616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Balkis Makeda, Conversion, Easter, Ex-stepfather, Fatherhood, Fathers, Hebrew-Israelites, Judah ben Israel, Kufi, Marriage, Maurice Eugene Washington, Maurice Washington, Mount Vernon New York, Passover, Religion, Salvation, Separation, Sixth Grade, Starling Churn, Stepfather, William H. Holmes Elementary, Yarmulke
Thirty years ago this date, on a sunny Saturday in April ’81, the false prophet known as my stepfather came back into our lives with a new religion, delaying my spiritual growth by at least three years. The day before both Easter and Passover that year, me, my mom and my older brother Darren became Hebrew-Israelites, Black Jews, Afrocentric Jewish Negroes, strange folks among strange folks in our strange land. It was supposed to be my and our salvation, the beginning of glorious times. Instead, it was a hell on Earth like no other, with fists, kicks and empty stomachs to look forward to for the next three years.
An excerpt from Boy @ The Window seems appropriate here:
Maurice returned to our lives in April ’81 after a six-month separation from my mom (sort of, because unbeknown to us, she was pregnant with my younger brother Yiscoc, a Hebrew variation for Isaac) claiming that he was a different man, a changed man, thanks to an allegedly reincarnated Balkis Makeda and his Hebrew-Israelite conversion.
This was the religion my stepfather converted to after he and Mom had separated. In the period before his return, my stepfather had been working on Mom, attempting to convince her that he was now a good man and could be trusted as the man of our house. He loved Jehovah, had stopped smoking, and had learned how to love himself. And he had changed his name to Judah ben Israel, not legally, mind you. The name literally means “Lion of God and of Israel,” and referred to my stepfather as a royal descendant of Jacob/Israel, the immediate father of the Israelite people. It was in this context that my stepfather gained a sense of himself and control over his world.
I didn’t know what to think at first. After I had watched Maurice load up on lamb shanks and pork chops on the first Saturday in October six months earlier, I hadn’t expected him to come back at all. I already thought of the man as the great pretender after three and a half years of living in the same 1,200 square-foot space together. That, and eating like he was Dom DeLuise at a banquet, were his only true talents. As few and far between my visits with Jimme were after Mom’s divorce became final in ’78, I’d always seen an inebriated Jimme as more of a father than Maurice could be if he really tried.
Still, despite my confusion and skepticism, I worked extremely hard to convince myself that Maurice’s conversion was real. Especially since Mom had decided to welcome him back into all of our lives. I had to. Because becoming a Hebrew-Israelite wasn’t exactly a process in which free will was involved. Our mother told us that this would be our religion “for the rest of our lives.” Then our stepfather came to explain this “way of life” to us, and we put on our white, multi-holed, circular kufis for the first time. I had no idea what Mom and Maurice had pushed us into.
A part of me was on the outside looking in, thinking, “this is crazy.” But we were already the children of one divorce, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see another one so soon. Darren, to his credit, played along as if being a Hebrew-Israelite was just a role in a school play.”
I lost many of my sixth-grade friends when I showed up to school the Tuesday morning after Easter and Passover with a kufi on my head, including my best friend Starling.
I might not have lost my childhood thirty years ago on this date. But it was the beginning of eight years wandering in the wilderness. It was a bitter, tyrannical wilderness, populated by wolves in sheep’s clothing, Maurice Washington number one among them. I stepped on many landmines in the process of finding myself again.
Still, those years are ones I can’t get back. It’s amazing that I found God at all, given all of the crap we’re told by spiritual leaders about the road to salvation.