Where Black and Jewish Identity Merge

Authors Emily Raboteau and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts Seek Utopia

Plane to Zion: Emily Raboteau, author of “Searching For Zion,” traveled the world on a quest to understand the yearning for the promised land.
courtesy emily raboteau
Plane to Zion: Emily Raboteau, author of “Searching For Zion,” traveled the world on a quest to understand the yearning for the promised land.

By Adam Langer

Published January 27, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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E.R.: I wouldn’t say I had much of a sense of a troubled relationship between blacks and Jews as much as a kinship between them, although I do remember the Crown Heights riot. In the wake of it, I remember my father taking my friend Tamar, the friend I visited in Israel, and I to an exhibit at The Jewish Museum, which was about the links in history between blacks and Jews. I must have been 13 or 14 at the time.

I remember learning about the shared histories of oppression and pain, but also hope because of that story that tied these two people together, so for me the project of this book wasn’t to talk about tensions between these two communities so much as ties between them. I went to Jamaica specifically because I was a fan of reggae music, and I kept hearing time and time again “Zion” in the lyrics of these songs.

And I wanted to know more about the Rastafari faith and what the ties between that faith and Judaism were, and was as surprised to discover in Jamaica a synagogue with white Jews in its congregation, as I had been surprised to discover black Jews in Israel. To a degree, one of the processes of my journey was a falling away of thinking about those terms so categorically, because, of course, one can be black and Jewish at the same time, and many people are.

S.R.P.: Well, the question of change in Harlem, which is something my book is concerned with, requires us to think about the different neighborhoods Harlem has been over time, and one face of Harlem historically was Jewish. There were Jewish sections of Harlem, there were Irish sections of Harlem, there were Italian sections of Harlem.

And so the mythical Harlem that carried its fame around the world through most of the 20th century from 1905 is about the time Harlem begins to be a black neighborhood. There are lots of synagogues that are now Christian places of worship.

E.R.: There’s a synagogue on old Broadway, very close to the 1 train, which is still an active synagogue with black Jews as well as white Jews, if you want to use those terms.


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