Who knew that about 40 inner city blacks from Chicago established a settlement of more than 4,000 now living in Israel? In this revealing documentary, this little-known community of African-American Jews (and their two generations of descendents) manages to explain their vigorous vegan diets and polygamous marriages in very convincing ways. Altogether, it seems like a unique religion all its own.
How did you discover this story?
Our learning about The Village of Peace actually originated in our hometown of Oakland, CA. My brother Sam Schuder (producer) was working at a hotel where he befriended a colleague Shaleem Edwards, an African Hebrew Israelite from Dimona, who had recently moved to the United States.
Years later, Sam and I visited Israel for our first time, and Shaleem’s mother invited us to visit her home in Dimona. We arrived with no knowledge of the community, and it so happened that there was an annual festival taking place in the Village Square that day. We were extremely intrigued by the community and could not stop asking questions about their history, culture, lifestyle, beliefs, etc. We couldn’t believe that we had never heard of this place before, and thought it would be an amazing story for a documentary.
Did you find it hard to get the people to open up to you, or were they ready for their stories to be told?
Once a level of trust was established, it became pretty easy to evoke that personal emotion from our interviewees. The adult characters were especially passionate and open about their personal life, struggles, history, and beliefs.
This is not the only community of African descent connecting with Judaism and Israel. I believe there are also communities in Ethiopia and, I know for sure, in Uganda. How are these movements viewed by the everyday Jew and/or Israeli?
According to the villagers, most politicians and Israelis rejected their presence during their establishment. However, over time they have developed a connection with the state and general population. Their ties to Israel have substantially increased during the past decade, partially due to the community enlisting into the IDF.
Personally, the Jewish people I have spoken with seem to be pretty interested in the group without much judgment. Some people definitely have a condescending tone regarding their legitimacy, but most people recognize the general positivity they pursue. They probably have more in common with the practices of Orthodox Judaism than any other religion, and vice versa.
There is a lot of controversy about their polygamy, but they explain it better than I’ve seen before. How is that accepted in Israel and in Judaism in general?
I’m not a rabbi so take this with a grain of salt. As far as I know, polygamy was an acceptable form of marriage in biblical times, although it was not encouraged. There was also a 1,000-ban on Ashkenazi polygamy, which had just expired about a year ago, but the ban has been renewed. A lot of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews still practice polygamy, but the State of Israel has taken measures to outlaw any future polygamist marriages for those who have immigrated into the state.
They are also very strident in their dietary discipline. Is that having any spillover effect on modern Israel? Are people there eating healthier due to this community?
They are definitely health-oriented and try to spread their diet and exercise habits to the Israeli populace. The army is slowly starting to accommodate their vegan diet, and they say that Israel as a whole is becoming more health conscious. The community has a tofu factory and exports products to greater Israel. They also have a Vegan restaurant in the heart of Tel Aviv, where they promote their healthy lifestyle to other Israelis.
And what about their cultural contributions. Does the everyday Israeli know about their music and their dance?
One of our main characters is a singer and told us during the Yom Kippur War (1973), their band “The Soul Messengers” toured the country and gave free concerts to boost morale on bases and hospitals. Within Israel, those who know of the community likely affiliate them with their musical talents. A singer from the community represented Israel in the Eurovision contest in 1999, and last year a young woman was a finalist on the Israeli version of The Voice. They have also had celebrity singers Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, and Stevie Wonder visit their community, which draws a lot of national attention.
With their marriage practices, their diets, their music, their dance, and their unique past, they seem to have almost founded their own religion. Have any from outside the community “converted”? Are there any fair-skinned members?
The community does attract outsiders who become members; most who join are African-Americans from the United States. They also do have fair-skinned members living in the community, last I heard there were two. Although they are strict on members abiding by their rules, they are very welcoming to all races.
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