Black Hebrew Israelites: New York's Most Obnoxious Prophets

Why do they scream and curse at you?

She began going to classes they held in a building in Harlem. "They just explained Scriptures, but went into them in more depth than they did on the street," she says. But after a year or so of going to classes, its appeal began to wear off: "A lot of the guys, they couldn't get their act together."

She recalls seeing one "go into a White Castle, and he only bought one hamburger. And he looked so pathetic. I thought, 'You are a grown man! I know you can eat more than hamburger! Is that all you can afford?' "

Further dimming the sheen for her was her realization that the tribe wasn't a serious dating pool for a professional black woman: "I looked at them and realized, 'I could never take you to the office party!' "

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.

The final straw, she says, was "the clothes. They look ridiculous! It didn't matter what they had to say about Scripture—they just looked ridiculous. Why do they have to dress like that? I mean, a bow tie always looks good. It never goes out of fashion."

She followed her fashion sense and, by the early '90s, ditched the Black Hebrew Israelites for the Nation of Islam.

Another woman who actually dated a Black Hebrew Israelite painted a portrait of him as slightly less than Bachelor of the Year. This lady, from Jamaica, was also a member of that country's Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Though it uses some of the same symbolism, the Twelve Tribes in Jamaica is a very different religion from that of the American Black Hebrew Israelites. The Jamaican movement is quite distinct in style and intensity, and is part of the Rastafari movement.

"Bob Marley was Twelve Tribes," the woman says of the far more relaxed, less militant sect. "We'd never scream at anybody! Or tell them they were going to be slaves!"

Then she happened to fall for a man in the U.S. who became a member. She was bewildered when she went out with some of the guys, and her boyfriend—a "General"—and she sat at one table, while his "Captains" had to sit at another table away from their leader.

"What those brothers do, it's nothing like the Twelve Tribes of Jamaica," she says, a tradition more in line with mellow grooves, dancing outside, being at one with the world—and, of course, smoking good weed. Black Hebrew Israelites insist that impure substances are not allowed. More than once, however, the Voice witnessed regular disciples coming to watch their preaching with bloodshot eyes and liquor on their breath.

Broadway and 44th Street used to be known as "Preacher's Corner." Back when a Midnight Cowboy–style hustler would have been working the scene (rather than the Naked Cowboy playing guitar), this corner was awash with ministers calling out the end-times. (Performance artist Reverend Billy used to preach on this corner, warning about the evils of materialism.)

Those days are largely gone, and the bell ringers of the apocalypse have been replaced by hucksters trying to lure you into comedy clubs. Almost the only prophets of doom left in Times Square—if you don't include the NASDAQ ticker—are the Black Hebrew Israelites.

On any given Saturday night, you can find the Ambassadors of Christ on this corner. (The House of Israel is a block away, on 45th Street. The camps insist they are brothers, but are totally separate, and take on the two corners like two different "borough presidents.") General Hashar and his two captains are joined by about a dozen other apostles, each cutting an intimidating figure.

And their signs draw quite a reaction from people of all hues.

"Obama is not a monkey! He is our president!"

It's a strange thing to witness one black person trying to convince another of this fact. Still, it's not an atypical reaction the Ambassadors get when "so-called black people" see the group's cardboard sign of Barack Obama. The phrases "AfricaCON Monkey Devil" and "Illuminati Puppet" accompany Obama's smiling Senate portrait, along with horns they've drawn coming out of his head.

They see Obama as part of a corrupt system, and cut no slack for the nation's first black president.

On another sign, Charla Nash, the woman whose face was ripped off by Travis the Chimp, is juxtaposed with Emmett Till's mutilated body. But it's the butchered Obama image that gets the quickest rise out of people, and leaves them absolutely bewildered when they realize it's black men putting it out there.

Screaming fits are common with the Ambassadors. Sometimes the exchanges are with "real" Jews, or with wide-eyed white Christian missionary types. Or with onlookers who hurl their own insults right back.

On a recent Saturday night, a Puerto Rican teenager (whom Black Hebrew Israelites would consider a member of the Ephraim tribe) took umbrage with Hashar, who was chewing out his girlfriend for wearing pants.

"What are you talking about she wearing men's clothes? You faggots are wearing dresses!" the boy yelled, to laughs. Around 50 people had gathered at this point to watch the show, about the most the police will allow at any given time to congregate.

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