Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Coming Into The Kefar

Dimona is a city in Israel’s Negev desert. It’s the home to about two to three thousand ex-patriot African Americans known as the Black Hebrew Israelites. I should say African Americans and their offspring, because more than half of the population was born here, since the community was established in late 1960’s. It is a prolific community, created by its founders “to establish God’s new kingdom on Earth”, and as such, it’s very pro-children. Families are the fundamental unit of the community, and many of them are very large. Some of the men have two, three or even four wives, and sometimes a dozen or more children between them.
My father immigrated here in 1973, part of a large group, mostly from Chicago, Detroit and Gary, Indiana, who came here with very little but their faith in what they were creating. There were many hard years, during which they faced financial struggles, deportations, and a fair amount of desertion. Since that time, they’ve won allies and admirers, certainly acceptance. But I’m not here to write a history, but to share the experience of welcome and community I experience coming here.
I first came here twelve years ago, to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday with him and his two wives. The lived in Tiberius at the time, part of a small contingent of “the Nation” settled in that northern city on the Sea of Galilee. But even then, it was Dimona I was most eager to see and to visit – to see the heart of this community that my father joined so long ago.

Emmah Kaninah, 96 & Abbah Avraham, 92 (9'16)

One of the things that always strikes me here is that the Kefar – the perhaps ten acre square of mostly single-story, densely-packed apartments that holds the heart of the community – is full of my people. They are the people I was born among in Detroit, lived among in my teens in New York City, and encounter in the Black communities all over the U.S. They speak my language and I speak theirs; we share common roots and culture and growing up experiences. In some ways, they remind me, who has lived mostly among white folks through most of my adult years in Seattle and Toronto, of the communities of Black students I belonged to in boarding school and in college in New England: we were from all over the country, but were conscious and intentional in over-coming whatever differences we might have to support our togetherness.
Emmah & friends on the Kefar (9'16)
The other thing that makes an even bigger impression on me, is how healthy, vibrant and truly communal the Kefar is. For years, I worked in Toronto’s Regent Park, Canada’s largest public housing development. I love Regent Park, and it is certainly home to real community, with powerful, loving bonds, healing, grassroots energies and movements, and a powerful sense of identity. But Regent Park’s beautiful community existed on top of and inter-mingled with other communities that were disruptive and discordant and constantly draining it’s health – like the subculture of its violent, street drug trade.
Life in the Kefar, on the other hand, while I don’t suppose it to be trouble-free, is guided by a single vision and a fairly strict code of values and conduct that prevent any oppositional culture from setting roots. I don’t know that I could or would live within this particular vision and code, and this isn’t a time to explore that. By virtue of my father’s belonging, I have a foot in the community, and find acceptance here, but I am a visitor, an outsider. And yet, I look upon the Kefar with love, admiration and even a little, wistful envy.
Kids on the Kefar (9'16)
The Kefar is beautiful. It is humble and simple, but clean and welcoming. Though dense, it feels open. It is the village it aims to be. But it’s the life of the children here that speaks to me most. When I was first here, I wanted to return to Regent Park and scoop up all the children and bring them here. It is safe. Children play unattended, because all adults here share responsibility for their supervision and care. I observed a child of about four approach an adult to ask for assistance crossing the street that borders the Kefar. The adult called over a youth, who promptly responded, escorting the child to the school yard across the street. There are no glass shards, cigarette butts or other kinds of trash lying about. No obscenities or threats are being shouted. When I asked the children for permission to take their photo, they gathered around, eager, giggling and polite, showing no fear of the stranger.
In so many ways, life here is as it ought to be. And it makes me wonder at the extent of what most of us have sacrificed for our modernism and ‘progress’.
Rofe Amadyah's Cactus Garden on the Kefar (9'16)

Sunday, October 2, 2016

What We Believe

I’m in Israel. It’s one of those countries on Earth where belief systems have played an incredibly historic and inspirational role, but have also given rise to generations of war and hate. It’s a place of pilgrimages and combat missions, of devotions and heresies, where the concepts of good and evil are probably more present in people’s thinking, and also more contradictory in expression than in most other places. In this part of the world, people seem to be blowing themselves up every day for what they believe.

My visit here is to a community full of true believers. My father’s Hebrew Israelite nation is founded on a pursuit of truth, a truth its members feel was historically denied, about the origins and true identity of Black Americans of African ancestry. It is a belief that directly challenges the truth as put forward by others who have claims to the territory and traditions of Israel. The beliefs of the Hebrew Israelites hold an invitation to me, one with great appeal on many levels. However, I cannot see a personal pathway to accepting the invitation, because it is loaded with so much belief that is contrary to beliefs I have developed on my own journey through life.
I hold to my own beliefs to varying degrees. My belief that the Earth is approximately round is pretty strong, despite my surprising, recent encounter with a sincere and adamant Flat-Earther (Yes! They exist! – though I wouldn’t have believed so before meeting one). This belief holds despite the fact that I have no direct evidence and have neither proved it nor had it proven to me. I believe it mainly because I’ve been told so, and because it seems to make sense, and because it fits in with lots of other bits of knowledge, gained through experience as well as indoctrination, about how the universe I live in is structured.
But my belief in intelligent alien life is much less certain. I belief in that largely because of the vastness of the universe (something else I take at the word of “experts” who’ve written books and have appeared on television). If the universe is truly as vast as they say it is, and populated by billions of suns and their planets, is just seems mathematically unlikely to me that we could be the only beings with the gift of intelligence. And, in the words of one of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” characters, if we are the only ones, “…it would be an awful waste of space.” But this belief in alien intelligence is not rock solid. I know it stems as much from wanting it to be true as from anything else. In the same way that my belief in Santa Claus persisted a good two or three years beyond being old enough to see through that one, because I so wanted him to be real.

This stuff is on my mind, in part, because of a couple of incredibly provocative books I’m reading. They are “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, and “Mindfulness in the Modern World”, a transcript of talks by Osho. Harari says that the ability to create “fictions” and to believe in them is the key characteristic that separates Homo Sapiens (Us) from Neanderthals and other near human beings, and the characteristic that made us so dominant over the rest of creation. Among these “fictions” are religion, democracy, human rights and money. Osho states that all of our ‘religions’, as well as the other life-style theories that drive us, are nonsense, and that we ought to overcome them if we want peace, happiness, enlightenment. Both of these writers, coming at the subject from totally different angles, say that nothing we “believe” has much of anything to do with Truth.
Having written this far, I have to add that I’m not yet twenty percent through Harari’s book. I’ve only read about half of Osho’s (but that’s a different matter, his not being a book that one will actually ‘finish’, I don’t think). There are certainly no conclusions to draw in this post. But my mind is open to looking at all that ‘I believe’ in a fresh way, maybe to looking inward for what generates belief, to understanding why I have often felt a need to believe in something; why, at varying times, freeing myself from a particular belief has caused me to feel lonely and isolated, afraid, or absolutely empowered and free. Harari points out how powerful belief systems are. Osho, how limiting they are. The profusion of today’s wars, and conflicts of religious and political extremism, would support both. One of the key questions to me is: Given that belief is about a deep level of acceptance of a viewpoint, sometimes based on proof, but often beyond the point of verification or evidence, how much choice do we really have in what we believe?