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Lecture 8: “We are the Ethiopian Hebrews, Brothers to the Fair White Jew”: Race, Religion, and Jewish Identity in Harlem

This presentation focuses on early twentieth-century congregations in Harlem in which members claimed Ethiopian Hebrew and navigated race and religion among Black Christians and Jews of European descent. 

Recording

Discussion Questions

  1. At the start of Professor Weisenfeld’s presentation, she showed us Rabbi Matthew’s draft card, where he adds “Hebrew” to identify his racial identity. Based on this presentation, how would you characterize Rabbi Matthew’s Hebrew identity—does it relate to race, religion, nationality or something else? Can you think of other examples of how race and religion intertwine in personal or communal identity?
  2. How does the story of the Ethiopian Hebrews expand or complicate your conception of Jewish identity?
  3. Professor Weisenfeld’s book contextualizes the Ethiopian Hebrew congregations within a study of Black religious life during the Great Migration. Do you think this story should be part of American Jewish history? Why or why not? What effects would it have on Jewish identity, community and experience to include this history in accounts of American Jewish life?
  4. The Ethiopian Hebrew community characterized their relationship with Jews of European descent as one of “brotherhood.” Do you think the metaphor of siblinghood is a useful way to think about relationships between Jews of European and Jews of African descent? What are some alternative ways to characterize this relationship?

For further reading

Professor Weisenfeld’s presentation draws from her recent award-winning book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. More on the book here.

To learn more about the history and diversity of Ethiopian Hebrews and other Black Jewish communities, here are some recommended books:

This presentation focuses on communities that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century whose history and ideology are different than groups such as the Black Hebrew and Hebrew Israelite groups that arise later. Recently, some Black Hebrew Israelite groups have been implicated in antisemitic views and actions. For reflections on the ideological underpinnings of these groups, read this dispatch by Professor Andre E. Key.

Judith Weisenfeld

Judith Weisenfeld is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion at Princeton University, as well as associated faculty in the Departments of African American Studies and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945 (Harvard 1997), Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (California, 2007), and New World A Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration (New York University Press, 2016), which won the 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Prize for the best book in Africana Religions. Her current research explores the intersections of psychiatry, race, and African American religions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

More from the lecturer

More on the topic