"When I entered the [white] synagogue, it disrupted the whole service. Everybody stared at me," recalls Sheila, a Hebrew in her late 40s and a member of the Black, Jewish Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. "I resent when everyone asks me how long I've been Jewish. I've been Jewish as long as I can remember."
Despite earlier and noted alliances between the nation's Blacks and Jews, the Crown Heights clash and the Jeffries and Farrakhan controversies remain evidence of the chasm between the two communities, one side charging racism, the other anti-Semitism. In fact, more than ten years later, a June 2002 survey by the Anti-Defamation League finds 17 percent of Americans holding "hard-core" anti-Semitic views, with results "disproportionately strong" among the Black community. And though the Jewish population is rapidly diversifying-Gary Tobin, a San Francisco-based demographer, says, "Today one out of seven Jewish households here is interracial"-Judaism is still largely thought of as a White-people's religion. Where does this leave the Black Jews, or Hebrews, as they call themselves, considered outsiders by both communities?
THE COMMANDMENT KEEPERS is a one-hour color video documentary on the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a highly observant African American synagogue founded in 1919 by Rabbi Wentworth A Matthew in Harlem, where it still carries on today, more than four generations later.
The Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, which established its foothold in Harlem during the height of the Garvey movement and Harlem Renaissance, is a rabbinically recognized, though not embraced, synagogue where greetings of "Shalom!" are heard throughout; whose members keep kosher; kiss the mezuzah; steadfastly observe Jewish holy days and laws; speak Hebrew; and wear yarmulkes and talaysim (prayer shawls). It's also a synagogue where the rabbi carries an African cane and members wear African dress.
THE COMMANDMENT KEEPERS is currently in postproduction and includes exclusive bar mitzvah footage, as well as a wedding, a rabbi's retirement, Passover and its preparation, Rosh Hashanah's tashlich, Sukkoth, Hanukkah, and interviews. The documentary challenges the myth of monolithic race and culture, and gives voice to this people unheard and underrepresented in world history, on whom little footage or archival material exists. In the members' own words, and in contemporary and archival footage, the film documents the community's history, now encompassing several synagogues and a rabbinic institute, as well as that of its charismatic founder, Rabbi Matthew. It is the dramatic portrait of a people caught between two conflicting worlds who, despite the obstacles, continue to hang on to their beliefs "by a thread." And a grasp of steel.
The film highlights Harlem's Black and Jewish histories, as well as Black-Jewish relations. It explores the influence and impact of faith, color, and identity on community-especially when the identity claimed conflicts with how that identity is perceived. "People see you as Black first," says Rabbi Sholomo Levy, Spiritual Leader of the Beth Elohim Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a sister synagogue. "So it's not a question of how you see yourself-but how others see you."
THE COMMANDMENT KEEPERS also illuminates African Americans long-held affiliation, born in American slavery, with the biblical Hebrews and particularly with Exodus's emphasis on exile, suffering, and redemption. As Rabbi Levy tells us, "There has always been an identification within the African American community with the people of the Old Testament and its stories of slavery and liberation." The film underscores this psychological affinity in imagery and graphics linking the Hebrews to their biblical counterparts.
THE COMMANDMENT KEEPERS begins on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and culminates with the celebration of Passover, which commemorates the biblical Hebrews' flight from slavery and journey toward freedom and parallels African American history. The film opens with the theme from Exodus, while the congregation, heads covered, swathed in white, solemnly traverse the graffiti-splashed streets of Harlem to the Harlem River in observance of tashlich, the worldwide tradition of casting sins upon the water on the Jewish new year. At the river, in the rain, the community praises God and the Torah. Judith, a congregant in her late 40s and the daughter of a rabbi, explains, "The importance of the Torah is the same for us as it is for all practicing Jews. . . . It informs every aspect of our being-with God at the head." Yet, as several African American Jews attest, their faith and identity is constantly called to question. Sheba, an actress in her 20s, elaborates: "When I was in college I once had a roommate who tried to save me . . . all night long"; and Uriel, mid-40s, sums up: "Growing up I realized . . . being Black and Jewish made two strikes against me."
THE COMMANDMENT KEEPERS follows the evolution of the Hebrew community while it traces the transformation of Harlem and Black-Jewish relations. Members recount once-frequent interactions with White co-worshippers. Judith recalls the many corner kosher butchers and bakeries in Harlem. "You used to be able to eat [kosher] out," she says. "You can't do that anymore in Harlem." "Many people forget," says Rabbi Levy, "that in the early 20th century, Harlem was primarily White and mostly Jewish." Catherine, 65, remembers Sunday outings to the Lower East Side. "My mother would go down to Orchard Street. She was able to speak Hebrew, and people would always say that she was a Falasha and marvel over us." In archival footage Lower East Siders stare into the camera with the same intensity and curiosity that Black Jews still continue to receive. A Yiddish folk tune sung by Black activist Paul Robeson, who maintained close ties with the Jewish community, adds another dimension to this story of Black-Jewish relations.
THE COMMANDMENT KEEPERS visually chronicles the decades, from Matthew's building his community to his involvement in the civil rights struggles and the Italo-Ethiopian war, and to Haatzad Harishon, or "First Step," an organization that sought to unite White and Black Jewish youth. Yet, details the film, the Black and White Jewish communities' efforts fell apart in the late sixties. "That was the last effort on the part of Black Jews to have any formal relationship with the larger White Jewish community," Rabbi Levy explains. "I see this as a missed opportunity." We witness the devastation wrought upon the Harlem community during that decade while Judith remembers, "All growing up, we never locked our door. Anybody could just walk in, any time of night or day-I'm talking about in Harlem."
In contemporary footage David, 13, reads the Torah on his bar mitzvah, shedding tears upon this passage to manhood, as Rabbi Chaim White admonishes: "Study! Say no to drugs!" Sheba recalls growing up as a Black yeshiva student. "Fights would break out," Sheba says, shoving a fist to her eye, as archival footage elaborates on her words. Under his wedding chuppah, Uriel recites his vows, joyously sealing them underfoot by breaking a glass, in the Jewish tradition. Rabbi Levy shares his experience as a Black rabbi at Harvard, where he had been an editor of African-American biographies. Commandment Keepers of all ages, in the synagogue and in their everyday lives, speak about treading the thin line as a minority's minority. Interwoven with interviews and images is a soundtrack consisting of Hebrew songs and Spirituals sung by the congregation, along with original music by Sussan Deyhim, that resonates and counterpoints the narrative.
Passover seder begins. Several men take their place at the long table at the chapel front to re-enact the ancient ceremony. The community recites the "Ten Plagues" and reflects upon today's: "Chaos," a young boy calls out. "Violence. Racism," add others. As THE COMMANDMENT KEEPERS illustrates and Rabbi Levy emphasizes: "It's not just a matter of history for us; it's a matter of the present." At the seder's conclusion, the congregation joins hands singing "We Shall Overcome."
Back by the Harlem River, the shofar blows, and the community rejoices in the new year and their faith. "The experience of African Americans is really the experience of the Jewish people," elaborates Rabbi Levy, as the congregation returns to their synagogue through Harlem and the rain. "Judaism should and does resonate with a message of hope and freedom of oppression. God made a covenant with Abraham and said, 'You shall be a light unto the world, and through you all nations shall be blessed.' And so we're trying to be a blessing to our surroundings and our people."
THE COMMANDMENT KEEPERS is a story never told before, a film about faith, community, and redemption that challenges the widely held assumption that that skin color somehow determines spirituality. In this community's struggle, faith is more than skin deep.