A fascinating look at Israels polygamist Black Hebrews

When you think of polygamy, you tend to think: Utah. Well, think again.

There is a religious sect in Israel that not only condones but encourages the taking of as many wives, up to seven, that a man can handle. “Sister Wife,” a fascinating documentary by co-directed and produced by Timna Goldstein and Hadar Kleinman for Alden Films, traces the problems that one family has with only two.

Atur is a Black Hebrew, one of a number of African Americans who moved to Israel in 1969. Weary of ghetto life in the United States, they followed a charismatic leader to Dimona in the Negev, establishing a community and forging a new identity. The children were taught Hebrew and Torah, and the community’s worship evolved into an interesting combination of ancient liturgy, African chant, gospel singing and rock and roll. “In america we had rhythm and blues. In Israel, we have rhythm and Jews,” jokes one of the sect’s leaders.

As if this wasn’t odd enough, the practice of taking multiple wives is followed by all who can afford it. Atur, a former heroin dealer from Detroit and now a respected member of Dimona society, is one. After 21 years of marriage to Ziporah, who has given him nine children, he wishes to marry a young girl. He expects his first wife to be cool with that and, by and large, she seems to be. At least in the beginning.

“I’ll just put him on a platter and hand him to her,” she quips to her friends. But, in private moments caught on camera, you can see the tightness in her face.

The wedding is an affair of African drums and wildly colored clothes, mixed with pop love songs and Jewish ritual. Ziporah endures it with a smile — she knows everyone is watching her reaction — but when she gets home she dials her mother in the States. After some small talk, she tells her the news. “Get outta here!” her mama says and proceeds to outline what would happen to any man who did that to her.

The new wife doesn’t have a mother and, in time, the older Ziporah becomes something of a surrogate.

Once Ziporah overcomes her initial resentment. she learns to take advantage of the situation. She goes power-walking with friends and joins a choir while the second wife, now pregnant, stays home with the kids. But it’s a two-way street and when Atur is away, Ziporah steps in, offering both physical and moral support.

The women in this strange society have to stick together. They are taught they are nothing without their men. “Woman does not exist outside of serving Adam (man),” counsels the Kohan officiating at the wedding. “There is no other pathway to God save through your lord.”

As for Atur, “It’s a king’s life,” he says as he lays out plans to enlarge his house. In fact, he confesses, he would like to take still another wife. He seems fairly typical of the transplanted Americans who like their new lives, in spite of the difficulties. (“America was our slave country,” Ziporah explains.)

Whether Israel is reciprocally enthusiastic remains to be seen. After 35 years of residency, the Black Hebrews, though granted permanent residency status in 2003, are still denied full Israeli citizenship.

“Sister Wife” (60 minutes, $49.95). Information: Alden Films (732) 462-3522 or www.aldenfilms.com.