Rabbi Capers Funnye celebrated Martin Luther King Day this year in New York City at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a mainstream Reform congregation, in the company of about 700 fellow Jews – many of them black.
The organisers of the event had reached out to four of New York's Black Jewish synagogues in the hope of promoting Jewish diversity, and they weren't disappointed. African-American Jews, largely from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, many of whom had never been in a predominantly white synagogue, made up about a quarter of the audience. Most of the visiting women wore traditional African garb; the men stood out because, though it was a secular occasion, most kept their heads covered. But even with your eyes closed you could tell who was who: the black Jews and the white Jews clapped to the music on different beats.
Funnye, the chief rabbi of the Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, one of the largest black synagogues in America, was a featured speaker that night. The overflowing audience came out in a snowstorm to hear his thoughts about two men: the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama. King is Funnye's hero. Obama, whose inauguration was to take place the following day in Washington, is family – the man who married Funnye's cousin Michelle.
A compact, serious-looking man in his late 50s, Funnye (pronounced fu-nay) wore a dark business suit and a large grey knitted skullcap. He sat expressionless, collecting his thoughts, as Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Band steamed through their sanctified rendition of the Hebrew hymn Adon Olam. Nelson, a black Jew, was raised in two Jewish worlds – a white Reform temple in New Jersey and a Black Jewish synagogue in Brooklyn – and he borrows from both. The first time the Rev Al Sharpton heard a recording of Nelson's Adon Olam he said, "I can hear that's Mahalia Jackson, but what language is she singing in?"
Mary Funnye, Capers's wife, tapped her foot to the music and smiled with apparent equanimity, but her husband knew she was seething inside. "Mary has been a rabbi's wife for a long time," he told me a few weeks later. "She has an excellent synagogue poker face. But she really wanted to be in Washington that night" – for the early inauguration festivities – "not New York. And you can't really blame her."
The Funnyes were invited to Washington by the Obamas for a full calendar of inaugural events, including a dinner that evening held by the president-elect for his family and close advisers. Mary's brother, Frank White Jr, a businessman who served as a prominent member of Obama's national finance committee, was invited. So were three of Funnye's sisters. It was going to be the family reunion of the year, the social event of the season and a crowning moment in American history. Mary had a formal gown ready. But instead here she was, singing Adon Olam, as she did every Shabbat in Chicago.
Still, to be fair, this night was a historic moment for her husband too. For the first time in a rabbinical career stretching back to 1985, Funnye had been invited to speak at a white, mainstream synagogue in New York. Plenty of black Christian ministers, in a spirit of ecumenism and racial harmony, have addressed Jewish congregations in the city. But a black rabbi? Many American Jews regard the very concept as an oxymoron, or even, given the heterodoxies of much Black Jewish theology, some sort of heresy. Funnye has been trying for years to demonstrate that he and his fellow Black Jews belong in the Jewish mainstream. Mostly he has been ignored.
But it is hard to ignore a man with a cousin in the White House. Tonight was payback for all those years of stupid jokes ("Funnye, you don't look Jewish"), insulting questions and long, wondering stares. Funnye was finally being given the stage at a high-profile Jewish event. "My Broadway debut," he said, without evident irony, as he prepared to go on. "Been a long time getting here, but I'm ready."
Capers C Funnye Jr was born in South Carolina in 1952 and raised on the South Side of Chicago. His paternal relatives are Gullahs from the barrier islands off Charleston. The Gullah community has retained many of its original African customs and much of its ancestral language. On his first visit to Nigeria, in 2001, Funnye was delighted to discover that variations of his family name are common in Africa. On his maternal side, he is a Robinson. His mother, Verdelle, was the sister of Fraser Robinson Jr – Michelle Obama's grandfather. That makes Funnye and Michelle Obama first cousins, once removed.
And not that removed, really. "Our families were very close," Funnye says. "All through my childhood, our families were in and out of each other's houses, celebrating holidays together, that kind of thing." As kids, Funnye and Michelle Obama weren't peers (he was nearly 12 years older), but they connected in earnest years later, in 1992, at her wedding, and a friendship developed. The Obamas, like Funnye, were involved in community organising in Chicago, and they saw one another often, socially and professionally. It didn't surprise Funnye, he told me, that when he and Mary went to Washington to attend Obama's inaugural ceremony after Funnye's speech in New York, they were in the good seats, near Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg. Family is family.
Funnye was not always Jewish. When he went off to college at Howard University in 1970, he was the conventionally Christian son of upwardly striving parents. But he was moved by the radicalised atmosphere of the day. Black nationalism, Afrocentrism and cultural separatism were in vogue, and Funnye came to see Christianity as an alien religion imposed on blacks by white slave masters. "I was never an atheist," he told me. "I just wanted to find the right way to worship him."
During a summer job in Chicago, some friends introduced Funnye to Rabbi Robert Devine, the spiritual leader of the House of Israel Congregation. Devine preached that Africans were the true descendants of the biblical Hebrews, and that Jesus, the Messiah, was a black man. The message appealed to Funnye. Devine baptised him in a public swimming pool, and Funnye entered the complicated world of black American Jewry.
Estimates of how many black Jews there are in the United States range widely. It all depends on who is doing the counting and what criteria are being used. There are Jews who happen to be black: kids adopted by white Jewish families, for example, or the offspring of mixed parents. (Orthodox Judaism recognises as Jewish the offspring of only Jewish mothers; Reform, the largest American denomination, accepts patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent.) There are also African-Americans who have been converted to various forms of Judaism, as well as Jews of Ethiopian origin who emigrated to Israel and subsequently moved to America. Probably no more than two per cent of the American Jewish community is made up of black Jews.
There have been African-Americans with blood ties to white Jews since at least the early 19th century. Among them was Julia Ann Isaacs, the daughter of a white Jewish man, David Isaacs, and a free black woman, Nancy Ann West. In 1832 Julia married Eston Hemings, the son of Sally Hemings and – more than likely – Thomas Jefferson. Another was Francis Cardozo, a freeborn black man of Jewish descent, who during Reconstruction served as secretary of state and treasurer of South Carolina. But in almost no such early cases did the offspring of black-Jewish unions identify themselves as Jewish.
Black Judaism as a self-conscious religious identity arrived in America in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1896. A charismatic Baptist named William Saunders Crowdy established a black congregation called the Church of God and Saints of Christ, where he preached that Africans were the true descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Didn't the Bible tell that Moses married a black-skinned woman? he asked. And that King Solomon bestowed on the queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian, "all her desire"?
One implication of Crowdy's doctrine was that blacks were God's chosen people. This might have been a hanging offence in Kansas at the time had white people been aware of it, which they mostly weren't. The denomination practiced an eclectic, "roll your own" brand of religion that combined beliefs and practices of the Old and New Testaments. Crowdy's tabernacles practiced male infant circumcision, observed Saturday as the Sabbath, celebrated Passover and other Jewish holidays – but venerated Jesus Christ.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Crowdy's faith offered freed slaves and their offspring something that mainstream Christianity did not: a grand historical identity and a distinctively black mode of religious expression. This proved to be a potent mix. Since the formation of the Church of God and Saints of Christ, there have been more than 200 congregations in the United States, Africa and the Caribbean. Today the group still has more than 50 affiliated congregations. In addition, a great many other "messianic" Jewish houses of worship have flourished, including Rabbi Robert Devine's congregation, where Funnye first came to regard himself as a Black Jew.
"When I joined Rabbi Devine's shul, I felt less like I was converting to Judaism than reverting," Funnye recalls. "Going back to something."
For a few years after leaving Howard, while working a series of jobs in Chicago, Funnye found Devine's conception of Judaism to be rewarding. But he eventually became uncomfortable with the hybrid nature of Devine's theology. As his interest in Judaism deepened, Funnye was increasingly drawn to the more conventional teachings of a black, Brooklyn-based rabbi named Levi Ben Levy, the spiritual leader of the Hebrew Israelite movement. "He taught me that real Judaism isn't mixed in with Christianity," Funnye says. He studied with Levy for five years, long distance from Chicago; the curriculum included Biblical Hebrew, liturgy, standard rabbinic texts and Jewish history from the perspective of African originalism. In 1985, Levy ordained Funnye as a rabbi, although no mainstream denomination accepted the title or Levy's right to confer it.
Very few white rabbis were even aware of the existence of the Hebrew Israelites. The movement was established in the early 20th century by Wentworth Matthew, a charismatic figure who arrived in Harlem at the end of the First World War, claiming to be from Africa. Matthew proclaimed himself a rabbi and founded a congregation in New York called the Commandment Keepers. He was influenced by the idea that blacks were the original Hebrews; but unlike William Saunders Crowdy, who lived in rural Kansas, Matthew modeled his congregation on the white Judaism he saw around him in New York. He called his a storefront a shul, introduced a Hebrew prayer book and weekly Sabbath Torah readings, discouraged excessive shows of emotion during worship, insisted on separate seating for women and men and instituted a version of kosher dietary laws. He also, and crucially, denied the divinity of Jesus and the truth of the New Testament.
As Matthew's group grew, it became far more "orthodox" in its Jewish ritual and code of conduct than the average Reform temple. Still, Matthew held some highly unorthodox beliefs. Chief among them was the doctrine that many white Jews are descended not from the ancient Israelites but from the Khazars, a tribe of Turkic nomads who, according to legend, converted to Judaism in the eighth or ninth century. Mainstream scholars say there is no historical evidence for such a claim, but it remains an article of faith for many Black Jews. (The claim is also a staple of anti-Israel rhetoric, a fact that Funnye, who like most Black Jews supports Israel, says makes him uneasy.)
Matthew didn't express animosity toward white Jews. On the contrary, he saw and appreciated them as temporary placeholders, people who kept the faith of Israel going while the Black Jews were lost in bondage. He sought to make common cause with and be included in the wider Jewish community: twice he applied for membership to the mainstream New York Board of Rabbis, but he was turned down. The Orthodox rabbis were flabbergasted that any gentile, black or white, would have the chutzpah to declare himself to be a Jew, let alone a rabbi. Some of the more liberal rabbis were intrigued by the Hebrew Israelites but were not willing to fully embrace them as fellow Jews.
For Matthew and his followers, the disappointment was acute. "Rabbi Matthew concluded that black Jews would never be fully accepted by white Jews, and certainly not if they insisted on maintaining a black identity and independent congregations," Sholomo Ben Levy, the rabbi of the Black Jewish Beth Elohim Hebrew Congregation in Queens, wrote in an article published by the Hebrew Israelites. "Since his death in 1973, there has been virtually no dialog [sic] between white and black Jews in America."
It has become the mission of Capers Funnye to start that dialogue. "I believe in building bridges," he told me as we sat in his office at the Beth Shalom synagogue in Chicago, a week and a half after his Martin Luther King Day speech in New York. "That's why speaking at the synagogue was so important to me."
"Has Mary forgiven you?" I asked.
Funnye nodded. "We drove down to DC and made one of the balls the next day," he said. "And she got to snap a picture of Denzel Washington, so everything is more or less cool."
At the King Day celebration in New York, the musician Joshua Nelson proved a hard act to follow; Funnye came across as stiff and cautious, expressing measured thoughts about Jewish solidarity, the brotherhood of man and the need for peace in the Holy Land. But here in his study, surrounded by books and family pictures, he seemed far more at ease. The Sabbath was only an hour away, and people kept busting into the room – kids who wanted to show off their grades; an assistant rabbi who wanted a word about the youth group; ladies of the Nashe Or ("Women of Light") Sisterhood who wanted to know what time exactly the communal meal should be served.
Funnye handled it all in good spirits. He is not only the chief rabbi of the congregation, which, in various permutations, has been around 90 years; he is also its CEO, spiritual leader, head social director, senior teacher and unofficial cantor. Beth Shalom, which he joined as an assistant rabbi in 1985, has about 200 members, making it the largest of the six American synagogues affiliated with the International Israelite Board of Rabbis (the organization that serves the Hebrew Israelites), and Funnye is the Israelites' only full-time rabbi. A majority of his congregation are converts to Judaism, although a large number are second- or third-generation Black Jews. (People often confuse Funnye's congregation with that of Ben Ammi Carter, a fellow black Chicagoan, who established a community of followers in Israel in 1969. Funnye, who says there is no similarity between their theologies, is at pains to differentiate the two.)
Early in his rabbinical career, Funnye says, he realised that his Jewish credentials were too limited and exotic for the kind of outreach efforts that he wanted to do. So he enrolled at the mainstream Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, where he received a bachelor's degree in Judaic Studies. And in 1985 he underwent a second conversion, this one certified by a Conservative rabbinical court. Before he took this step, he consulted with his earlier mentor, Rabbi Levy; Funnye feared insulting other Black Jews. "I didn't want anyone to interpret my conversion as meaning I thought they weren't Jewish enough," he told me. But he received Levy's blessing. "I explained that if I was going to do the kind of outreach I wanted, European Jews had to feel that I was their brother," Funnye said. "But I'm still a Black Israelite. A halakhic conversion" – one in accordance with traditional Jewish law "wasn't going to take away any of my blackness."
After his second conversion, Funnye taught Hebrew and Jewish subjects at Chicago-area congregations and worked for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a group dedicated to fighting poverty, racism and anti-Semitism in the city. He sent his four children to Jewish day schools, quietly built his congregation and got to know the leaders of the white Jewish community. In 1997, he did what his mentors had all failed to do (and no Hebrew Israelite rabbi has since done): he became a member of the local Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Michael Balinsky, the executive vice president of the Chicago Board, says that Funnye makes a conscientious effort "to play an active role in the mainstream Jewish community without losing his Black Hebrew tradition. He's taken a leadership role for the Jewish community on civil rights issues and outreach to Hispanics and Muslims."
In January, Beth Shalom organized a community celebration with members of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a social-justice organization in Chicago headed by a Palestinian-American activist named Rami Nashashibi. Funnye has also worked to improve Chicago's historically strained relations between its black and Jewish communities. In conversations with white Jews, he has defended the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom he admires, and he encourages dialogue with Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, whom he counts as a friend.
"I don't agree with everything the man says or thinks," Funnye said of Farrakhan. "I'm a Jew, after all. But you need to talk. Right now I'm trying to put together a group of Chicago rabbis for a meeting with Minister Farrakhan."
"How's it going?" I asked.
"Two so far," Funnye said. "But I'm still working on it."
Before sundown that night, Funnye joined about 60 congregants in the social hall for Friday-night blessings and a fried-fish-and-spaghetti dinner. In 2004, Beth Shalom bought its current building, on South Kedzie Avenue, on Chicago's South Side, from a rapidly declining congregation of Lithuanian Jews. It has a tan brick exterior and a layout common to American synagogues circa 1955; it is a virtual twin of the temple in Michigan that I attended growing up.
The money for the building came mostly from tithes and contributions, and raising it was a stretch. "The members here are working people, teachers, city workers, mostly middle class," Funnye said. "We don't have any billionaire philanthropists, like the Bronfmans or the Crowns. The only rich black Jew I ever heard about was Sammy Davis Jr., and he's dead. Besides, he was Reform."
After the dinner, Funnye chanted the grace and then reassembled his flock in a large classroom for evening prayers and a Torah lesson. The week's portion happened to be the story of the Exodus, and Funnye used it to illustrate the virtue of interdependence. "Think about it," he said. "God told Moses to talk to Pharaoh, but Moses stuttered, right? I mean he stuh-stuh-stuh-stuttered. That's what they called it back then. Nowadays he'd get called a rapper." This got a laugh. A woman sitting nearby said, "Teach the Torah, rabbi."
Funnye continued: "Moses stuttered so bad until he had to bring in his brother Aaron, who was a Cohen, a priest, to talk for him. And you know no priest is going to stutter, right?"
This got another laugh, and Funnye closed in on his moral – the importance of people from different backgrounds sharing the benefits of their respective upbringings. "I mean, hey, you grew up in the suburbs, maybe you can help me with something," he said. "Or if you came up on 59th Street – some of y'all know what I'm talking about – so I know some things that you just don't know. We can help each other."
The congregation applauded and called out in agreement. This wasn't the button-down Funnye who spoke at Stephen Wise in New York; here he was a signifying South Side Chicago rabbi.
A few years ago, before Beth Shalom bought its new synagogue, its members would meet in a small building on a blighted street in Chicago. A Latino gang worked one corner of the block, and a black gang worked the other. "Soon as we got there, somebody marked up the building with graffiti," Funnye told me. "I went to both gangs and told them: 'This is a synagogue, with elders and children. I don't care what business you do during the week, but from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown you need to be respectful.' I let them know that I am a man of peace but I'm not a pacifist and I had men in the congregation, so if we had a problem we'd deal with it ourselves, not call in the police until later."
I was surprised to hear that Funnye's speech actually worked. "And the gangs fell into line, just like that?"
Funnye chuckled. "Well, I also had a word with some brothers I met doing prison counselling, and they may have intervened. I put out word when we moved here too. I don't get in people's business, but I won't allow anyone to disrespect our synagogue."
Because of Funnye's connection to the Obamas, his community work has occasionally been a source of political interest. Between 1997 and 2002, Funnye served as the executive director of Blue Gargoyle, a nonprofit social-services agency that offers, among other things, adult-literacy and alternative-education programs. Blue Gargoyle was in Barack Obama's district when he was an Illinois state senator, and during Funnye's tenure, Obama earmarked a total of $75,000 for the organization. The issue of the earmarks and the family connection was raised by some of Obama's opponents during the 2008 presidential campaign, but it didn't gain traction; evidently the disbursements were above board.
Funnye also worked with Michelle Obama in her capacity as executive director for community affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals, where she focused on health issues affecting young people. Funnye told me that the only money Blue Gargoyle received from the university was a $5,000 grant for a tutoring program, and that the money did not come through Michelle Obama's office at the hospital.
At the start of the 2008 presidential primary season, Funnye contributed a few hundred dollars to the Obama campaign but didn't publicly endorse Obama, and he avoided mentioning the family connection. "I was afraid it might do him harm in the Orthodox community," he told me. "I believe they were the ones putting out stories about Barack being a secret Muslim and so on. They could have made me out to be a friend of Farrakhan's or a cult leader or who knows what."
Obama apparently wasn't worried by the association. During the Democratic primaries, as he came under repeated attack for being insufficiently pro-Israel, Obama reached out to Funnye, by way of Mary's brother Frank White, the Obama fund-raiser. White told me that Obama encouraged him to "tell Capers to get the word out that I've got a rabbi in my family." Funnye acknowledges getting the message. Before long, The Forward, the Jewish weekly, ran an article on Obama's rabbi, and the news spread like low-fat cream cheese from Boca Raton to Brooklyn.
Funnye's association with Obama probably didn't reassure fervent Zionists – the rabbi is considerably to the left of Obama on Middle East policy – but it didn't seem to hurt either. The connection to Obama certainly didn't hurt Funnye. "I got no blowback from the Orthodox at all," he said. "In fact, I started getting phone calls from a couple Hasidic rabbis in Israel who want to get together."
There is no black Jewish neighbourhood in Chicago. When they congregate on the Sabbath, the Hebrew Israelites come from all areas of the city, and they tend to spend the entire day in shul. The lyrics to the songs they sing are the same as the ones heard in any traditional synagogue, but the music is different. Hebrew prayers are sung in unison in something resembling call and response. A gospel-like band accompanies the choir's weekly performance of Lift Every Voice and Sing. During the Torah procession the congregation sings, "We're marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion."
On one of the days I was there, in early February, I was the only white Jew in the shul, and an old guy in front of me kept turning around and showing me the right page. There's a nudnik [a bore] like him in every shul I've ever been to.
I forgave him, though, during the Torah service, when a young man faltered over the blessings and looked mortified. "Not your fault, young man," the nudnik said. "The fire of the Torah burns so hot to where sometimes it just confuses your mind."
At the end of services, I met a young woman named Tamar, who said her children are the only black Jews enrolled at the Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School. "Things have been a little tricky for them at school since Obama won," she told me.
"Why?" I asked. "Aren't most of the parents at the Day School Democrats?"
"Yes. They voted for Obama, and their kids are glad he won. But they don't love Obama the way my children do. They aren't thrilled in the same way."
"My kids are wondering, If their classmates and teachers figure out how personal this is for them, will they be considered more black and less Jewish?"
When I told Funnye the story he chuckled but said he wasn't surprised. Being a black Jew in America can be a trying experience, even when white Jews are well intentioned. One morning I went with Funnye to a suburban Conservative congregation, where he was to deliver another Martin Luther King speech. We sat at the head table. I ate bagels and lox while Funnye chatted with a convert to Judaism. At the end of the meal the host rabbi stood and began chanting the blessing after food.
When he saw that Funnye wasn't singing along, the rabbi pointed to the appropriate words. He didn't realise that Funnye wasn't praying because he was still eating. Another nudnik.
On Inauguration Day, Capers and Mary Funnye drove down from New York and made it to Washington in time for a quick shower. Then they boarded a bus for Obama-family relatives that drove them from venue to venue throughout the day. Over lunch at the Old Executive Office building, Funnye recounted, he bonded with Obama's Kenyan grandmother and aunt and exchanged business cards with the president's Kenyan half-brother. "I get to Africa from time to time," Funnye said.
That was an understatement. Funnye heads the Pan-African Jewish Alliance, a group established to help Africans join and feel more included in the mainstream Jewish community. For its founders – Gary Tobin, the head of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, and his wife, Diane – the motivation is in part demographic. Discovering or creating millions of Jewish Africans (as well as opening the community in the United States to African converts and to African-Americans with Jewish roots) would, the Tobins say, greatly strengthen what they see as a stagnant population.
Funnye's motive is more spiritual. As a Hebrew Israelite rabbi he maintains that many Africans were originally Jewish. Some, like the Lemba of South Africa, claim direct descent from the Jews of the Bible. There is considerable resistance to this notion, but many leading scholars take it seriously. "I have no problem believing that the Lemba of South Africa are descended from Jews," says Jonathan Schorsch, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Columbia University. "Jews are ethnically and biologically mixed. It just makes sense that this mixing took place in Africa as well as other places."
Funnye's closest connection is to the Ibos, a tribe in Nigeria, some of whose members describe themselves as Jews. Beth Shalom has a sister synagogue there, and Funnye travels back and forth. For all practical purposes, he is the chief rabbi of Nigeria, and he has plans to reunite the Ibos eventually with the worldwide Jewish people through formal conversion.
Before he gets to Africa, though, Funnye has other commitments. A French organisation recently flew him to Paris for a Martin Luther King event. He now finds himself flooded with invitations to speak at big Jewish congregations in California, Florida and Long Island. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, is planning a meeting for Funnye with his colleagues. I asked Potasnik if the organisation would be willing to reconsider membership for the Hebrew Israelite rabbis. "We'd entertain an application," he said. "I'd love to see the test case."
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the Reform Movement, is, like Potasnik, ready to consider new possibilities. "The fact that men and women sit separately in the Israelite congregations might be a problem for us on gender-equality grounds," he told me. "But race would certainly be no problem for us."
A few years ago, Funnye considered applying for membership to the Union of Reform Jews. He shelved the idea when his congregants objected on the grounds that the white congregation was not observant enough. "Some of their rabbis perform intermarriages," Funnye explains, "so some of our people were uncomfortable. But sometimes I think it would be good to be part of a larger movement. Maybe we'll revisit the subject."
Funnye hasn't built all his bridges yet, let alone crossed them, but the progress he has seen – both as a black Jew and as a black American – has mellowed him. "You know, as a young man I was angry about the way we were laughed at and ignored," he said. "I sometimes went down to the kosher meat market here in Chicago, put my face right up in the face of one of the Orthodox rabbis and yelled, 'I ain't never seen no white Jews before!' I was so hurt I became obtuse and bitter. But I don't feel that way anymore." He paused. "There's no need to shout. People are ready for a dialogue, to talk and to listen."