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A Joyful Noise

Desiree Cooper

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Reggie Prim in 1979
(Courtesy Reggie Prim)
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Reggie Prim is 40. A current Minneapolis resident, he spent his childhood being raised with the Black Hebrews in their spiritual capitol of Dimona, Israel. As a kid, he sang with the music group the Tonistics - a religious soul group modeled after the Jackson 5. The Tonistics' songs were recorded in the early 1970s. They've just been re-released.

This weekend, as Jews prepare to observe Rosh Hashanah, Reggie isn't exactly nostalgic for his childhood in Israel. But the re-release of the music from Dimona has brought back memories about his extraordinary journey from Israel back to the United States.

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Reggie's journey to Israel began in the early 70s when he was four. His mom, Edwina, was living near Detroit, a divorced mother of two. A friend introduced her to the Black Hebrews. They talked about self-sufficiency. Building a perfect society in the land of milk and honey. She was hooked.

Reggie remembers getting ready to move to Israel. "I hadn't been circumcised, and in order to go to Israel at the time, you had to be. And I'll tell you, boy, at four years old, you remember that!" He adds that the experience was both painful and frightening. "To this day, it sort of took the trust out of me. Trust in people that you think are meant to care for you."

One day in 1973, Edwina gathered at the airport with 100 other Black Hebrews. But at the last minute, Edwina turned to Reggie, who was still just a toddler, and his 11-year-old sister. She told them to get on the plane, because she wasn't going.

"I'm about to enter the plane and it was like 'OK, honey, go ahead, bye-bye,'" says Reggie. "My sister and I both went to Israel ahead of my mother."

She followed soon after, but until then he lived in total uncertainty. After they arrived in Israel, Reggie and his sister went to live in Dimona, a small southern town in the Negev Desert.

For them, Israel wasn't the land of milk and honey. As illegal immigrants, they had a hard time finding work. The Black Hebrews clustered in small apartments in polygamous families. Reggie's sister began to fit in. But not Reggie. It was particularly difficult adjusting to the new rules of the religious community.

"They were strictly vegan with strange rules," he says. "Some days you could eat salt, you couldn't eat salt. They wore clothing that went all the way down to the ground. It had to have blue fringe on the side. You had to have your head covered. Men didn't shave. Women were separated in many cases. There was some malnutrition with children. There were food shortages in the community."

His mom was a seamstress for the group and Reggie was home schooled.

Years later, when he was nine, he woke up and his mother was gone. He went all over the city looking for her, but she had vanished. Weeks later he found out she'd gone to Indiana.

"After that I decided that if she could get to the United States, I could do it too," he says. "Got in my mind to leave these people and find my mother."

Every time he ran away, though, someone always found him and sent him back. The first time he was caught, the reaction was mild. But after the second time, the punishments became more and more intense, escalating into abuse. Reggie was miserable. Once after getting caught running away in Tel Aviv, he was placed in an old bomb shelter. After climbing up onto the bench, he remembers looking through the holes in the door to see a strange sight: band practice.

The band he saw was the Tonistics. "They rehearsed every night hours and hours," he says. "I would have time to just stand there at the door and watch them."

Reggie was captivated. He auditioned and got into the Tonistics. It was the happiest he'd been since he was four. As a kid in a soul group modeled after the Jackson Five, Reggie sometimes found himself playing the part of Michael Jackson in the group.

"I had the high voice," he says. And he could dance "like James Brown… and be a cute little dancing machine."

When Reggie listens to the music now, his memories start coming back. Hearing his voice on the new re-release of the music, his heart begins to race.

"It's the first time I'm hearing that voice," he says, "in almost 30 years. I thought that music was lost."

Even though he was in the band, he never lost sight of his goal to escape. In 1984, he finally made it to the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. Within weeks, he was on a plane to Indiana. His mom and other family members were there to greet him. They hugged, exchanged a few words. And then they went to McDonald's.

They've been pretty close ever since.

But Reggie still has a million questions. Like why would a mother send her children to Israel alone in the first place?

Edwina, who still lives in Indiana, says that at the last moment at the airport her ticket was misplaced. "And so the planes are ready to go, so they got on the planes and went. So there wasn't a moment to mourn or anything. It just happened," she says. "It might have been blind, but I had trust with the group I was going with."

Edwina remembers a lot of things differently from Reggie. She won't talk about why she left Israel suddenly, but she'd been saving money to return when Reggie called from the embassy.

She says she didn't know he was being abused - his letters to her were censored. And she even wonders if he was overreacting. "I don't know what he did," she says. "Well, he acted like a boy and broke the rules. They were strict on the rules and he got punished. I think he felt his spirit was broken, I don't know.

"I was telling Reggie when he was here over Labor Day that my parents worked all the time," she continues. "What little guidance I got was from my grandmother as my guardian. And I told him, if you feel you weren't parented by me to your expectations, that may be true. Because I could only parent you to what I knew about parenting."

Reggie has reconciled with his mother. He says he admires her courage to act on her convictions and take a "leap of faith" -- but he adds that it came with a cost. He's struggled with depression, substance abuse, and feelings of insecurity. "There's anger there," he says.

It adds a new level of complexity to the music of the Tonistics when he listens now, 30 years later.

"Even though there's all this darkness, all this struggle that this community is going through," he says, "in some respects their highest aspiration is encapsulated in that music.

"Music and art are often born out of suffering and struggle. And it renews my faith. I think it's beautiful."

Comments

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  • By Kelsey Hamilton

    From Indianapolis, IN, 10/02/2014

    Dear Childhood friend, You probably don't remember me . I remember you and your life story. You spoke Hebrew to us and told us that you was a prince in some distant hebrew- speaking country. I had little faith in your story. We thought if you are really a Prince why are you attending an Indianapolis Public School "Forest Manor.? I thought I would Google you today, because I never forgot that Hebrew Speaking Brother Name : Reginald Prim..and think you even told your Hebrew name..

    By Kelsey Hamilton

    From Indianapolis, IN, 10/02/2014

    Dear Childhood friend, You probably don't remember me . I remember you and your life story. You spoke Hebrew to us and told us that you was a prince in some distant hebrew- speaking country. I had little faith in your story. We thought if you are really a Prince why are you attending an Indianapolis Public School "Forest Manor.? I thought I would Google you today, because I never forgot that Hebrew Speaking Brother Name : Reginald Prim..and think you even told your Hebrew name..

    By Kelsey Hamilton

    From Indianapolis, IN, 10/02/2014

    Dear Childhood friend, You probably don't remember me . I remember you and your life story. You spoke Hebrew to us and told us that you was a prince in some distant hebrew- speaking country. I had little faith in your story. We thought if you are really a Prince why are you attending an Indianapolis Public School "Forest Manor.? I thought I would Google you today, because I never forgot that Hebrew Speaking Brother Name : Reginald Prim..and think you even told your Hebrew name..

    By Pete Tidemann

    From Minneapolis, MN, 09/30/2008

    I know Reggie very well, he is a long lost brother to me. We came together by chance and I knew this story long before it aired on Weekend America. I believe that the short time that is given to this story on the radio only tells a tiny piece of the story as a whole. The music which has been released again is a catalyst for change within Reggie's life. This is the positive side of this story. Certainly abuse or abandonment of children is a terrible thing, however, it has been Reggie's choice to be open to the world and examine his heart and soul within in order to become who he is today: community organizer, board member on several arts organizations, creative visionary, leader in the community, contact for arts and civic engagement, friend, and someone who truly cares about people he knows and does not know yet. It is through his work within and without that he brings us the gifts that he does in the world, and his willingness to examine the most difficult experiences in his own life bring understanding to the rest of us that know him well. This story is not a story about abuse, abandonment, music, or the Black Hebrews; it is a story of one man's triumph of life - Reggie Prim.

    By Beth Van Dam

    From Los Angeles, CA, 09/29/2008

    While this story may be upsetting, don't forget that there is a beautiful thing that happened here. Reggie found a way to channel his creative energies in that oppressive community—through music. Certainly this path has been followed by many before, in multitudes of different situations across the globe. For him to discover this wonderful part of his painful history must be a great, perhaps even uplifting, feeling.
    And once you hear the funky sounds of the Tonistics, you'll especially know why! Check out the CD. It's amazing stuff.
    And probably a big step forward in making peace with the past...

    By Paul Severson

    From Sacramento, CA, 09/29/2008

    I was shocked and disturbed by this story. The thrust seemed to be that the re-release of music somehow compensated for the tragic way this child had been treated. I think an exploration of why this mother abandoned her children, which I can only ascribe to mental illness, should have been dealt with in a way that would promote understanding of such horrific behavior. Paul Severson

    By Larry Shepherd

    09/29/2008

    I know this might be a shock to Ms. Behr, but disciplining children by using methods of physical reprimands has existed in Jewish yeshivas as well as other Christian (the Catholic church private schools becoming the most infamous) schools of learning.
    The founders of this Great nation historically, used "floggings" and extreme physical abuse(in fact, most of the examples of civil obedience, that the earlier founders of this country used, were lifted directly out of your jewish bible "and eye for and eye", lets not forget that moses was a convicted violent felon) in other extreme measures in order to enforce social and civic order.
    I too have the same sentiments as you do, I believe any and all communities, nations, church's, religions, who have a history of abusing their citizens is very disturbing.
    And I shudder just as you do that people are so narrow minded, so hypocritical, so self righteous in their own religions beliefs and ideas that they forget where they came from.

    I believe that this community should be given the same opportunity as america has been given, as your religion has been given, the right to make mistakes, to grow and live out their ideas of their society and their inherent right as citizens of humanity to pursue life and liberty. : )

    By Reggie Prim

    From Minneapolis, 09/28/2008

    Thank you Weekend America for helping me tell this story. This isn't a story about Judaism. This is a story about people following a dream, paying the price to find a new way of the life and the mistakes they make and the joy they find together in music...despite the difficulties. I have an interesting story because My mother took a "leap of faith" and it worked out in a pretty interesting way.

    By Claudia Dengler

    From Minneapolis, MN, 09/27/2008

    I have the privilege to serve on a Board with Reggie. His passion must have been quietly nourished by his ability to harness, even magnify, the good and sequester the mystery and loneliness of his childhood.

    By Rosie Behr

    From Baltimore, MD, 09/27/2008

    I found this story deeply disturbing, in many ways. Certainly, most disturbing was the abuse, which went uncommented on. And then at the end, the narrator says Reggie "no longer practices Judaism," as if Judaism was what this story was about, instead of an abusive community. I shudder to think that non-Jewish listeners will think that this story reflects something about the Jewish religion or community.

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