KINGSTON, Jamaica — As he stood beside his three-year-old daughter Gabrielle in the sanctuary of Shaare Shalom, Kingston’s only synagogue, William Rennalls stood out from other worshipers in a very significant way. He wears his hair in long dreadlocks that extend down to his knees.
Raised as a Rastafarian — the Jamaican spiritual tradition founded in the last century — Rennalls is in the process of converting to Judaism.
“My hair is very Old Testament,” he explained. “We separate ourselves as the old Jews did. No razor touches the corners of neither our hair nor our beard. We are vegan. The lifestyle is very similar to that of the Jews.”
Rennalls is an embodiment of the many connections between Jews and Rastas.
He has been attending services at Shaare Shalom for some 20 years. “My foundation, my trek through spirituality, has been through Ras Tafari, the Lion of Judah,” he said, referring to Haile Selassie, the late emperor of Ethiopia. Followers of Rastafarianism worship Selassie and derive their name from his Amharic honorific.
“We believe that the foundation of Rastafarianism is Jewish,” Rennalls told NJ Jewish News after Shabbat services on Nov. 2.
The indigenous Jamaican faith has been transmitted around the world by reggae music and its most prominent performer, the late singer Bob Marley.
Since Marley’s death in 1981, his home in Kingston has become a museum and popular tourist attraction.
It is replete with Jewish symbols, inside and out. Stars of David decorate a wrought-iron fence that surrounds a tall tree and two concrete Lions of Judah. The body of a multicolored guitar at the foot of Marley’s bed is in the shape of a six-pointed star.
In addition, one popular reggae song has a line referring to the Jewish exile from Jerusalem in 586 BCE: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down/ Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
“We don’t really have any formal connection with the Rastafarian movement,” said Jamaican-Jewish community leader Ainsley Henriques. “Some of us do know them. We respect each other. That is the story of Jamaican religions. [The Rastafarians] are a revolutionary group getting away from a white Christ and the English practice of Christianity. They have a lot of respect for our value of the Old Testament.”
The religious leader of Shaare Shalom, Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, said he is interested in the connections between Rastafarians and Jews.
“It has been very poorly researched,” he said, speaking to a reporter standing outside the Bob Marley home. “There are tremendous links, and they are very obvious. To my surprise, there is no formal or informal connection between the Jewish community in Kingston and Rasta leaders. There could and should be, but I can only do what I think would be acceptable to my leadership.”
Kaplan was able to make a musical connection in January. An Israeli guitarist named Lior Ben Hur visited the synagogue and, accompanied by Jamaican musicians, performed a concert they called “Reggae from Jerusalem.”
Still, the connections are elusive.
“The leadership of our synagogue perceives us to have a very specific culture, and they are not enthusiastic about deviating from that culture,” Kaplan said.