The Meaning of Israel

illustration by Vida Kuang

illustration by Vida Kuang

“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Genesis 32:28. Friday night, in a small Chicago Lawn synagogue, three black men discussed the meaning of Israel. All were Jewish converts, and had come to worship and debate, struggling to build a Jewish identity on the foundation of their shared African-American heritage. The men were debating in the heart of Chicago’s black Jewish community: Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. The synagogue finds religious grounding in one man, Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, the temple’s spiritual leader and chief Rabbi.

Rabbi Funnye is stocky, pot-bellied, and speaks with a measured patter and thoughtful chuckle that have come from years of Pentateuchal patience. He is steeped in Jewish culture. Tomes of Talmudic tractates line his office walls, and he speed-recites Torah passages in Hebrew. Crucially, he explained: “I love Jewish food. I’ll eat gefilte fish straight out the jar, with a little horseradish.”

Funnye’s Judaism, however, does not stem from the eternal lines of overbearing motherhood that constitute Jewish heredity. Rather, Funnye converted in 1972 after a childhood spent in Methodism. Funnye underwent rabbinical training in New York, where he was ordained in 1985. Until recently, he was the only black Rabbi in Chicago recognized by the wider Jewish community.

For Funnye and his congregation, the meaning of “wider Jewish community” is contentious. While most Americans imagine the average Jew as somewhere between Trotsky and Streisand, Funnye and his congregants take issue with whiteness as the color of Jewishness. They say that the original Hebrews were of African descent, a claim that would no doubt make some Rabbis spit out their Manischewitz. To avoid conflict, black Jews prefer “Hebrew” or “Israelite” over “Jew.”

However, just as Jacob struggled with the better angels of his new name, Israel, it seems that Funnye and his congregation struggle with their assumed Jewishness. In Torah study following Friday’s Erev Shabbat service, one congregant asked, regarding a reading about the twelve tribes of Israel, “How do we deal with the changes in tribes if we don’t know which tribe we’re in?” Similarly, many converts change their names–while Capers has always been Capers, I met a new Baruch, and heard about Moishes and Shmuels.

Funnye addressed this identity crisis, saying, “We bring with us, into Judaism, the spiritual songs that were the bedrock for people of African descent during the time of slavery and thereafter…We have synthesized our experiences as African-Americans with our Jewishness.”

He was right about the music. In most Jewish congregations, Shabbat prayers tend to be staid, with atmosphere and tunes kept in the minor key. Halfway into Funnye’s Shabbat service, however, a few audience members, some dressed in Technicolor dream kaftans, approached two drum sets and a shofar the length of a Hasid’s beard. As prayers continued, the drummers mixed a beat into the chants. A man howled into the shofar with Jericho-shattering force. The wailing and gnashing of drum, horn, and prayer roiled into a cataclysm of the hip and holy. The audience chanted on, some crying “Baruch HaShem,” while others whooped with joy.

Navigating between Jewish and African-American culture isn’t all harmonizing bongo drums with ram horns, however. Many converts come from religions strongly rooted in the local area, including Hispanic-Jewish families forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition. Funnye projects an ecumenical atmosphere, aiming to strike a klezmer tune with chords from different world religions. “I believe very strongly in interfaith work and cooperation. Firstly just for the need of spiritual inclusiveness, but even more importantly for addressing the needs of this community.”

Funnye characterizes the congregation’s specific practices as “somewhere between conservative and modern Orthodox.” The congregation’s roots go back about ninety years. For most of that time it has had “a more Orthodox tendency towards religious rights.” While most modern Jewish sects no longer separate the sexes in synagogue, Beth Shalom keeps men and women on different sides of the aisle in accordance with Orthodox custom. However, women are allowed to read from the Torah, a contradictorily liberal stance. This is an improvement from fifteen years ago, when women of the congregation could not even enter the synagogue. Templegoers are expected to read Hebrew–no transliterations are available, leaving many to mumble in the minor key.

Despite the minor murmur, Funnye’s sermons are loud and clear. Although he radiated benign compassion in our interview, Funnye speechifies like a firebrand, periodically screaming with the thunder of hellfire to reinforce certain points. Much of what he said contradicted the interfaith cooperation that he had supported in talking with me. Each time I saw him speak publicly, he made some reference to the inherent untruth of other religions, notably Christianity and Islam, or else powerfully exhorted his congregants to shun other faiths while sticking to the Jewish path.

In Saturday’s Shabbat sermon, Funnye focused on the story of Hosea’s wife, a harlot who, having married and lived with the prophet Hosea, succumbed to her unclean urges and vigorously cuckolded him. According to Funnye, the unclean urges of a harlot-by-heart dovetail with the credulity of falling for another faith. Taking the metaphor to its extreme, Funnye shouted at the audience: “You don’t think you’re leaving God, you really don’t…you didn’t let the other faith ruuuuub on you! All you did was show a little leg.” More philosophically, Funnye had criticized the historicity and divinity of Christ the night before, brushing off Christianity as “idolatry,” and proclaiming, “If you can find something Jesus said that’s not in the Torah, he probably didn’t say it.”

Still, Rabbi Funnye is a charmer. Although he uses troubling rhetoric to agitate his congregants, Funnye’s, and his congregants’, devotion to Judaism is heartfelt and long lasting. He aims to shape his congregants’ identity, something seen in the temple’s full name: Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. When I asked him how the congregation was connected with Ethiopia, he explained that, “Ethiopia has a special place in the hearts and minds of the Jews of African descent in this country…it is the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa that was never colonized by any European powers. The name carries the distinction of unconquered minds and hearts, unconquered spirits.” Funnye hopes to see such Jewish spirits grow in number, quoting Isaiah 56:7 on building “a house of prayer for all people.” Men like Capers Funnye will be around to lead them, but the question of the converts’ identity persists. By mixing ancient Hebrew practice with their respective cultural traditions, the new Jewry hope to win that struggle. As Rabbi Funnye said on Shabbat: “We’re Israel.”