Black Hebrew Israelites: New York's Most Obnoxious Prophets

Why do they scream and curse at you?

Black Hebrew Israelites: New York's Most Obnoxious Prophets
Michael Premo
A rare sight: A black Hebrew Israelite—silent, and not screaming—in Times Square

Friday, February 11, will be remembered as the historic day Hosni Mubarak's 30-year regime came to an end in Egypt.

But that same day, New Yorkers were lined up for a different reason on 34th Street: The new Jordan 6IX Rings sneakers were going on sale at midnight. By 7 p.m., hundreds of black people were lined up outside a Midtown store despite the temperature hovering around 11 degrees. Corralled behind rope lines and shivering on folding chairs, they waited patiently for the chance to plop down $160 and be among the first to own the newest Air Jordans.

From across the street, another black man, swathed in bright colors and not wearing Air Jordans, watched the scene.

Guess who's coming to Seder dinner? The Ambassadors of Christ read from Scriptures in their Washington Heights lair.
Michael Premo
Guess who's coming to Seder dinner? The Ambassadors of Christ read from Scriptures in their Washington Heights lair.
Obama is a monkey and a devil in materials that are anything but slick.
Michael Premo
Obama is a monkey and a devil in materials that are anything but slick.

"Look at those slaves to the white man!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. When a charter bus deposited dozens more shoppers directly at the entrance of the store, he laughed, yelling, "They're even bringing Negroes in by the busload!"

A bushy-bearded man who goes by the name "Zodach," with a small frame and a big voice, he is one of the few members of the ragtag House of Israel, a Black Hebrew Israelite group that is a final holdout of a dying breed: the New York City street-corner prophet. Zodach's colors were so bright and cartoonish that there was something almost charming about him—if you could ignore the insults he was spewing at everyone passing by.

"Look at those crazy Negroids! They should be over here with us, getting ready for the end-times!" Zodach yelled. "They're even sitting out in chairs, and it's cold out here tonight!"

Of course, he, too, was standing outside in the cold night, and there were two female disciples sitting in front of him in folding chairs, freezing, too.

Zodach was eager to preach about the news story of the day. "You saw what they did to your country in Cairo?" he shrieked at anyone with light-brown skin. "That was us, and we're going to do that to you here, too!"

A group of Indian guys who looked like they could have been frat brothers walked by, alarmed when they realized the prophet was addressing them.

"Huh?" said one, eating a shish kebab.

"Just go on drinking your pork Slurpee, you Egyptian!" Zodach screamed.

"Uh, we're Indian—and this is chicken," the man responded.

Pity also the "so-called white man" who slowed down to listen and heard, "After the race war, you're going to be my slave, picking cotton in my field!" That message is echoed in a flyer that looks like a 200th-generation copy first mimeographed in 1985: "Will so-called white people go to heaven? Yes! In slavery!!!!"

On this corner, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, you could just pull up a chair with a bowl of popcorn and watch a show more entertaining than anything you'd ever see in a comedy club. The House of Israel, shouting within earshot of the tens of thousands of people who pass through this intersection on any given evening, makes for a sticky web. The endless stream of "so-called black" New Yorkers, "so-called Jews," bewildered Japanese tourists, and born-again Christian teens who pass by are their flies.

The Westboro Church in Topeka, Kansas, comes to town but once a year. This freak show runs several times a week—and it's free. If you want death-defying thrills and the possibility of bodily injuries, save the $200 Bono will charge to risk Reeve Carney falling on your head, and instead just ask a Black Hebrew Israelite, "Don't you think Jesus said that God was a God of love?"

General Hashar, leader of the Ambassadors of Christ, another Black Hebrew Israelite "camp," explains that the war-like dress and titles they use are based on a biblical call to arms, including the omnipresent star, or "shield," of David on their garments. Hashar, a man with massive shoulders and a large gold grill on his upper row of teeth, leads the way into the basement of a Presbyterian church in Washington Heights north of 200th Street where his sect meets.

It feels neither particularly safe nor dangerous to be visiting the subterranean lair of people you've watched yelling the craziest shit you've ever heard in your life. Descending down the stairs, the smell of incense is almost overwhelming.

"That's frankincense and myrrh," says First Captain Chaa-zaq-raw-chaa, a round-faced man with a kind smile that belies his camouflage head wrap. He adds that these aromatics are the same as the gifts presented to baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men.

The antechamber to the Ambassadors' meeting hall is somewhat nondescript, and could be any community-center rec room. But there are telling details. Small flags of the state of Israel abound (though it is pointed out that they are not meant as a sign of support of the actual state of Israel, occupied by "so-called Jews.") There's a cartoon drawing of a Black Hebrew Israelite man decapitating a white man with the words "666" on his forehead. (The victim bears a slight resemblance to Bill Clinton.) The framed image sits atop a refrigerator, next to a package of Cup Noodles.

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