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Black Hebrew Israelite ceremony

The two portraits Israel tends to give of religious attitudes are symbolized by Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Jerusalem has its ultra-Orthodox, its overlapping and controversial holy sites, everyone trying to tell their story or to ignore other peoples’ stories. Tel Aviv has its all-night parties, its skimpy clothing and beach scene, its Bauhaus buildings historical only in the recent architectural sense.

This weekend I encountered several more religiosities when we took a family trip to the desert. Our hosts live in a beautiful moshav on the Jordanian border south fo the Dead Sea. Within two minutes of meeting them they spoke of loving the desert for its “power.” A few minutes later they asked us our astrological signs. If one had to assign these folks a role in the dichotomous “secular – religious” framework of Israeli discussions, they would be secular – no kippa on the man, tank top on the woman. And yet clearly they had their religious worldview.

The next day a handyman stopped by bearing the very un-Israeli name of Henry. He was introduced to me as a Mennonite, and it turns out that he has studied theology and philosophy and settled in the moshav with his Israeli wife. Henry is very committed to unschooling – he has many children and they learn by living in the rich environment he and his wife provide. Similar to some ultra-Orthodox and conservative Muslims I have spoken with this year, his family’s lack of a television stood as a symbol for him of his educational (and religious?) beliefs.

At the edge of a crater in the desert we encountered yet another faith that one does not see in Jerusalem. A group of mostly women in beautiful African dress were circled up in a ceremony. As we listened we heard English in clearly American accents. These were the African Hebrew Israelites, a group of African-Americans who believe themselves to be descendants of an ancient Israelite tribe and who have moved to Israel.

Masada at sunrise

We also encountered more frequently seen religious traditions – the Jewish settlements around Palestinian Hebron, Palestinian villages with minarets rising up, caves of Christian monks from the 6th Century in the desert, the fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. But the Black Hebrew Israelites, the astrologers and the Mennonite were newer pieces of the religious puzzle of Israel and Palestine.