I first started corresponding with James Walker about eight years ago, when I was still in law school and he was interested in converting to Judaism through the Karaite movement.
To be frank, I was inspired by the fact that Karaite Judaism could link a California-descendant of Egyptian Karaites and a black man from the South. And to be even more frank, I was immediately impressed with his knowledge of Hebrew and Scripture – which far surpassed mine.
James’ knowledge of the Tanakh recently earned him a place in the North American finals in the State of Israel’s Tanakh competition, and today I catch up with him about his experience at the finals in New York this past November.
James, his wife LeAndra and their two children officially converted to Judaism at the Karaite synagogue in Daly City, CA in 2013. I am hoping that his family makes a return visit soon. In the meantime, I enjoy reading his insights on the various Karaite forums; and you’ll have to settle for learning about him through this post.
1. What were the highlights of your trip to New York for the contest?
It was a pleasant surprise to be among the top finalists for North America in the State of Israel’s International Tanakh Competition, especially since the World Zionist Organization (which sponsors the event) made sure that my wife and I were able to travel without worrying about the costs of the trip itself.
The behind-the-scenes orientation and written quiz were conducted mainly in Hebrew, as part of an effort to encourage adoption of the Hebrew language abroad to strengthen ties between American and Israeli communities.
The most encouraging aspect of this whole experience was to see a synagogue full of Orthodox Jews buzzing with excitement at a competition that requires a deep familiarity with the Miqra.
2. What is your favorite biblical passage?
Yehoshu’a (Joshua) 1:8 – “This scroll of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way successful, and then you will become intelligent.”
I have always loved this verse because it shows that studying Torah (which, unfortunately, other denominations of Judaism have often overlooked) is the key to intelligence and success.
3. What were the most memorable parts about your first trip to Israel?
In June 2013, I joined UNC-Charlotte on their archaeological excavation of the section of the Old City’s walls near Zion Gate, and I had the ability to live for several days in the guest house of the Anan ben David Karaite Synagogue in Jerusalem.
I was able to worship the way pilgrims have done for a 1,000 years at the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem, and to also make the 6-minute journey to the Kotel as frequently as my schedule allowed. The experience was one I will remember for the rest of my life.
I was also able to meet with a number of local and national Karaite leaders, including Neria HaRoeh and Hakham Moshe Firrouz, and meet with Ethiopian Israeli elders and priests to discuss their approach to the Miqra.
Orthodox filmmaker and producer Simcha Jacobovici was my host in the Tel-Aviv area. He invited me to attend my first Orthodox synagogue over one Shabbat. He respects my decision to choose the Karaites – himself being a ba’al teshuvah – and I shared my respect for the balance that most Rabbanites in America and Israel are trying to make with tradition and ancient sources.
4. What were your impressions of the Karaite communities you met in Daly City, CA and in Israel?
I observed a profound sense of antiquity and consistency when I attended Karaite worship services with both communities. These services represent a high standard for discipline and decorum that may be challenging for those unaccustomed to liturgical worship; but with time, I hope that liturgical worship will be afforded the same kind of reverence that other forms of Eastern spiritual expression have achieved among non-Orthodox Jews.
5. You are not a native Hebrew speaker; so how did you learn Hebrew?
As a mathematically-inclined person, I discovered that the most efficient way to learn vocabulary and grammatical forms was to learn in order of decreasing frequency. In His wisdom, God delivered the Torah in such a way that the 50 most common root words are used to convey about 50% of the derived terms used in the Torah, and that memorizing the 300 most frequent terms (1 word a day for about 10 months) is all that is needed to have 90% literacy. As it is written: “For the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” (Deut. 30:14)
[Editor’s Note: I’ve got to get my hands on this list!]
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Well, there you have it. I sincerely hope to see James and his family soon. James wishes there were more Karaite synagogues across the U.S., and that he lived closer to one. But his distance from a Karaite synagogue has not stopped James from being involved in a Torah observant congregation. James tells me that since 2002, the Walkers have been an active part of a predominantly Black Hebrew synagogue in Charlotte, whose members attended similar synagogues in Brooklyn for generations. According to James, these congregants left NYC after 9/11 to find a safer environment to raise their families in the same Biblical faith that was practiced by Jews in Egypt and Ethiopia. James says that they have consistently used the Karaite calendar for about 15 years.
James is also interested in translating classical Karaite texts; perhaps he and the Karaite Jews of America can team up and do something similar to Mikdash Me’at. . . .