By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
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.
"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.
Chaa-zaq-raw-chaa and Hashar lead the way past a solid metal door into their inner sanctum. The room is tricked out with African-looking depictions of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, along with posters in Hebrew that bear phrases from Deuteronomy 4 ("Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God") and the Talmud ("Know before whom you stand"). At the front of the room is a large table with a menorah. Armed with stacks of books, the priests take their place behind the makeshift altar, like sages about to dispense advice. They begin to record the proceedings with an old-school analog tape deck.
Chaa-zaq-raw-chaa and Hashar are soon joined by Tazadaq-khan, a very tall and thin man dressed in what look like carpenter's clothes. He disappears behind a curtain to don his black robes and warrior garb before joining the other two at the table. They describe being part of a movement that spans the five boroughs, several states, and multiple prisons.
The three men attempt to reveal as little about themselves as they possibly can. "We are the Ambassadors of Christ," Hashar the self-described Jew reiterates, saying that anything they say about themselves personally will detract from their mission. They will not give their real names, nor do they even want to say what type of work they do.
But they do let a few personal details slip. Tazadaq-khan says that although "a lot of people think Black Hebrew Israelites are a bunch of unemployed 'so-called blacks' and 'so-called Hispanics,' we all work."
"We have jobs," says Hashar with a broad smile, "or, should I say, we're slaves, working for our scraps on the plantation." Hashar was in the military before the first Gulf War—"I plead the Fifth," he says when asked what branch—which gave him an insight into the military and the ways of the United States that "only a veteran" could ever possess, he says.
Chaa-zaq-raw-chaa says that people at his job "know I'm a Jew." Asked if co-workers had ever seen him in action on the street, he seemed confident that he could never be discriminated against at work for his religion.
Like most Black Hebrew Israelites who spoke to the Voice, these men grew up in Brooklyn, mostly in East New York. All came from what sounded like extremely religious Christian households—Jehovah's Witnesses at home, or Catholics at parochial school. They each painted a picture of growing up in a neighborhood with little hope for acceptance, except maybe in a gang.
Each of them found Black Hebrew Israelites either through hearing them preaching on the street or watching a cable-access show one camp used to put on. When asked what religious moment in their own journey most stood out in their memory, Chaa-zaq-raw-chaa said it was when, in Times Square, a white man got down on his knees to kiss his boots, just as the Scriptures had preordained would happen before the end-times. (He offered no photographic evidence of the incident.)
The three spent a large amount of time talking about avoiding pork and shellfish and criticizing people who don't follow the healthy diet God laid out in the Bible. (However, one did prepare and eat the Cup Noodles soon afterward.)
If the three priests were secretive about their lives, Yahana, a 38-year-old man, was more forthcoming. Yahana, who is unemployed, says he isn't a member of any particular camp, but is spending time with various Black Hebrew Israelites while he travels. He soon plans to head out on a journey around the country, learning from camps in other states before answering a personal call to start his own in Pennsylvania.
Yahana says his newly found religion offers him spiritual clarity, but his personal life is in crisis. He has dabbled in Catholicism, he has been a Jehovah's Witness, and he has even been an atheist. He did time for dealing drugs as a young man. He hasn't seen his wife in 10 years, but hasn't divorced her. He's staying with another woman who is the mother of his 10- and 12-year-old daughters, and after his year of travels, he plans to move in with a longtime girlfriend and her son.
His relationship with women, he admits, is complicated. "We believe that when you lay down with a woman, you have to 'do business with her,' " Yahana says. "A man has needs," he says, and Black Hebrew Israelites "believe that a man needs sex not just for procreation, but for pleasure." Still, he "doesn't want to do business with just any woman. I don't want to be with an unclean woman. I want her to at least have some morals if I'm going to lay down with her."
Black Hebrew Israelites regularly scream "bitch" and "whore" at women on the street. One ex-girlfriend of a Black Hebrew Israelite told the Voice that "these guys just want to move in with women and eat their food and live rent-free." Yahana says the Bible teaches that "all you need is food in your mouth, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head." Still, he seems to think that having these three things, while also being able to pay his cell phone bill, is a sign of divine providence and not due to the generosity of the women in his life.
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?
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.
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!' "
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.
Just outside the assembled crowd, another teen yelled, "Remember, there is no God!"
This made the audience—who had initially been adversarial toward the missionaries—now sympathize with them.
"What do you mean, there is no God?" a young "so-called black woman" retorted. "There is a God, nigger! You remember that!"
Just how dangerous are these guys? They're such a fixture of New York that many city residents have grown to tune them out.
"I don't think they'd ever actually hurt white people," says the woman who studied with them two decades ago. "In the first place, they're too cowardly to actually ever do anything. And more importantly, if they thought they were going to do anything, the white people wouldn't let them be out there!"
The Jamaican woman who has dated one of them isn't so convinced. "Everyone thinks they're not armed," she says. "They are. And they use a lot of violence." (When asked by the Voice about carrying guns, a member of the House of Israel said, "So what? There's nothing wrong with being armed and ready to protect yourself.")
The NYPD has apparently decided that the best course of action with Black Hebrew Israelites is to ignore them. "Most cops try to avoid those guys," a source in the department tells the Voice. "The last thing you want to do is get into a confrontation with them, and then actually have to arrest them. You'll be doing paperwork for days."
To get a sense of how dangerous they are considered by those who know them best—the beat cops of Times Square—the Voice took a stroll on a recent Saturday night to conduct an informal poll.
"They don't need no permit. They're not hurting anybody," said the first cop we talked to. (Moments before, one of the House of Israel members had been shrieking, "What this country needs is a thousand Jared Loughners!")
A second officer couldn't be questioned. He was busy, at that moment, bending a white teenage boy over the hood of his car and pretending to handcuff him, while the boy's friend took a picture they could post on Facebook for the folks back home. (About this time, an Ambassador of Christ was screaming that the city needs more Maksim "Subway Slasher" Gelmans.)
A third officer noted that Black Hebrew Israelites have permission to say whatever they want, as loud as they want, as long as they don't block traffic or use sound amplification. He said that anyone who had a problem with them "should call 3-1-1 and complain to the mayor." He agreed that they harassed people and thought they could flip at any moment.
"Everyone's got their First Amendment rights," he said with a sigh and a shrug.
Watching them in action in Times Square, it's easy to see how some of the Ambassadors of Christ are outcasts. While Hashar and his captains preach at the pedestrians on the sidewalk, the backbenchers are relegated to facing the gutter. They literally have the backs of the speakers, living gargoyles of defense who rarely share the limelight.
One of those keeping watch recently was a light-skinned man with a trim beard. His coffee-colored face was twitching nervously, like a chipmunk on Four Loko. Eyes as wide as hubcaps, he scanned his surroundings with seeming terror. His lips were trembling.
He looked so pathetic, it was almost easy to feel sorry for him.
Two white men passed by in front of him in Broadway's gutter.
"What-what-what are you looking at, f-f-faggy?" he stuttered slightly. He raised his arms to intimidate them as they looked at him with shock. "That's right. Keep walking, fa-fa-faggots."