Aminah Ha Rofah (left) and Micael Ben Shaleahk under the chuppah at their Oct. 17 wedding in Davis. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Aminah Ha Rofah (left) and Micael Ben Shaleahk under the chuppah at their Oct. 17 wedding in Davis. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Vows, broom jumping and vegan cake: a soulful Hebrew Israelite wedding in Davis

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A shofar blast signals the start of the ceremony.

The guests, many wearing brightly colored African-style clothing and head coverings, take their seats. A DJ cues up “Grazing in the Grass” by South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and the groom two-steps his way to the purple wedding canopy. He has on a white kippah and a shawl decorated with an image of a lion, the symbol of the Tribe of Judah. Then his bride begins sashaying to the chuppah to Jill Scott’s “Golden.” She wears an elegant white dress from Nigeria and a white turban, and she holds a red, gold and green fan from Ghana.

Over the next half-hour, Ahk (“Brother”) Micael Ben Shaleahk and Acote (”Sister”) Aminah Ha Rofah will commit themselves to each other during a soulful and syncretic marriage ceremony that draws on Jewish, Hebrew Israelite, African and African American traditions.

God will be invoked by several names, including “Elohim” and “Yah.” One of the officiants will “anoint” the bride and groom by rubbing their foreheads with oil. The couple will exchange silver bracelets and jump over a broom. At the reception afterward, an entirely vegan meal will be served. And there will also be some spontaneous line dancing, all under clear skies.

“It was perfect outside,” Micael said in an interview after the celebration, which took place Oct. 17 at a former plant nursery in a rural part of Davis. “It wasn’t too hot or too cold. The wind was kicking up though — it was that ruach letting us know that Yah was there.”

A shortened form of the four-letter Hebrew name of God, “Yah” is the moniker favored by Hebrew Israelites like Micael and Aminah. Distinct from Jews of color and Ethiopian Jews, Hebrew Israelites are people of color, mostly African Americans, who identify as genealogical descendants of the ancient Israelites and practice a Torah-centered lifestyle but who, in most cases, are not Jews by birth or conversion.

There are communities across the United States, United Kingdom, Caribbean and Africa, with a wide range of ideologies and attitudes toward mainstream Jews and Israel. Perhaps the most prominent Hebrew Israelite is Rabbi Capers Funnye, who leads a congregation in Chicago. (He is both a convert to Judaism and the chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis.) ​​The number of Hebrew Israelites living in the U.S. is unknown, as national religion surveys do not include the category.

Micael and Aminah, both 63, are affiliated with one of the more established communities, the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, which is based in Dimona, Israel. Both lived there for periods of time. Both eventually moved back to the U.S. and ended up in Northern California, Micael to care for his 94-year-old mother in Richmond, and Aminah to be near several of her children from a previous marriage.

A brass Africa pendant worn by a wedding guest. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
A brass Africa pendant worn by a wedding guest. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Theirs was a relatively fast courtship; they spoke for the first time by phone in March — a mutual friend gave Aminah’s number to Micael — and were engaged by August.

“My mind was so far away from marriage” when Micael called, said Aminah, who was living in Sacramento at the time and working as a midwife. “I’m thinking, my older self, can I really find a nice, healthy brother?” She said she was impressed by how attentive Micael was to his mother, Marjorie. Micael said he was struck by the “virtuous energy” of Aminah’s children. “Children are a parent’s report card, and she has a good report card,” he said.

The two said they bonded quickly because as African Hebrew Israelites, they share the same vegan diet (based on an interpretation of Genesis 1:29, in which God tells Adam and Eve to eat plants and fruit) and other core beliefs, as well as some of the same interests, including studying the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and doing yoga. “It was definitely Yah who brought us together,” Micael said.

Marriage and procreation are integral parts of African Hebrew Israelite culture, according to Yehuda Ha Cohane, a community priest (and Aminah’s son-in-law) who helped conduct the wedding ceremony via an audio recording. He pointed out in an interview that in the Book of Genesis, God says “it is not good for man to be alone” before creating Eve. And in the same book, God instructs Noah and his sons to “be fruitful and multiply.”

15: Oil is rubbed on the bride’s forehead during the ceremony. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Oil is rubbed on the bride’s forehead during the ceremony. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

In Israel, many African Hebrew Israelite men have more than one wife, and there are families with 10 or more children, he said. Micael and Aminah told J. that they “respect the cultural paradigm of plural marriage” and will decide if it is right for them “after one year of successful marriage.” (Officially, polygamy is illegal in the U.S. and Israel, though enforcement is lax.)

Yehuda began his recorded remarks at the wedding by giving thanks to Yah for permitting “a return of our people to that great and mighty land of ours, Jerusalem, Northeastern Africa.” (This was a reference, he said, to the belief that Israel is part of Africa, not the Middle East or Asia. A map on display at the wedding identified the African continent as “Eden.”) After prompting the couple to exchange short vows in Hebrew, he recited the priestly blessing and formally introduced Micael and Aminah as “ish and isha,” “man” and “wife.”

“Hallelujah!” he cried three times, in a call and response with the assembled relatives and friends.

After embracing, the couple set two brooms on the ground in front of the chuppah and jumped over them. This African American custom was once performed by enslaved people who could not legally wed. Asked why they chose to incorporate it into their ceremony, Micael told J. it represents “that we’re crossing over to a higher consciousness — that’s what Hebrews do.” (In the Torah, Abram — later Abraham — is referred to as “the Hebrew” because he “crosses” into the land of Canaan.)

Many wedding guests wore colorful African-style clothing and head coverings. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Many wedding guests wore colorful African-style clothing and head coverings. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Aminah distributes colorful handkerchiefs to several women in the crowd, including two of her daughters, Tsviyah, 23, and Chaiyah, 21. “They are given to single sisters to bless them with a husband,” she explained of the tradition, which is unique to the African Hebrew Israelites. “It’s similar to throwing a bouquet.”

The African Hebrew Israelites emerged in Chicago in the mid-1960s. At the time, African Americans were exploring their heritage and pursuing greater self-determination through various political and spiritual movements, including the Black Power and civil rights movements. The founders of the community decided to leave the U.S. after their future leader, Ben Ammi Ben Israel, shared that the angel Gabriel had appeared to him in a vision and told him it was time for an “exodus.” They spent over two years in the West African country of Liberia before settling in Israel beginning in 1969.

Although they view Israel as their ancestral homeland, they have never been fully accepted by the state because they are not halachically Jewish. As a result, they do not enjoy the freedom to immigrate there under the Law of Return, and fewer than 10 percent hold Israeli citizenship. At present, dozens are being threatened with deportation for living in the country without legal status.

Aminah lived in Israel from 1998 to 2010, and although she completed a Jewish conversion at a Reform synagogue in Cleveland in 1997, she said she was never able to obtain Israeli citizenship due to her affiliation with the community. Still, during her time in Israel, she discovered a passion for midwifery and helped deliver more than 200 African Hebrew Israelite babies.

RELATED: Israel’s new call to deport African Hebrew Israelites reopens old wounds

“I had a great experience, but I was expecting the Hebrews to be accepted because it’s the Holy Land,” she said. “To go there and see the discrimination of the people… that was a rude awakening.”

University of San Francisco Jewish studies professor Aaron Hahn Tapper included a short section on the African Hebrew Israelites in his 2016 textbook “Judaisms,” in a chapter on communities that exist at the borders of mainstream Judaism. He said in an email that “Jewish adjacent” groups like this one and the Samaritans — a small community in Israel and the West Bank that practices a monotheistic religion similar to Judaism — should be part of the conversation about the complex nature of modern Jewish identity.

“Over time, [the African Hebrew Israelites] have had different iterations as related to the issue of Jewishness, identifying, among other signifiers, as Israelites, the true or real Israelites, Judeans, and now, of course, Israelis,” he said.

He added that there are compelling reasons to cultivate amicable relations with such groups. “As Jews make up 0.2% of the world’s population and 2.2% of the American population, Jews must have non-Jewish allies,” he said. “This is an ethical and moral necessity (as well as a strategic one), and Jewish adjacent communities are a good place to start.”

The couple prepare to jump over a broom, which is an African American wedding custom. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
The couple prepares to jump over a broom, which is an African American wedding custom. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Micael said he believes it is important for Jews and Hebrew Israelites to “interact and develop a peaceful conversation.” Yehuda echoed that sentiment, saying, “We have to coexist. Our children [in Israel] are really pointing the way.” He highlighted the fact that African Hebrew Israelite youth have been serving in the Israel Defense Forces alongside their Jewish peers since 2004. (Most community members living in Israel are permanent residents and, as such, are required to enlist.)

Ahk Pahaltiel was born and raised in Dimona and served in an Israeli combat unit during the 2006 Lebanon War. Now living in Houston, he remains closely connected to Israel — he is one of 16 children, and most of his siblings live there. The government’s move to deport African Hebrew Israelites represents a “betrayal,” he said.

“They said if we completed military service they would grant status to everyone in the community, but they reneged on the agreement,” Pahaltiel, 35, recalled in an interview after the wedding, which he attended with his wife and two daughters. “We were lied to.”

Today, he has Israeli citizenship as a result of his army service, but he said he decided not to apply for an Israeli passport in protest of the government’s treatment of the community. “We served hand in hand with them, and now they’re trying to separate our families,” he said angrily.

While the African Hebrew Israelites administer official “jurisdictions” of followers in cities such as Chicago and Atlanta, the Bay Area does not have one. There are, however, small numbers of Hebrew Israelites — those who are affiliated with the Dimona community and those who are not — scattered across Northern California.

Some of them, it should be noted, are part of extremist sects such as Israel United in Christ (IUIC), which the ADL says promotes “racist, antisemitic, homophobic and sexist elements of [Black Hebrew Israelite] ideology.” Members of IUIC regularly engage in confrontational street preaching in Oakland, San Francisco and other cities. They are not connected to the Dimona-based African Hebrew Israelite community to which Micael and Aminah belong.

One wedding attendee, Netanya Davis, shared with J. her story of leaving Christianity as an adult and embracing Hebrew Israelite culture. A one-time Christian minister, Davis said she became disillusioned with the inflexibility of church doctrine. “It didn’t allow for dialogue and questioning,” she said.

So she and her husband embarked on a spiritual journey that led them to Seventh-day Adventist and Hebrew Israelite teachings. They are now part of an informal “assembly” of Hebrew Israelites around the country who meet every week on Zoom with a teacher based in Netanya, Israel.

Hebrew Israelite women at a Sukkot celebration in Elk Grove.
Hebrew Israelite women at a Sukkot celebration in Elk Grove.

In September, Davis hosted an in-person Sukkot celebration for local Hebrew Israelites at her Elk Grove home that Micael and Aminah attended. The program included prayers, poetry readings and a pescatarian meal. “We are still in our infancy stages of doing the holy days,” she explained. “Every time we do it we learn more and more.”

Like many Hebrew Israelites, Davis took a new name after reconnecting with her true identity, she said. She chose “Netanya” because she fell in love with that seaside city during a 2019 trip to Israel. “I went to the city and felt serenity and joy, even around the Jewish people there,” she said. “I felt no animosity.”

She added, “I think it’s OK to be separate and appreciate each other’s culture and heritage separately. We just don’t have to be bitter and hostile.”

Back at the wedding in Davis, Micael and Aminah and their guests sit down for the vegan potluck meal. Several dishes were prepared by their friend Amenhetep Isra El, a local chef who specializes in alkaline food, which is thought to raise the body’s pH levels and stave off illness. The dishes include wild rice with portobello mushrooms and pecans, an organic purple kale salad and “raw chocolate” made from cocoa and hemp seeds. (The chocolate received mixed reviews from attendees.)

Finally it is time to cut the cake. Sitting atop it are two figurines, dressed in vaguely Biblical garb. They are dark-skinned and are meant to represent Abraham, Sarah and other ancestors shared by both Hebrew Israelites and Jews.

“We’re calling on their spirit to bless us and deliver us from evil,” Aminah told J., quoting a verse from the Book of Chronicles, the final book of the Hebrew Bible.

Figurines atop the vegan wedding cake. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Figurines atop the vegan wedding cake. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.