The Soul of Judaism

Jews of African Descent in America

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Bruce D. Haynes
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , August
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his new beautiful book, The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America, Bruce Haynes brings together his expertise in sociology, Jewish studies, and African-American studies to explore the history and situation of Jews of African descent in the United States. In doing so, he also adds to the large literature on the racialization of European-heritage Jews in the West.

Haynes makes use of the opportunity to analyze relations between distinct groups of African-Americans and Jews, and African-heritage Jews in the US to explore new US relationships between race and ethnicity. Additionally, he uses this case study to see how what he terms “religion” enabled contexts for new racial projects. Ultimately, Haynes successfully uses the specificity of his historical analysis to argue that racial projects can also be about the redistribution of non-tangible goods and resources such as “acceptance, legitimacy, and self-affirmation” (27).

Haynes does a good job of sorting through different trends of self-identifying Jews of African heritage in the US. A large portion of Jews of African descent in the US are part of rabbinic Jewish communities and families that many in the US have learned to think of in recent years as “white.” Haynes’s work thus makes an important contribution toward awareness of the reality of a multi-racial Jewish life in the US, with particular attention to Black Jews. Also significant in this book, Haynes is able to carefully engage the robust range of Hebrew and Israelite groups which have often been lumped together by previous scholars.

The turn of the 20th century was a pivotal point in this history when approximately two million Eastern European Jews were coming to the US, fleeing violence. In this same period, over a million African Americans were undertaking a massive migration northward in the US. These two groups converged, particularly in many industrialized cities in the US North and Midwest. Haynes notes that these Jewish immigrant groups where they were largely able to reframe themselves in their new US context as an ethnic group, outside a polar black-white US racial divide. Whereas, for the most part, African-Americans remained a solidified racial grouping. Haynes skillfully demonstrates an interesting confluence between the communities at this time. European-heritage Jews were eschewing Orientalism in order to escape persecution and become re-cast within valued constructs of “Western” and potentially “white” in the US. At this same time, Haynes explores how many Black communities were undertaking an Orientalization project to connect to ancient Israel.

Clarifying the numbers of white-identified and non-white Jews in the US have been fraught demographic projects for at least the past thirty years. Numbers vary, depending on how one defines (or self-defines as) a Jew. At least 10 percent of US Jewish adults identify as non-white, and close to 2 percent identify as Black. Select groups of African-heritage Jews may sometimes identify as Hebrew, Israelite, and/or Ethiopian as well as any number of people and communities that shift identifications. While many African-heritage people who choose the self-identifiers Israelite or Hebrew understand the historical trajectories of their families back from indigenous African Jewish communities taken during Atlantic slave trade, there was a rise in the US Hebrew Israelite movement in the late 19th century. The growth of the African Israelite and Hebrew movements of that historical moment corresponded to the large northern industrial urban center encounters between European Jewish immigrants and African-American migrants from the US south. 

Populations of non-white Jews in the US have grown in numerous other ways since the 20th century as well, such as via immigration of Jewish populations from the global south, and the opening up of cross cultural and cross racial adoption practices in the US. Additionally, with significant European Jewish and Black non-Jewish interactions from the heyday of communist party politics in the US in the 1950s, and the civil rights movement in the 1960s, we see more multiracial Jewish children, with somewhat fewer obfuscating adjustments, on legal documents since the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia ended anti-miscegenation laws.

Not only have the numbers of African-heritage Jews in the US, self-defined in various ways, been increasing, but slowly they are also gaining recognition by other Jews and non-Jews. Activities to bring together groups of Black and white Jews in the US, including specifically Ashkenazi Jewish groups and Black Hebrew and Israelite groups, gained momentum in the 1960s and early 1970s. Attention to African-heritage Jews increased again by the 1980s with publicity about Ethiopian Jews. Most of the Ethiopian Jews to leave their home country were airlifted to Israel, but some have made their way to the US over time as well. Additionally, numerous large groups of contemporary Jews in and from Western and sub-Saharan Africa have increasingly spoken up and received some measure of international attention particularly since the1980s. Haynes’s careful work takes its place in the small but growing literature on African-heritage Jews in the US from a range of communities, including those with long roots in the US as well as those from among newer African Jewish immigration trends. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marla Brettscneider is Professor of Political Theory, Political Science, and Women's Studies at the University of New Hampshire.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bruce D. Haynes is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis and a Senior Fellow in the Urban Ethnography Project at Yale University. He is author or coauthor, among other works, of Down the Up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem FamilyThe Ghetto: Contemporary Issues and Controversies, and Down the Up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem Family.


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