happiness when he returned to the community and his family in Dimona. Standard fare again, really: riches are nice but the righteous and traditional life is best. He made the point that Israel had no problem being represented by him internationally, while denying him citizenship despite being born here.

One element stood out in the service: at several points the speaker returned to the community's diet and lifestyle, citing the several scientific studies carried out with the community which have all supported the incredible benefits of their way of life. He contrasted this with the lives of black Americans, who in his home-state have an average life expectancy of 40. Here, people routinely reach twice that, and more. He noted that fresh pomegranate juice was something he would not have even been able to pronounce had he stayed in America, let alone drink on a regular basis.

I've mentioned issues to do with citizenship and Jewishness. I've received mixed impressions from the community about their status as 'Jews'. The tour guide emphasised that they are Jews (hence their refusal to convert on entry to Israel), just not Halakhic Jews. They still claim descendence from the tribe of Judah. Their use of Jewish traditions however stops slightly before the end of the Second Temple period. They rely on the Tanakh and some apocryphal literature (particularly the first and second books of Enoch it appears, though I will dig into this more deeply soon), and celebrate the festivals and laws set forth therein. They read the New Testament sometimes but always defer to the Old in case of disagreement. They do not celebrate Hanukkah, seeing this as an invention of men. I did try to ask whether there was a historical point at which they see their way and traditional Judaism parting company, but didn't receive a satisfactory answer. I will phrase this question better when I talk to the Priests as I am interested to find if they see a specific point in time where Judaism began to stray from the correct path.

After varying degrees of struggle with the state of Israel, the community were recently granted permanent residence status. This means they have all rights except the right to vote. I believe that now, new children born here are citizens of Israel. For eight years the post-school children have served military service in the IDF like all other Israelis. I was surprised to find this - the children of Dimona, the "Village of Peace" learning how to fire weapons and defend their country. I asked Avraham how he felt about this. He told me that it is an awful feeling for ones children to face the possibility of warfare. However, certain miraculous incidents where members have walked unharmed from buildings under rocket attack have given some pause for thought. He is glad - like everyone I think - for any greater integration of the community into the state, and proud of the ability to help defend the state. He touched briefly on the Palestine conflict when he claimed that the community's role as ambassadors of Israel to the world, and their ability to cut through the misunderstanding or demonisation of Israel in many quarters was valued immensely by the state, and something that the community was keen to promote. I have also been told that the community works as facilitators of dialogue between Arab and Israeli groups, perceived by both as being somewhat outside the issues of conflict. I wonder whether this will remain the case as their presence in the military grows.

I still feel a little confused over the community's sense of its identity. Clearly, they class themselves technically as Hebrews and not Jews. They do not use the star of David as far as I can see. Explicit markers of Jewish identity are scarce or non-existent, apart from the Hebrew language. The scullcaps they wear are larger, in fact more like Islamic caps than the usual Jewish kippa. Their dress is partially western, partially African. When attending the Shabbat service everyone must wear a hat or scarf and only natural fibres with loose fringes, as described in the Torah. I was provided a gown and kippah. The men all wore these gowns, which appear somewhere between Arabic and African. Despite their keen insistence on the Levitical laws, they do not follow for example the commandment not to cut one's hair. I must ask them about this, although I suspect the answer will centre on the desire to follow the spirit and not the letter of the law. Negilla's question to me evidenced an interest in the parameters of Jewish identity - to what extent can they rightly claim to be Jews? I can see a political benefit to establishing this right, but am unsure why the issue would be pressed otherwise. The first wave of immigrants in 1968 entered under the Right to Return of anyone feeling a connection with the Jewish faith or people. The law was changed at some point shortly after, to require at least one Jewish parent. The community's desire to bring more people to the nation from its extended body in the States (as well as a growing presence in Africa) would certainly be aided by a cogent argument for actual Jewishness. However, I cannot see Israel ever accepting such an argument without a complete conversion of all members to Judaism proper. This won't happen. 'We are already Jews!' they claim, while refusing to accept the traditions of the last 2,000 years which Judaism has evolved.

Regarding the language, Hebrew and English vie for precedence here. English is the most spoken, simply because the community is expatriot American. Everyone speaks with an American accent, even those born here and who have only visited America once or twice. Hebrew is the official school language. In everyday discourse, most switch fluidly between the two. When speaking English I often hear a slight hybrid flavour as certain Hebrew words are dropped into the dialect: Slikha (excuse me), yeledim (children), ba'it (house), khessef (money) etc. Children call their parents Abba and Ima. Avraham claims that there is a gradual process of Hebraicisation underway, so that eventually Hebrew will be the first spoken language.

One thing in pargticular struck me about the Shabbat service, and that is the use of a divine name. While Jews equivocate the unpronounceable name of God and subtitute various reverential, or just plain obfuscatory, terms for it, the Hebrews have mutated and adapted it to their own theology. Yahweh is generally not used, instead Yah. This term is still far too close to breach of the commandment for Jews and verges on blasphemy, yet here it is shouted in unison and used in casual conversation. I am interested in how they, like the Rastafarians, have isolated the first half of the Name as the proper form of address. I cannot see any common tradition upon which they draw. Clearly both groups gain their original understanding of scripture from western Christianity, but nowhere here is the term Yah used. Perhaps a hundred years ago one may have heard the term Jehovah, but in faith circles this has usually been replaced with Lord, for the same reason as in Judaism.

In particular there is one formulation of the Name used, and this is painted on the front of the altar and other places in the community, even - somewhat jarringly - on the board behind the portable basketball net (yes, the one the ball is bounced off of). This formulation is Yah Khi. This is translated as Yah Lives. This is used as a call and response during service, and frequently appended to particularly emotional passages. I find this interesting because the lettering - יה חי - clearly reflects the tetragrammaton, teetering on the Holy Name without being exactly mistakable for it.

Points of contact with Rastafarian theology are interesting and, to my knowledge, as yet unexamined. Both groups have attached heavily to the Old Testament and sought identification with the community of ancient Israel. However, while some Rastafarians claim descent from one or more of the 'lost tribes' of Israel, the Hebrews claim descent from the tribe of Judah. The narrative of slavery, dislocation of the population, wandering and eventual reunification play heavily in both groups. I am of the impression that there were stirrings in this direction within the black American community prior to the Hebrew Israelite community's formation which served to influence this. Both groups draw on the thought of Marcus Garvey and his belief in repatriation to Africa, however I am unsure of his own perceptions regarding this issue of identity. The Hebrew Israelites identified Israel as the Zion to which their return pointed, while maintaining that Israel is in fact part of Africa. This of course is true in a geographical sense: prior to the creation of the Suez Canal one could literally walk from Egypt to Israel.

The founder of the movement, Ben Ammi, is still alive (though I have yet to see him - he does not attend the Shabbat service, only the festivals) and is considered the community's messiah. When I first heard this I thought with a sinking feeling that it was a very contentious claim, and one that doomed this movement to the same fate as all other personality cults. However, it has since been explained several times that he is not to be understood as the messiah, but as the salvation of this community. They claim (rather disingenuously) that there have been many messiah figures in Israel's history, because the term simply means someone who is sent to save, or to return the people to the true path. I haven't yet disputed their use of the term messiah, but it seems to me they mean prophet. Considering their very detailed knowledge of Hebrew scripture, why then do they create this confusion? I suspect it may be because addressing the community's leader as messiah rather than prophet is much more powerful. I hope it isn't a case of hasty explanatory justification of intentionally more grand statements made by Ben Ammi himself. The principle figure of Rastafarian theology is Ras Tafari, the Duke Haile Selassie I, who is likewise claimed to be Messiah although in this tradition he is literally the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

My impression of the community has not been wholly positive. There are some personal issues which have ocurred to me over the first week here. The first is that as a guest/volunteer I have been left pretty much to fend entirely for myself. On the morning of my third day I still had no information about what I was supposed to be doing, had received no official introduction or tour, and was still trying to work out what the arrangements regarding meals were. This led to me feeling a little isolated and quite resentful. I went away for the day at the invitation of an external friend and was eventually phoned at 6PM to arrange a meeting to discuss plans. I returned the next morning and was placed in the fields, harvesting turnips. I enjoyed this immensely. However, further volunteer work has yet to appear, and I am only given the vaguest of information about future plans or meetings with various people in the community.

I am also feeling that this lifestyle - while very happy and positive, and certainly something that the outside world could learn much from in terms of outlook and health (and respect for others) - could not cater to the full extremes of human life. I could not imagine great art or science coming from here. The life is very village-based, very community focussed and with seemingly little space for individuals to pursue the life of the intellect. I could be wrong - such individuals would necessarly exist hidden from easy view, however my intuition is that a community which fosters the good life so highly would fail to provide the motivation for transcendence (both positive and negative) which is usually mother to invention.

Finally, back to veganism. The community has not always been vegan, but has undergone a gradual evolution towards this. The beginning point was in Liberia, when the sacred offering of a lamb for Yom Kippur (I think) accidentally hung itself before being slaughtered. The community interpretted this as a sign and stopped eating red meat. I believe this relates to kosher dietary restrictions which would make the animal unclean if it dies in any way other than the specific slaughtering method given in Torah. I do not know yet the mechanisms by which either vegetarianism or subsequently veganism were reach from here, but they have been vegan since at least the mid-80s. They are also implementing further changes to diet every year such as: three no salt days each week (in fact 3.5 because the soup eaten after Shabbat is salt-free); fasting for 24 hours every Shabbat; no sugar weeks; one no margarine day every week; and raw food days and weeks. These are brought in one at a time at Yom Kippur as part of a gradual restriction and improvement on the inherited American diet.

Another similarity with Rastafarianism is in the reclamation of language. Just as Rastafarians reformulate words in order to advance an awareness of certain principles, the Hebrew Israelites do likewise. For the Rastafarians this means writing (and saying) overstanding not understanding; downpression not oppression; etc. For the Hebrew Israelites this means saying not diet but live-it, in order to emphasise that the food eaten is source of life and a positive benefit rather than negative restriction on the community's lifestyle. I have heard other examples which for the moment escape me. I will try to record these as I hear them again.

1 comment:

  1. Shalom Shalom
    We are most appreciative of your honest and informative account of your visit with us. We pray many come and behold The Miracle In The Desert and The Island of Sanity in a world that is in gross darkness just as it was in the beginning. We bare testimony that Yah/God has anointed Himself a sacred representative who has established The Kingdom Of God On Earth/Daniel 2:44 and his name is Ben Ammi; the Messiah who has come to bring an end to the transgressions, make reconciliation for iniquity, anoint the most holy, and establish everlasting Truth and righteousness for all people wanting to align themselves with Yah's purpose for choosing them to manifest His Will on earth as it is in Heaven{The Yah Mind}. For Behold We Are The New Ascendants of The New Adam never to be descendants again, We bare testimony that Yah Khai!!!!!!!
    Selah Sar Elyakeem Ben Yehudah