Biography of Cohen Levi Yisrael

 

 

 

 

 

Cohen Levi Ben Yisrael:

His Life and Legacy

By

Rabbi Sholomo B. Levy

Cohen Levi Ben Yisrael was a founder of a unique group
within the Israelite community. As an intellectual he thought deeply
about the spiritual, political, and cultural doctrines that he helped to
define. As the leader of a congregation called Hashabah Yisrael he grappled
with the practical implications of turning beliefs into action over a period of
three decades spanning the 1960 through the 1980s. His legacy lives on in
congregations founded by his disciples. His particular school of thought as it
relates to the ways in which Black[1]
people should define their identity as Israelites is worthy of serious
attention. His experiences, contributions, achievements, and failures constitute
an important chapter in the ongoing story of how people of African descent reclaimed
their heritage as the chosen people of the God of Israel.

The man who would become known as “Cohen Levi” entered the
world as Irvin Steward Wanzer on May 27, 1927. He was born in Alexandria,
Virginia, to Irvin Steward Wanzer and Eloise Jones. His maternal grandparents, Samuel
and Maggie Jones, migrated to Virginia from South Carolina.[2]
The few people who knew Cohen Levi when he still carried the Germanic name
“Wanzer” say that he mocked the fact that such a European appellation  was ever
attached to him as an example of how the true identity of Israelite people was  replaced
by a European one. Never did he suggest that this Wanzer line might bear some
connection to Judaism as that idea would have been offensive and at odds with
the more powerful claim of direct descent from the Biblical Israelites who were
Black. Later, as Black nationalists embraced Egypt as an ancient African
civilization, Cohen Yisrael would joke, “Yes, I’m from Alexandria,–
Alexandria, Virginia.”[3]

By the age of twelve his family had moved to Harlem, New
York. He lived at W 112th Street with his mother and younger
siblings William (11), Doris (9), Richard (8), and Arthur (5).[4]
These were difficult years during the Great Depression. The Federal Census of
1940 lists his mother as being the married head of household who had been
unemployed for over a year. Young Cohen Levi attended school and was by all
accounts a very inquisitive and perspicacious young man. Yet, he must have felt
a great deal of pressure to help his family at an early age. By the age of
nineteen he married his first wife, Mary, with whom he had nine children. To
support his growing family he worked a variety of jobs, plied his talents as a
gifted singer, tended bar, and even considered joining the United States Army.
From the beginning he noticed that people were drawn to his charismatic
personality and he soon found himself the leader of a street gang called the
Seven Wise Men. As the name implied, they were not some mere group of hoodlums,
but a collection of young black men seeking direction and a higher calling.[5]

The first Black synagogue in the United States was founded
by Chief Rabbi W.A. Matthew in the year 1919.
It was called Commandment Keepers and it was a well-known fixture of the Harlem
community where Cohen Levi grew up. He did not join this congregation, but Cohen
Levi became a devoted acolyte of Rabbi Yirmeyahu Yisrael, one of Rabbi
Matthew’s students. Rabbi Yisrael, who was known as Julius Wilkins at the time,
started a congregation in Harlem called Kohol Beth B’nai Yisroel in 1945; it
was located at 204 Lenox Ave. The congregation followed the traditional Jewish
liturgy and used a standard Orthodox siddur (prayer book) to conduct its
services. Like all students of Rabbi Matthew, Rabbi Yisrael taught that the
original Jews were Black people. Conflict arose between Rabbi Yisrael and his
colleague Rabbi E.J. McCloud over cultural issues, particularly the
appropriateness of certain Black Nationalists songs that originated with Rabbi
Arnold Ford
during the Marcus Garvey period and with certain Negro
Spirituals with Old Testament themes that remained popular with followers of
Rabbi Matthew. In 1954, Rabbi Yisrael started a new congregation called B’nai
Adath Kol Beth Yisroel. It was located briefly on 123 Street in Harlem, but
quickly moved to 131 Patchen Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. [6]

Cohen Levibecome a member of B’nai Adath in
1958 at the age of thirty-one. For the next six years B’nai Adath was Cohen
Levi’s home, his school, and the incubator for much of his later work. It was
at B’nai Adath that he studied Torah, learned about Israelite history, and
spoke Hebrew for the first time. Like Cohen Levi, all the original founders of
Hashabah  came from B’nai Adath. From this same
rabbinic environment at B’nai Adath emerged many other congregations that on
their surface appear to be quite different but share the same origin such as Kol
Sheareit B’nai Yisrael, Bronx, New York and its offshoot, Kalutzeh Yisrael,
Bronx New York. If one began to count congregations started by the students of
these founders, the list would grow exponentially to include congregations such
as Sh’ma Yisrael, Brooklyn, New York,;
Hashabah Yisrael in Guyana, South America,; Hashabah Yisrael in
Baltimore, Maryland,;
Kwahal B’nai Yisrael, Brooklyn, New York, Kwahalet Mishpachah, Atlanta Georgia,
She’ar Yashuv, Atlanta Georgia,;
and most recently, Hashabah Yisrael Hebrew Family of Charlotte, North Carolina.[7]

People outside of our community are often so obsessed with
the racial politics or distracted by the music and dress that they completely
miss the deep spiritual core of our community. Consider what a typical Sabbath
day at B’nai Adath was like at that time. Worshippers would begin arriving at
about 10:00 in the morning. They would recite prayers in Hebrew and English
until about noon. They would then remove the Torah scroll from the ark and
carefully read the assigned portion, the same passages that Jews around the
world were reading on that day. The next hour following the Torah service was
given to the rabbi who would usually give a fiery sermon or erudite lecture.
This is the only part of the service were issues of race might be discussed. A
long recess for lunch would take place. Service would resume in the late
afternoon with the recitation of more prayers and songs until the early
evening. The congregation would then have Kiddush (reception) and light the
Havdallah candles at sundown signifying the end of the Sabbath. What this
reveals is that we spend most of our time talking to God and very little time
talking about race. It is because we are Black like the rabbi, cantor, choir,
and the majority of members in our synagogues that we can momentarily transcend
the racial awareness that is almost inescapable when you are the racial
minority, the racial outsider in a predominantly white synagogue. In our own
congregations we are able to elevate our spirits to a place that our bodies
can’t go. However, for us this is not a form of religious or emotional
escapism. The sermons teach people how to deal with life and the situations
people encounter. Often these are universal concerns such as family, marriage,
children, and work. However, the rabbi would be a negligent teacher indeed if
he ignored the elephant in the room, the racial barriers and historical
distortions that alienate Black people from their Israelite identity and
estrange them from their God.

Those who remember Cohen Levi as a young man at B’nai Adath
recall his sincere devotion as he wore a tallit and recited those prayers with
conviction. They remember his melodious voice as he chanted the Sh’ma and sang
Adon Olum.  The transition that caused him to leave B’nai Adath occurred
gradually. As Cohen Levi studied Torah he and several associates, including his
hunting and fishing partner, Moreh Yosayf ben Yisrael, noticed that many of
their beliefs and practices were not based on scripture, but were rather
traditions created by European rabbis. They began to ask Rabbi Yisrael questions
like: “Where in the Torah does it say that we must light Hanukkah candles?” and
“Who says that we must say this blessing before eating bread and another
blessing before drinking wine?” Rabbi Yisrael, an old school Black Nationalist
himself, readily acknowledged that some of his practices were of European
origin but argued that they had value and meaning nonetheless. He also believed
that their observance fostered a sense of unity with the larger White Jewish
world. Such criticisms grew more frequent and more intense as they addressed
matters of Halakah (Rabbinic Law) that seemed to contradict or replace the laws
of God as they read them in the Torah. For example, God said that the festival
of Sukkot should be observed for seven days; most White Jews observe eight—as
they add an extra day to most festivals. Furthermore, the dietary laws
contained in Deuteronomy are very specific as to which foods are permissible
and which are forbidden. Rabbinic law greatly expanded the category of forbidden
foods to include all meat, fish, or poultry eaten at the same meal with any
dairy product. In many instances such as these Rabbi Yisrael and most rabbis of
the Israelite Board of Rabbis charted their own, independent, course between
Torah and Halakah.

By 1964 Cohen Levi Yisrael and his cohorts increasingly
perceived that a separation and absolute purging  of  all European traditions
was necessary. When Rabbi Yisrael publicly declared
that those who were not in agreement with his doctrine were free to leave, the controversial
contingent left B’nai Adath. This small band was led by Cohen Levi and Moreh Yosayf.
Even their titles signified a break with European tradition where the leaders
of synagogues are called rabbis. The Torah refers to the spiritual leaders of
the community as cohanim (priests) and moreh means “teacher” in Hebrew;
therefore, these were the titles they chose. The two men always taught together
and were so close in their conceptions of Torah that people dubbed them
“Prudence and Patience.”

For the first few months the fledgling congregation met in
each other’s homes and occasionally rented a masonic hall on Willoughby Avenue
in Brooklyn. During this period Cohen Levi and his family lived in the Astoria
Housing Projects in Queens, New York. As fate would have it, my family lived in
the same projects and my father, Chief Rabbi Levi Ben Levy, who was then a
young rabbi who had started a congregation in his living room called Beth
Shalom, occasionally rented the same masonic hall.[8]

My father and Cohen Levi would come to represent the polar
opposites of the Israelite world, but at this moment in time they lived in the
same place and they spent long hours talking, laughing, and arguing. I was so
young that those humble days when our families were close seem distant and far
away. Yet in later interviews with my father he discussed Cohen Levi with a
combination of affection for the love the man had for his people and regret
that they could not find a way to work together. My father tried to convince
Cohen Levi that the rabbinic approach to studying, thinking, and deciding
religious and communal issues was applicable to us. He urged him to consider
the centuries of learning and wisdom—much of it derived from our sages—that we
would lose if we “threw out  the baby with the bath water” because we disagreed
on some points or simply because the person who wrote or preserved something
was White. As the Talmud says, “Who is wise? He who can learn from anyone.” Cohen
Levi responded passionately that we did not need anything from White Jews, that
they diverted us from the true pursuit of Torah, and most importantly that we
could create all the customs and traditions we needed. These conversations grew
heated and repetitive. Eventually the accusations became personal as Cohen Levi
suggested that leaders who incorporated rabbinic teaching as part of their
theology were on a hopeless quest to gain acceptance from White people because
deep down they wanted to be White.[9]

Hashabah Yisrael came into existence in 1965. Among the charter
members were Moreh Yosayf, who was listed as the president on the papers of
incorporation, Professor Y’sudah Yehudah, his wife at the time, Brother
Bakbakkar Yehudah, Brother Meshullam and Geveret Miryom Baht Yehudah, who was
the secretary of the congregation and the first wife Cohen Levi had taken after
he sanctioned the Biblical practice of polygamy. Eventually, Cohen Levi would
take three additional wives: Geveret Hadassah, Geveret Keturah, and Geveret
Rivkah.[10]
Moreh Yosayf left the group soon after it had formed to start his own
congregation, Kol Sheareit B’nai Yisrael (Remnant of the Children of Israel) in
the Bronx. Professor Y’sudah remained a member of Hashabah, became its assistant
treasurer and ultimately its secretary of more than twenty years. She edited a
newsletter along with Cohen Levi’s wife, Miriam, which was named TUF (Truth,
Unity and Freedom). They co-led the women’s organization – Nashe Binah – along
with a third female member of the congregation named Besemah Benyamin.

It was during this time that Cohen Levi had his first
fortuitous meeting with Ben Ammi, an Israelite leader from Chicago who was
visiting New York. Both men had similar ideas. They advocated a break from
Jewish traditions, embraced an Afrocentric Israelite culture, reinstated
polygamy, and spoke of one day returning to our ancestral land of Israel. It
seems that the subtle differences that prevented them from forming an alliance
was the perception that Ben Ammi had not taken his followers out of
Christianity; but rather fused New Testament doctrine—including messianic
beliefs about himself—with his definition of what it meant to be an Israelite. Cohen
Levi and his followers rejected Jesus and the New Testament even more strongly
than they opposed European Judaism. Christianity was deemed idolatrous. They
wanted to restore the Nation of Israel to what they imagined it to be before
Christianity and before European influences.[11]

When Hashabah Yisrael acquired its first home on Gates
Avenue in Brooklyn and began holding regular services, Cohen Levi had to
establish the substance of his alternative to Judaism. This was not an easy
task. He had to create an entire liturgy for conducting Sabbath services, festivals,
weddings, funerals, etc. He assembled his own prayer book which consisted of
psalms, passages of scripture, and a few beautiful prayers that he wrote
himself. Always a gifted singer, he composed songs in Hebrew and English to
replace the Jewish hymns and Negro spirituals. His most popular song is called
“What’s My Name?” Cohen Levi explained that the inspiration for this song came
to him one evening as he was riding on a New York City subway car. He looked
around at the Black passengers and pedestrians and thought to himself, “most of
these people are so lost that they don’t even know their true names.” He wanted
them to know that they are not Negroes, but the people of the Bible, the dry
bones of Ezekiel, the scattered House of Israel.

Cohen Levi was not alone in his search for an authentic
Black identity. This was the height of the Black consciousness movement of the
1960s. Black Nationalists such as Amiri Baraka and Mulana Karenga were
advocating many of the same things—except without the Torah. Black people all
over the country were wearing Afros and dashikis. The radicle Brooklyn
community activist Sonny Carson and Cohen Levi were good friends. There is even
a picture featuring Cohen Levi and Rabbi Levi Levy together on a panel with the
actor and activist Ossie Davis during a community meeting to discuss the
condition of public schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section Brooklyn.
Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam made the same appeal as they tried to
persuade Black people that they were truly Muslim.

At first members of Hashabah rid themselves of the
cookie-shaped yarmulkes that Jews wore on their heads and replaced them with knitted
or crochet head coverings; they also wore West African garb with the addition
of tzit tzit (fringes) on the corners of their garments. They seemed to be
aware that their West African attire did not match the eastern garb that
Israelites wore in Biblical days. Slowly they began to adopt the turbans and
long robes that had become the hallmark of a rival Israelite group called B’nai
Zaken founded by Prince Yaakov and Navi Tate.[12]
According to some accounts, Cohen Levi appropriated Hashabah’s dress code and
the use of African drums from B’nai Zaken which was located on Buffalo Avenue
in Brooklyn. Other people argue that some undisciplined members of B’nai Zaken
considered their unique dress to be the equivalent of gang colors; therefore,
no one who was not a member of B’nai Zaken should be allowed to dress like them.
A very frightening turban war existed between Hashabah and B’nai Zaken for quite
some time until tensions subsided.[13]

Although Hashabah and B’nai Zaken had a similar dress code,
Cohen Levi introduced some practices that distinguished his organization. He
instituted a priesthood that roasted lambs during Passover and introduced the
baking of matzote by his members. They also accepted offerings of bread baked
during Shavuot and offerings of fruit during Sukkot. His priests also blewsilver trumpets—all rituals that the ancient Levites
performed at the temple in Jerusalem. In contrast, B’nai Zaken created new
offices and introduced some new terminology into the Israelite lexicon. Based
on passages in the Torah from the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, where Moses
organized the slaves of Egypt into the army of Israel, they organized
themselves in a paramilitary manner. Hence, their leaders carried the title
“prince,” “chief,” or “captain.”

As the congregation grew it found larger quarters on Belmont
Avenue where it flourished for most of the 1970s.  Geveret Miriam labored
tirelessly along with parents and members to establish a Hebrew school for
their children – the Israelite Institute. Various auxiliaries for men and women
were organized; trips, dinners, and dances were initiated along with an
eight-day festival called Israelite Festival Week. Cohen Levi trained many men
and women in his tradition. His most brilliant protégé  is Cohen Michael Ben
Levi.  Though not related by birth, the children of these men are related by
marriage. Cohen Michael was a rising star in the congregation from his youth.
Not only was he a loyal student and captivating speaker, he distinguished
himself academically by earning a B.A. and Master’s degree from City College in
New York. In 1978 Cohen Michael traveled to Guyana, South America, were he
began to establish an Israelite community based on the teachings of Cohen Levi.
While the community had always thought of immigrating to Israel, Cohen Michael asserted
that our mission was to “awaken Israelites to their true identity all over the
world.” He argued that Guyana would be a fruitful place for expansion and Cohen
Levi supported his efforts. In 1997, Cohen Michael published a book entitled Israelites
and Jews: The Significant Difference
. Many of Cohen Levi’s children have
followed in his footsteps, but his son Cohen Shetmeyah Levi has exhibited the
most promise working in Guyana and now leading a congregation in North
Carolina.

Ironically, as Hashabah was expanding internationally its
base in Brooklyn, New York, began to contract significantly. When asked what
caused the decline, no one could identify a single event. It was as if the
entire climate was changing and indeed it was.  The 1960s were over and with it
the “marvelous new militancy” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr admired was being
replaced with economic despair. In Black communities across America interest in
history and religion were giving way to drugs, sex, and disco. Cohen Levi tried
to provide a bulwark against these forces; he tried to maintain high moral
standards, but in some ways the seeds of destruction were already planted.
Prince Tsippor Ben Zvulun was one of the lead drummers in Hashabah at the time.
As he described it, “many of us were losing our way.” He candidly admits that
he took wives in a casual manner and when Cohen Levi attempted to reprimand him,
he left the congregation like other young men. He joined B’nai Zaken which was
spiraling out of control by this point and drug use (and drug dealing) were
tolerated and sometimes celebrated as expressions of freedom from “the man”.
When Prince Tsippor emerged from this fog to start Sh’ma Yisrael he had a
greater appreciation for his teacher and mentor.[14]

After Hashabah lost is building on Belmont Avenue it enjoyed
a brief revival during the 1980s in Queens, New York, on Linden Boulevard just
a few blocks from Rabbi Levi Levy’s second congregation, Beth Elohim Hebrew
Congregation. Cohen Levi was the titular leader of this “new” Hashabah. His
teaching had not changed but many of the old members had not made the
transition to Queens, which required taking a train and bus by public
transportation.  On the other hand the congregation had a new governing board
that was heavily represented by members of Cohen Michael’s family. They worked
together very well and brought lots of energy and enthusiasm which had been
missing. However, in a tragic twist of fate the building proved structurally
unsound and required more repairs than initially anticipated.  Alternatively,
some members of this group concluded that it would be wiser and more productive
to continue their work in North Carolina or in Guyana. Many of those who
remained in New York desired a formal merger with B’nai Adath, the place of
their origin. The merger failed to occur for a variety of reasons on both
sides. Yet, much of Hashabah was, in fact, absorbed into B’nai Adath. Following
the death of Rabbi Yisrael, Rabbi K. Z. Yeshurun became the spiritual leader of
B’nai Adath, he enjoyed a very amicable friendship with Cohen Levi. Following
the death of Rabbi Yeshurun in 2008, his nephew, Rabbi Baruch Yehudah became
spiritual leader. Under his leadership the congregation seems to have found a
happy balance between its rabbinic traditions and Cohen Levi’s teaching.

During the final years of his life Cohen Levi became more
reclusive, making rare appearances at B’nai Adath or Sh’ma Yisrael. As the
effects of advanced age more pronounced, only family members and close friends
were allowed to see him. Following his death on July 24, 2014, the family
requested a private service conducted by Cohen Michael.

Cohen Levi Yisrael May 27, 1927 - July 24, 2014

Cohen Levi Yisrael
May 27, 1927 – July 24, 2014

 May God remember the souls of His servants


[1]
It is standard academic practice to capitalize the names of national, ethnic,
or religious groups (German, Polish, Hindu) and to lower case the names of
racial groups (white, black, etc). I hold to the belief that races are not
biological categories but political constructions that should be treated like
ethnicity or nationality. Therefore, White and Black are capitalized just as
African American and Jew—since in most cases the terms are used synonymously.

[2]
United States Federal Census 1930

[3]
Professor Y’sudah Yehudah, interview by Rabbi
Sholomo Levy, 3 August 2014.

[4]
United States Federal Census 1940. The document indicates that they had been
living at this address for at least five years. His mother, Ella, is listed as
the married head of household but her employment status is given as unemployed.

[5]
Official obituary of Cohen Levi Yisrael prepared by his family.

[6]
Rabbi Hailu Paris, interview with Rabbi Sholomo Levy;  and Biography of  Rabbi
Yisrael

[7]
Rabbi Baruch Yehudah, the current spiritual leader of B’nai Adath, has written
an excellent history of the congregation. http://bnai-adath.com/about-us/67-2/
(13 August 2014).

[8]
At that time Rabbi Levi B. Levy was known as Lawrence McKethan. In 1967 Beth Shalom
would move to its current home at 730 Willoughby Ave, which was formally Young
Israel of Williamsburg. Similarly, B’nai Adath would move to its current home
at 1006 Green Avenue, which was formally B’nai Jacob Joseph. Both buildings had
been Ashkenazi synagogues with grand sanctuaries.

[9]
Chief Rabbi Levy, interview by Rabbi Sholomo Levy

[10]
From all of his marriages Cohen Levi produced 26 children. Three of his wives
preceded him in death. The names of all the children are listed in the official
obituary.

[11]
Professor Y’sudah Yehudah, interview by Rabbi Sholomo Levy, 3 August 2014.

[12]
Navi Tate would later become a rabbi

[13]
Prince Zurishaddai interview with Rabbi Sholomo Levy 14 August 2014. Prince
Zurishaddai explained that the attack on Hashabah was not ordered by Prince
Yaachov, who had relocated to Chicago. He also maintains that in B’nai Zaken
garb was not a mere matter of fashion, but individuals had to earn the right,
rank, or privilege of wearing turbans or certain types of jewelry. For example,
only married women wrapped their heads to distinguish them from eligible women.
The Chicago would subsequently moderate it views and merge to form a new
congregation under the leadership of Rabbi Capers Funnye called Beth Shalom
Bnai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.

[14]
Prince Tsippor Ben Zevulun, interview with Rabbi Sholomo Levy, 2 August 2014.
Polygamy did not cause the downfall of Hashabah, but many of the men and women
I have interviewed—including some of the children of Cohen Levi—believe that
the practice contributed to the instability of the congregation and the breakup
of many marriages.

 

 

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