The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America

Bruce D. Haynes

  • From the Publisher
January 21, 2019

A glimpse into the diverse sto­ries of Black Jews in the Unit­ed States

What makes a Jew? This book traces the his­to­ry of Jews of African descent in Amer­i­ca and the counter-nar­ra­tives they have put for­ward as they stake their claims to Jewishness.

The Soul of Judaism offers the first explo­ration of the full diver­si­ty of Black Jews, includ­ing bi-racial Jews of both matri­lin­eal and patri­lin­eal descent; adoptees; black con­verts to Judaism; and Black Hebrews and Israelites, who trace their Jew­ish roots to Africa and chal­lenge the dom­i­nant west­ern par­a­digm of Jews as white and of Euro­pean descent.

Blend­ing his­tor­i­cal analy­sis and oral his­to­ry, Haynes show­cas­es the lives of Black Jews with­in the Ortho­dox, Con­ser­v­a­tive, Recon­struc­tion and Reform move­ments, as well as the reli­gious approach­es that push the bound­aries of the com­mon forms of Judaism we know today. He illu­mi­nates how in the quest to claim white­ness, Amer­i­can Jews of Euro­pean descent gained the free­dom to express their iden­ti­ty flu­id­ly while African Amer­i­cans have con­tin­ued to be seen as a fixed racial group. This book demon­strates that racial ascrip­tion has been shap­ing Jew­ish self­hood for cen­turies. Push­ing us to reassess the bound­aries between race and eth­nic­i­ty, it offers insight into how Black Jew­ish indi­vid­u­als strive to assert their dual iden­ti­ties and find accep­tance with­in their respec­tive communities.

Putting to rest the sim­plis­tic notion that Jews are white and that Black Jews are there­fore a con­tra­dic­tion, the vol­ume argues that we can no longer pigeon­hole Black Hebrews and Israelites as exot­ic, mil­i­tant, and nation­al­is­tic sects out­side the bound­aries of main­stream Jew­ish thought and com­mu­ni­ty life. The vol­ume spurs us to con­sid­er the sig­nif­i­cance of the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of self-iden­ti­fied Black Jews and its impli­ca­tions for the future of Amer­i­can Jewry.

Discussion Questions