It’s the Real Thing: Wannabes, Antis and the Lost Tribes of Israel

Let me take you back to high school, a time that, socially speaking, can be the most difficult one in life. In the high school years, it’s all about who you’re friendly with, who you date, who likes you, whether or not you fit in. And it can be very, very hard.
Remember, if you will, Ellen Gould, captain of the cheerleaders, steady girlfriend of the star halfback, very blonde, very attractive, gregarious, straight A’s. Don’t tell me you don’t remember her. When you passed her in the hallway, did Ellen Gould say hello to you? Or was she locked arm in arm with her halfback, who was carrying her books while she was wearing his oversized letter sweater? If she didn’t say hello to you, did you pretend not to notice?  

Remember, if you will, Chuck Chase, rock star handsome, destined for greatness, who hosted parties for the cool kids and only the cool kids at his parents’ mansion. Chuck’s succession of girlfriends was a constant subject of conversation in those days when teenagers still talked on telephones, before Instant Messages. Ellen Gould and Chuck Chase were huge facts of existence in your world. Based on a Coca-Cola commercial, they were known as “The Real Things.”
Remember, if you will, yourself in high school: You weren’t a nerd and you weren’t cool; you just got by, happy with your friends, thinking about college, trying to assert yourself with your parents and ignore your younger siblings. But you also enjoyed putting certain people down. Maybe it was Ralph Botnick because he was always tripping over his book bag on the stairs, or Olivia Oliphant who was just such a goody-goody. You enjoyed putting them down because you knew that to Ellen Gould and Chuck Chase, you did not exist, and you needed to lord it over someone the way they lorded over you.

My own experience was very different. I was friendly with my high school’s Chuck Chase and found him to be very different from the usual perception. To my surprise, he actually had a hard life. His mother had a terrible disease and was literally bed-ridden. His father was always in deep financial distress. Chuck was a sensitive person and a good guy. I never saw him act snobby to anyone. Chuck worked diligently for every grade and put himself under terrible pressure to succeed. He had worked hard in school politics. He wanted to be Student Council President and then go to a great college. We both assumed that would happen with ease.

But a strange thing happened. There was a revolution at my high school. Chuck and Ellen were supposed to be crowned President and Vice President, as they had won all of the earlier positions, probably since Room Monitor in nursery school. But the underlying jealousy and even hatred that had grown during those years had become a tangible thing; you could feel it in the hallways. And so the masses rose up and declared their own candidates for President and Vice President, an uncool but kind boy named Rick, and a very popular but controversial girl named Sandy, who did exactly as she pleased in life.      

What a bitter, wrenching time that was. The platform of the Antis, as the other faction proudly called themselves, was that they were not good-looking, or wealthy, or destined for greatness. They were so mad that they would tear up the signs and posters supporting Chuck and Ellen, and physically hurt anyone who tried to put up new signs. The school administration was so happy in those days that their offices were not the place of sit-ins that they sat and did nothing. There were Anti-signs around the school: “Chase Chase out of the school!” “What’s Up, Chuck?” But the sign that always bothered me, and that I’ll mention later, was: “Hey Chuck: See how you like being Ralph Botnick!” Chuck and Ellen were scared and very upset.

I remember Chuck calling me and asking, “If you weren’t my friend, who would you be voting for?” I told him that I would have voted for him out of my admiration for him. I was a Chuck Chase wannabe. I couldn’t be him, but I could try to stay close and bask in his reflected glory. For a lot of other people in our school, however, that was not true. Either they were going to be inside, or they were going to be outside with a vengeance. There was no middle.  

As Chuck’s speechwriter, I wanted to present the Chuck I knew, the human being who cared about people and had to work for everything he had. I also added a campaign promise of pizza ovens for the cafeteria. Chuck and Ellen narrowly won the election, Chuck was later elected Valedictorian, and both have gone on to live their destinies. But I never forgot the hatred of jealousy.

These memories open a door into thinking about the hatred of jealousy on a global scale. Think about Chuck Chase and think about the Jewish people. Like Chuck, we have had a difficult life, a difficult history. We’ve had to work hard for anything we’ve achieved. But somehow, no one knows who we really are, good people, sensitive, nice people. The world thinks of us, for better and for worse, as huge facts, as mythic figures.

There is a jealousy of Jewish people that works in one of two ways: Either you want to be the Jewish people or you hate the Jewish people. Wannabes say: “You’re the real thing, we want to be you.” Anti-Semites say: “You’re the real thing, we’re going to kill you.” And as we’ll see, Wannabes can become the most vicious Antis.

Let me tell you about some Jewish wannabes. There are a number of groups in this world who think that they are descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. In the year 721 B.C.E., the Assyrians came and took away ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. They were never seen again. This has led to incredible speculation over the centuries.

It began with a people known as the Samaritans, who were non-Israelite transplants to the land who claimed that they were true descendants of the Lost Tribes. To this day, there are Samaritans who practice Israelite religion, including animal sacrifice, as it was done in the days of the Bible.  There are other groups scattered in the world that claim to be descendants of the Lost Tribes. There are many legends about a lost tribe of Israel that is prevented from re-joining the world because of a raging river. Many Ethiopian Jews claim to be descended from the tribe of Dan.  There is an organization in Israel called Amishav, dedicated to reintroducing long-isolated communities into the mainstream of Judaism and to help them emigrate to Israel. They believe that millions of tribesmen in Pakistan and Afghanistan are offshoots of the Lost Tribes. In India, the ancient Jewish community of Bombay, the Bnei Israel, claim to be descended from the Tribes, and the Asiatic tribe of the Shinlung claim to be from the lost tribe of Manasseh.
But while there may be some elements of truth in these claims, there are a number of groups scattered throughout the world, Lost Tribe wannabes, who are clearly not related in any way to our people.

In the Far East, some Japanese claim membership in the lost Tribe of Zebulon. The Makuyo sect claims a relationship with Judaism and says that Shinto Temples are copies of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. A symbol that seems to be the Star of David is on the Ise Shrine. The Japanese Royal Regalia, never seen by the outside world, include a mirror upon which is engraved the sacred Hebrew name of G-d.
Have you ever heard of King Solomon’s Mines? The famous book revolves around the belief that an abandoned city, Great Zimbabwe, was built by white Israelites and that the wood used to build it was none other than the famous cedar of Lebanon, brought there by King Solomon’s men in the 900s BCE. But it was only white prejudice that said that only white people could have built it; actually, blacks built the great city in the 1300s C.E., 2200 years after King Solomon. The wood is really African sandalwood. But an African tribe, the Lemba, has adopted this crazy myth and believes that it is a tribe of Israel. They say that their ancestors traveled across Africa to build a new city, following a great wooden drum – the Ark of the Covenant. Their faith today has clear Jewish elements. Lemba do not eat pork (the name Lemba means the ‘people who refuse’), are circumcised and often use Biblical names such as Solomon. They lay claim to a secret language called Hiberu. The Star of David and ‘elephant of Judah’ are everywhere in their homes. You can see pictures of Lemba elders, dressed in their talleisim, in front of what they claim to be the sacrificial altar of the Israelite faith of their Lemba ancestors. These Africans accepted a European obsession about the builders of Great Zimbabwe and defined themselves as the Lost Tribe who built it; they created a noble past out of wishful thinking.

The Jamaican Rastafarians, such as the famous reggae singer Bob Marley, believe they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes, exiled first to Ethiopia, and then brought to the Americas as slaves. Rastas believe that they are the reincarnations of the Israelites. While they have suffered for their sins, they believe that they will be redeemed by G-d and have an exodus back to Africa. Rastafarian lifestyle features growing dreadlocks and smoking marijuana. They grow dreadlocks because they outlaw the combing or cutting of hair, citing the Bible, Leviticus 21:5: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard …” They smoke marijuana as a religious rite because they say marijuana was found growing on King Solomon’s grave.  Rastafarians do not drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or eat pork or shellfish. The Rastas invite all to repent and accept Jah, a shortened form of the Hebrew name of God.

Early explorers of the Western Hemisphere reported that the Lost Tribes of Israel had found refuge in the Amazon jungles and lived in a very isolated region in Ecuador. The natives of the West Indies, Peru and Guatemala, not to mention the Native Americans, were often called the “remnants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel”.

If you say, “How could anyone possibly think that a band of migrants from the Middle East could have come to the Americas centuries before Columbus?” you should know that the story of the Lost Tribes is alive and well in the United States right now. The Black Hebrews of Chicago claim to be the real Jews, saying that lighter-skinned ones are a corruption of the original. For a more important example, take the Mormons. The story of the Ten Lost Tribes is tied to the visions of Joseph Smith and the history revealed to him by an angel.  Someday, Mormons believe, all of the Lost Tribes will return to the New Jerusalem to be built in Jackson County, Missouri.
In England, there have been those who have believed that the British are the Brit-Ish, or Men of the Covenant. The word bris, our circumcision ceremony, is the Askkenazic pronunciation of the word brit, which means covenant. They say that the British were remnants of a Lost Tribe of Israel. Britain was great because God chose it. By ruling much of the world, Britain was doing nothing more than fulfilling Biblical prophecy.  

What is all this about? What makes the Jewish people Chuck Chase and Ellen Gould? Why would all of these groups want to be Israelites? I’m choosing my words carefully: They do not want to become the Jewish people; they want to be Israelites. They want to be the original thing, the Real Thing. They know that their past only goes back so far. The Mormons know that they are a radical attempt to create an American religion and in their lateness, want our link to an ancient past that they do not have. The British wanted to justify their conquest of much of the world, and they knew that their ancestors were savages. The Lembas and the Rastafarians know that they are Johnny-come-latelies in the world.

And they have a problem: How do you justify creating a new religion? What is it based on? Did you get a direct revelation from G-d? If not, you have to claim an ancient revelation that everyone knows to be true and valid. And for most of the people in this world, there only seems to be one of those.

Which brings us to the two popular religions of the Western World, Christianity and Islam. Their founders, Paul and Muhammad, as monotheists, people who believed in One G-d, looked at the original monotheistic religion, the religion of the Bible, and wanted to claim that they were not really a new religion at all but the true version of that original monotheistic religion. They might have the numbers, but they have a deep, unsettling problem: they know that their religion is dependent on an earlier religion. This is what Harold Bloom calls the anxiety of influence. These religions are anxious because they know that they have derived the foundation of their faiths from someone else’s revelation.  Christianity and Islam thus have a deep ambivalence towards Jewish people because of their anxiety over the influence of Judaism on their religions.

So what did they do? They looked at the original monotheist, Abraham, and said that Abraham was the first Christian or the first Muslim. Paul and Muhammad jumped over thousands of years and made this historically preposterous claim. This was as preposterous in theological terms as the claims of the Mormons and the British were in genetic terms, but the fact is that it worked; hundreds of millions of people today believe that Christianity or Islam is the religion of Abraham. Historical truth loses in the Spin City of religion.

Abraham was the first monotheist. Avraham means “the father of many nations.” Note the word father here because that’s what it’s all about. The whole Oedipal construct requires killing the father to BECOME THE FATHER. And Abraham is the Father. But you don’t want to kill Abraham. You want to become Abraham.

Abraham was called by G-d to bring G-d and morality to the world. For Jewish people, this is a source of glory and pride. For monotheistic religions that came later, this constitutes a set of problems and issues. It is disconcerting, even threatening to some Christians to realize that the Jewish people have never accepted Jesus. I have had countless conversations with Christians to whom this is simply baffling. Since they live within the Christian circle of faith and conditioning, they ask, over and over, “Why didn’t the Jews accept Jesus? Why does Judaism still exist? If Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism, why haven’t the Jewish people become Christians? Why don’t they understand that the religion of Jesus is the true monotheism of Abraham? Jesus preached to the Jewish people of his time; why didn’t they accept him as the Messiah, the figure predicted by their prophets?”

Paul explained that Christianity is the religion of Abraham.  Christianity, Paul said, is a return to the original revelation of the One G-d.  Paul said that Christianity, without the layers of Jewish ritual, was the real monotheism.  This is a misreading of the Bible on many levels.  Christianity makes the Hebrew Scriptures, what it calls the Old Testament, part of its Bible; it acknowledges the truth of what came before and goes on to change what the original truth was.  Christianity overcomes the fact that it came late by saying that it was what really came first.

Now I can turn to Islam. Islam not only came after Judaism but also after Christianity. If Abraham lived in 2000 B.C.E., and Moses in 1250 B.C.E. and Jesus and Paul in the First Century C.E., Muhammad came in the 600s C.E., two thousand, six hundred years after Abraham, 1850 years after Moses, 4-500 years after Jesus and Paul.
Talk about coming late!
 So what do you do if you’re Muhammad? You say that Abraham was a Muslim:  Listen to this quote from the Koran:


Muhammad didn’t say: “I’m starting a new religion.” He had more anxiety of influence than that. Rather say, “Islam is a daughter religion”, Islam made an incredible historical leap and said: “We are the original, pure monotheism.”  Muhammad and his followers mentioned Abraham 70 times in the Koran. The plan was that Jews and Christians would all become part of Muhammad’s super-tribe. But the Jewish people and the Christians didn’t buy it. They made Muhammad feel his belatedness. And then things got rough. Islam hardened from a belief to a distinct religion. And there was killing. When the anxiety of influence operates in the real world, lots of people die.

So I’ve talked about Jewish Wannabes and Jewish Antis. There is all of this focus and emphasis on this little people because everybody agrees that we are The Real Thing. The Communists on the far left knew it, and in trying to construct a world where the state is the religion, had no use for the Jewish people. The Nazis on the far right knew it, and in trying to create a world ruled by their people, felt the need to reduce Chuck Chase to Ralph Botnick and then kill him. Wannabes can become the most vicious Antis of all.

But what about us? We do not need to find a way to get our share in the authentic monotheistic religion. And here comes the incredible irony:
The whole world is focused on us, for good and for evil, and we are not focused on us. We’re quite willing to throw it all away.
They know we’re The Real Thing; we just don’t care.
And so we are the Lost Tribes.
We are not looking to find a past, because we know we have a glorious past. Instead, ironically, we are anxious about the past’s influence on us. We don’t want the past to live in us; we don’t care.

Let me get this straight. How is it that the Lemba won’t eat pork, that the Rastafarians and the Muslims won’t eat pork, and so many Jewish people do?

There are so many lost Jewish tribes. Let me tell you about ten modern Jewish tribes:
1. Jack had bacon for breakfast this morning;
2. Billy has a Christmas tree but no menorah. He has so much respect for his wife’s religion that he has forgotten about his own;
3. Frank hated his Hebrew School teacher and never entered a synagogue again;
4. Carol thought her rabbi was pompous and never stepped foot in a synagogue again;
5. Susan is angry at G-d because she promised to believe if her grandmother lived until her 90th birthday and she passed away three months short of that goal;
6. Bob was going to have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, but his parents got embroiled in a terrible divorce and he never felt good about Judaism after that.
7. Eleanor thinks that Judaism is silly because she thinks it thinks that G-d is an old man with a white beard;
8. Alice hates Judaism because she thinks that it thinks G-d is male;
9. Carl hates Judaism because he thinks his parents were hypocritical in their Jewish lifestyle;
10. Brenda used to be active in synagogue life but never got a plaque, so she left.

These tribes are lost, but they are here and they are all around us. The experts all say that the mission of the synagogue must be to strengthen the Judaism of those who are inside the synagogue circle. But we must never forget about reaching out to those who are the true Lost Tribes of Israel. Which is why, for instance, I tried to reach out last night to those who may be having trouble with their faith. Those who have problems with belief should not consider themselves a Lost Tribe.

So this is where we are: The world is filled with people who find themselves by becoming Antis and Wannabes, and, ironically, many of us who are the focus of so much attention find any and every excuse to get lost.

I come back to my friend Chuck Chase. Chuck went on to a great college and then graduate school. His mother passed away from that terrible disease, his father lost the house and Chuck needed to support him. But somehow, Chuck emerged only stronger from everything. Saddened, but stronger. And he has gone on to fulfill his destiny and has a wonderful and productive life.

But I never forgot the jealous hatred of that election, because it represents to me what we Jewish people have gone through. And I remember Chuck calling me, doubting himself, doubting even his good friend’s vote, and I wonder if the hatred hasn’t taken its toll on us.  I wonder if some of us respond to the jealousy and the focus by wanting to go incognito and melt into everybody else, becoming a Lost Tribe.

And so I plead with you, on this Yom Kippur, not to let the haters win. They are jealous of the fact of our authenticity. And all of the Wannabes and all of the Antis want what you have; they want to be you. You are a descendant of Abraham, who, as everybody agrees, was called by God to teach His message to the world. Be proud of who you are. Be true to what you are. For despite everything we’ve gone through, we will go on. We might be sad sometimes, like my friend Chuck, but we will only get stronger.

The greatest thing that could happen today would be if some of our Lost Tribes would start on the journey back. The journey is not hard; there are no raging rivers to cross. All you have to do is say, “I was a Lost Tribe. Show me the way to go home.”