By Logan C. Ritchie / lritchie@atljewishtimes.com

Jennie Rivlin Roberts and Norvin Bey Israel have become friends, co-workers and study mates at ModernTribe. (photo by Logan C. Ritchie)

Jennie Rivlin Roberts and Norvin Bey Israel have become friends, co-workers and study mates at ModernTribe. (photo by Logan C. Ritchie)

In the shadows of the Georgia State University campus and the buzzing Connector, Auburn Avenue is a quiet street on a Tuesday morning. As I walk into ModernTribe, a fluffy pup named Sammy greets me with shop owner Jennie Rivlin Roberts. Minutes later enters 50-year-old Norvin Bey Israel, advocate and student of Judaism, with a backpack full of books.

Israel’s face is soft and friendly. We make small talk about his job at the Marriott Marquis and the Sweet Auburn neighborhood in which he lives. ModernTribe, a one-stop shop for all things hip and Jewish, is in the center of this historically black neighborhood.

Roberts’ online business experienced a boom during Thanksgivukkah in fall 2013. She could no longer house her staff and inventory in her Candler Park home. That growth led to ModernTribe’s first pop-up shop in Inman Park on the Beltline. After a short stint back home, Roberts set up the retail shop in Sweet Auburn a year ago.

The three of us settle in. Israel is wearing tzitzit, an Ethiopian Lion of Judah pin on his black vest, a crisp white shirt and black pants. He is professional and friendly with a wide smile. Some would describe Israel as black or African-American; he prefers “Moorish,” meaning that his people come from Africa and are descendants of the 12 Tribes of Israel.

Israel recalls first meeting Roberts. He was eating at Mangos Caribbean Restaurant across the street from ModernTribe. He and his friend recognized Hebrew on the sign. “I came into the store and told Jennie, ‘I’m Jewish!’ ”

“We started talking, and it turned out he knows more Hebrew than I do,” Roberts said. “Norvin comes (at Judaism) from a different perspective. I don’t study gematria (Jewish numerology), but he is very passionate about it. I am learning a lot. He has motivated me to read about the diversity of Jewish people.”

Roberts hired Israel as a summer intern. Through this unlikely friendship, they debate, discuss and read together about lesser-known Jewish populations, such as Ethiopian and Moroccan Jews. This dialogue has led to a ModernTribe festival that Roberts describes as righteous.

It’s the fifth event at ModernTribe, and Roberts said the idea was sparked by Israel’s dedication. “This is his passion. We don’t always agree. Norvin says everybody’s Jewish, but I don’t believe that’s true. It can’t be that all people are Jewish.”

Such different perspectives could draw an eclectic audience to the event Sunday, Aug. 2, from 1 to 4 p.m.

To explore the concept of Judaism and race, ModernTribe is hosting an afternoon of exploration called Twelve Tribes: Celebrating Jews of All Colors. The event features Jewish artist Lynette Joel; communal art creation by Interact Art Museum of Atlanta; music by Prodezra Beats, a black Orthodox hip-hop artist from Savannah; and learning with Israel and Rabbi Efraim Davidson. Israel will present the lore of the 12 Tribes and their ancient association with constellations, the Hebrew calendar and vocations.

“There is a lot to Judaism that people don’t know,” Roberts said. “There are a lot of African-American, African and dark-skinned people that have Jewish roots and don’t know it. If you’re interested in Judaism and want to learn about your roots, come in. Welcome. We encourage studying; it is good for Jews.”

What makes Israel an expert on the 12 Tribes? His passion and drive to read cannot be denied; that heavy backpack contains books on Rastafarians, Egyptology, Be’chol Lashon (in every tongue), race, ethnic diversity and how all of those subjects relate to Judaism.

Israel’s family tree spreads from the West Indies to Ethiopia to rural North Carolina to the boroughs of New York. His Ethiopian father and Moroccan mother, both Jewish, met on a shidduch, a date arranged by an Orthodox matchmaker. His family kept kosher while living in the black Christian neighborhood of Harlem. He attended Jewish study groups and synagogue on Saturday, then went to church on Sunday to fit in with the neighborhood culture.

“My mother always said two things,” he said with a smile. “Always remember you’re Jewish. I don’t care what you do or study, but always remember you’re Jewish. And, when you get in a bind, go back to your Jewish culture. Take refuge in it.”

Through adolescence and young adulthood, Israel studied Malcolm X (“more so than Martin Luther King”), Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism and Hinduism. In college he identified with the Jewish Student Union and Rastafarians but felt resistance from others.

Israel recalls hearing from disbelievers, “You’re drunk on that stuff.” He was labeled troublesome and zealous. As a self-proclaimed ambassador, Israel drowns out the noise. His goal is to teach people of all colors and religions to delve deeper into the past.

“What are the symbols of the 12 Tribes? What does it mean for your vocation? Why are you a Christian? Maybe you’re a Jew,” he said. “People talk about putting together pieces of a puzzle. It’s not like that. It’s like putting back together a broken glass — some tiny parts are going to be missing. That’s what we need to figure out.”

A Colorful Celebration

Previous ModernTribe events centered on Israeli goods and food. Owner Jennie Rivlin Roberts has hosted events featuring chocolate matzah, caramel apples and pickling.

But “Twelve Tribes: Celebrating Jews of All Colors” will be something more.

The event runs from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 2, at the shop at 171 Auburn Ave., Suite G. It is free to all, and no RSVP is required.

Roberts engaged the Jewish community and her Sweet Auburn neighbors to create the lineup. The event features:

  • Paintings of the 12 Tribes by Sandy Springs artist Lynette Joel.
  • Communal art making by the Interact Art Museum of Atlanta.
  • Hip-hop music by Savannah’s Prodezra Beats (Reuben Formey).
  • Talks by Norvin Bey Israel about the lore of the 12 Tribes and their ancient association with constellations, the Hebrew calendar and vocations and by Rabbi Efraim Davidson about the ties among Judaism, agriculture and the land.
  • Food from neighboring Mangos Caribbean Restaurant.