By Hanna B. Smith
On February 24, 2014, the U.K. Jewish Studies Department presented a program called “A Night of African-American Jewish Culture.” The speakers were a young Jewish couple of African descent, Shais “MaNishtana” Rishon and Gulienne Shoshana Rollins-Rishon. The couple lives in New York and is orthodox in their Jewish practices.
Shais and Gulienne discussed their experience growing up in a Jewish and Black family and living their lives as Jews and African-Americans. Their intention was to dispel misconceptions about their ethnic group and to gain acceptance within the broader Jewish and also general community. In addition to speaking engagements, Shais has dedicated his film-making, blogging, and writing career to this end. He has also reached out to Jews of other ethnic groups, such as East Asians, who feel left out of the main-stream Jewish community.
A frequent misconception, according to Shais, is that all African-American Jews are converts or the children of converts. That is not so. For example, there is a tradition in the family of Shais’ mother that their ancestress who was brought over to America as a slave was Jewish. This ancestress was a member of the Igbo tribe of Nigeria one of whose subgroups practices Judaism. The Igbo Jews claim descent from ancient Israelites who migrated into Africa. (For more information about the Igbos of Nigeria see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igbo_Jews.)
Many of the audience that evening, myself included, were unaware that some of the African captives brought to America as slaves were Jewish. Members of the audience asked whether the American Jewish community of that time knew this. What about the commandment of redeeming Jewish captives? No one had an answer.
The descendants of Shais Rishon’s ancestress have clung to Judaism for two centuries in the face of great difficulties.
According to Gulienne and Shais, there are other African-American Jews with similar family traditions. However they have not banded together in a distinct social group. The experience of slavery which prohibited associations may be part of the reason. According to the couple, the descendants of Jewish Igbos in the United States have joined various Jewish congregations, depending upon their personal preferences.
In Shais’ experience, some European Jews cannot accept that the heritage of Jews of African descent also reaches far into antiquity, just as theirs does. This rejection by fellow Jews is deeply hurtful.
Jews in the Diaspora live in two cultures: the Jewish culture and the culture of the Gentile society that surrounds them. Shais and other African-American Jews live in three cultures, at least in the United States. Because of the emphasis placed on race and skin color in the U.S., both Caucasian and Black Americans automatically assume that anyone who looks African is also a member of the mainstream African-American society.
People are surprised to learn that Shais and Gulienne are not members of any of the Christian denominations favored by African-Americans. The couple has endured hostilities from African-Americans because of this.
Some mistake African-American Jews for Hebrew-Israelites which is a Christian sect. In his not-autobiography, “Thoughts from a Unicorn,” Shais makes it clear that the Hebrew-Israelites are not Jewish in spite of certain practices. He is bitter about an article in the ‘Forward’ and about what he calls the “white Jewish bleeding-heart liberal overcompensatingly inclusive media” for pandering to groups like the Hebrew-Israelites for reasons of their own and thereby delegitimizing Jews of African descent (see: “An Open Letter To Forward.com, etc.”, manishtanasmusings.com/2012/07/22/an-open-letter-to-forward-com-hebrew-israelite).
To empower Jews of ethnic minorities within the larger Jewish world, Shais founded a dating site for Jews of color, JOCFlock.org. In 2013 he founded The Shivtei Jeshurun Society for the Advancement of Jewish Racial and Ethnic Diversity, Inc. Shivtei Jeshurun means tribes of Jeshurun, Jeshurun being another name for Jacob. This name for Jacob is used in the Tanakh (Bible) by Moses in the “Song of Moses,” and later by the Prophet Isaiah.
In its welcome statement, the Society is dedicated to furthering several goals: promoting awareness and equality for Jews who differ ethnically and racially from Ashkenazi European Jews; acknowledging and respecting the racial and ethnic diversity among Jews and include them within “mainstream” Jewry and the broader public. The Society also wants to reach across Jewish denominations and ethnicity “to make the world a better place,” and it invites the public to help with these goals.
The SJS motto is taken from Malachi chapter 2, verse 10: “Have we not all one father? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?”