A Joyful NoiseSEPTEMBER 27, 2008
- 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.
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."