Black Hebrew Israelites: New York's Most Obnoxious Prophets

Why do they scream and curse at you?

Yahana describes his close relationship with his daughters. When asked how they feel about his upcoming voyage, he says, "My younger daughter doesn't understand. My older daughter—we're close—she doesn't want me to go. But she understands I have to do what I have to do. Plus, I'm not abandoning her. I'll still call her and keep in touch. I'll still be her dad."

Members of the Twelve Tribes believe homosexuality is a plot to destroy the human race. Black Hebrew Israelites verbally lash out at "fags" and "dykes." Bisexuals drive them nuts, too. (A typical response shouted at a bi woman: "Why do you like pussy? Were you molested as a child?")

But it's cross-dressers who really get under their skin (which is odd, given the ankle-length purple robes and black skirts they don). They can spend an hour discussing that age-old Talmudic question: Who is the worse transgressor transvestite—Tyler Perry as Madea, or Martin Lawrence as Big Momma?

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.

Perhaps their Big Momma's House fears are bred in the big house, where some Black Hebrew Israelites find religion. The true offense to them is "showing little boys that it's OK to dress like a woman, so they can grow up to be faggots!"

There's a real chicken-and-egg conundrum when considering whether homophobia breeds their misogyny—or if it's the other way around.

"Black women, you think it's OK to take your sons to a beauty parlor, where they'll grow up thinking it's OK to be like a woman. It's not. They need to be with men, so they don't grow up and turn into a fag!" says a member of the House of Israel.

Recently, a transgendered woman responded to taunts from Black Hebrew Israelites by lifting her shirt and flashing her breasts—a creative response to the kind of harassment New Yorkers have been experiencing for a long time.

The sect's history goes back a long way. In the 19th century, various sects of Black Hebrew Israelites formed in the U.S., with several groups popping up in Harlem by the early 20th century. They have their roots in the black Pentecostal "holiness movement," and the first gathering may have been started in 1886 in F.S. Cherry's "Black Jew" church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Cherry predicted Jesus was coming back in the year 2000 to slaughter all white people. He also taught his flock that the world was square.)

What largely unifies the various sects today is a Black Nationalist concept of Judaism that (in not such a different way from Black Liberation Theology's idea of Christianity or the Nation of Islam's take on being a Muslim) sees African-Americans as God's one and only chosen people.

Biblically and biologically, Black Hebrew Israelites see themselves as descendants of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In the Old Testament, each tribe was named for a son of Jacob, himself the grandson of Abraham. They believe their ancestors were expelled from Israel in the year 70 A.D., then emigrated to West Africa, and were exported to North America as slaves. Today, they believe, the original Israelite tribes have modern equivalents: "the Negroes," Puerto Ricans, American Indians, and nine other groups of brown-skinned New World inhabitants. They hold a grudge, meanwhile, against "continental Africans" who they believe sold them to the white man.

The street missionaries take their etymology quite literally. They yell at white people, "Hu-man is a combination of hue and man. You have no hue, no color, so you're not human! That's why you can't absorb the sun and you need vitamins!"

Of course, "real" Jews don't consider them Jewish, and vice versa. Tom Metzger, the notorious leader of White Aryan Resistance, once said about them, "They're the black counterpart of us."

Black Hebrew Israelites began showing up in East Coast ghettos in the '70s. Members of the Miami-based Nation of Yahweh were indicted in 1990 on RICO charges that included extortion, arson, and 14 counts of murder. Founder Yahweh Ben Yahweh went to federal prison for conspiring to kill random white people (including one beheading) as an initiation rite into his sect. He is said to have told new members "to kill me a white devil and bring me an ear."

Around this time, several sects were operating in New York much like they do today, running schools in Harlem and preaching on the street. When the Giuliani administration tried to shut down their sound amplification, the Black Hebrew Israelites hired civil rights attorney Norman Siegel to fight on the grounds of the First Amendment.

"I remember seeing them in the 1980s, in Times Square," says a professional black woman who also didn't want to be mentioned by name. "At first, I thought they were so hilarious. When I'd go to see a movie with my friends, I'd say to them, 'Hey, do you want to go early, and get something to eat and go watch those crazy guys?' "

They grew on her as a teenager. "It was like, I was just beginning to become politically conscious, you know?" she says. Having just become aware of police brutality and other forms of white oppression, there was something about the Black Hebrew Israelite's condemnation of white supremacy that intrigued her.

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