President Obama’s rabbi cousin

My only complaint about religion coverage by Zev Chafets is that it does not appear far more often. Chafets is a former columnist for the New York Daily News (an archive of his columns is available at Jewish World Review) who now contributes frequently to The New York Times Magazine.

His Times profile of Rabbi Capers Funnye — first cousin, once removed, to First Lady Michelle Obama — is a nearly perfect match of journalist and subject. One of the more important passages in this story explains how the son of Gullah parents first thought of converting to Judaism:

Funnye was not always Jewish. When he went off to college at Howard University in 1970, he was the conventionally Christian son of upwardly striving parents. But he was moved by the radicalized atmosphere of the day. Black nationalism, Afrocentrism and cultural separatism were in vogue, and Funnye came to see Christianity as an alien religion imposed on blacks by white slave masters. “I was never an atheist,” he told me. “I just wanted to find the right way to worship him.”

During a summer job in Chicago, some friends introduced Funnye to Rabbi Robert Devine, the spiritual leader of the House of Israel Congregation. Devine preached that Africans were the true descendants of the biblical Hebrews, and that Jesus, the Messiah, was a black man. The message appealed to Funnye. Devine baptized him in a public swimming pool, and Funnye entered the complicated world of black American Jewry.

Funnye is now chief rabbi of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, where weekly worship includes a joyous procession to the hymn “We’re Marching to Zion.” (The procession appears near the end of this video report from WTTW in Chicago.)

This profile is consistent with Chafets’ other religion coverage — sympathetic, richly detailed (at 5,000 words) and funny. Some of the humor this time around involves the perks of being related to the First Lady. He writes of how Funnye’s wife, Mary, was frustrated about missing some pre-Inaugural parties because of her husband’s unprecedented opportunity to preach at New York City’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

Ultimately, though, it worked out well:

“I believe in building bridges,” he told me as we sat in his office at the Beth Shalom synagogue in Chicago, a week and a half after his Martin Luther King Day speech in New York. “That’s why speaking at the synagogue was so important to me.”

“Has Mary forgiven you?” I asked.

Funnye nodded. “We drove down to D.C. and made one of the balls the next day,” he said. “And she got to snap a picture of Denzel Washington, so everything is more or less cool.”

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  • Jerry

    This is worth noting that President Obama is going to participate in a seder at the White House:

    “This is apparently the first time a president has participated in a seder at the White House.”

  • Martha

    “Devine baptized him in a public swimming pool, and Funnye entered the complicated world of black American Jewry.”


    It certainly must be complicated – baptism as the rite of initiation into (a form of) Judaism?

    This public swimming pool wouldn’t have been a mikvah, instead?

  • Dave Moody

    “… and that Jesus, the messiah, was a black man…”

    Gotta admit, I suspect most jews would have less problems with Jesus being black, than with him being the messiah.

  • Dan Berger

    I’m not sure which it sounds more like: the Nation of Islam or Jews for Jesus.

  • bob

    I think Dan is right. He’s a black Protestant in a hat.
    Nothing wrong with it, but calling it Jewish is a stretch.
    Epicopalian, almost, maybe…

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    For those of you inclined to see Capers Funnye as anything other than a convert to Judaism, I urge you to read Zev Chafets’ profile in its entirety.

    The few doctrinal passages that I placed in blockquotes are from the early part of Rabbi Funnye’s pilgrimage, and he has gone through several other changes since then.