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Drash Visiting Ugandan Jews

TI Around the Word: Visiting Ugandan Jews, Part 1

Drash, 1997, By Karen Primack

This is part one of an article first published in the summer of 1995 in the newsletter of Kulanu. The article describes a June 1995 visit to a community of 500 Ugandans who have been leading Jewish lives since 1919, when their leader embraced Judaism.

Kulanu ("All of Us") is an organization of Jews of varied backgrounds and practices dedicated to finding lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people and assisting those who wish to rejoin the Jewish community. It is headquartered in Silver Spring, Md. Kulanu has been involved with five different Jewish groups in India (one of which is descended from the Lost Tribe of Menashe. It has established contact with descendants of Iberian Crypto-Jews in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, and the U.S., and with groups in Uganda and Peru that embrace Judaism although they have no Jewish roots.

Journey to Uganda

We are at a hilltop village in eastern Uganda, with breathtaking panoramic views, miles from the comforts of electricity and plumbing. A young African woman named Esther, upon receiving a gift of a scarf from a Western visitor, quietly recites the traditional Hebrew blessing for new apparel, thanking God for clothing the naked (...malbish arumim).

Even with meticulous preparation -- reviewing correspondence from the community, interviews with other visitors, a traveler's home video, a tape recording of their Hebrew and African renditions of traditional liturgy -- I was not prepared for the Abayudaya. I knew that this community of 500 had been leading Jewish lives since 1919, when their leader embraced Judaism. I knew that they didn't work on Shabbat, that they celebrated all the major and minor holidays, that they davened a complete Shabbat service, Torah reading and "drash" included. And I knew they were seeking formal conversion to Judaism. What I did not appreciate was their deep understanding of and commitment to Judaism.

I was part of Kulanu's five-day study/teaching mission to Uganda, a delegation of 15 Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews led in June by Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. We arrived late one afternoon after a long but scenic drive from Entebbe Airport, passing green hills lush with mango trees, cassava, sugar cane, banana trees, corn, and millet. We stopped in Jinja to see the source of the Nile River in Lake Victoria, and again near Tororo to admire a family of baboons watching the sparse traffic at the roadside. We were in a van driven by a Muslim named Kikomeko Muhammed.

At our destination, the village of Gangama, we were joyously greeted by 50 Africans singing Hevenu Shalom Aleichem and Hava Nagila accompanied by a guitar and the ululations of women. We tried to ululate back, but we could only laugh and sing and just share the emotional moment. We all piled into the new, almost-completed synagogue, financed in part by Brown University Hillel. The building's dirt floor is not yet paved, and the open-air windows are not yet paned or shuttered. Balloons decorated the ark, where a simple white curtain hung. A brief welcome ceremony featured more songs and introductions. In his greeting, Cukierkorn commented on the congregation's singing of Hiney Ma Tov, which translates "how good to sit as brethren together." He said, "All of us from Kulanu are your brothers in spirit because we are one in faith, one in hope, and one in destiny."

Simultaneous translation into the local language, Luganda, was provided, and we soon learned that the Luganda word for "Jews" is "Abayudaya". Our hosts treated us to a feast of home-made bean samousas (Indian filled pastry triangles), hard-boiled eggs, and orange sodas as the sun set over nearby Mt. Elgon.

Our delegation included three graduate students in film at Columbia University who had received a partial equipment grant from Robert Halmey of Hallmark Entertainment to cover "the interaction between American Jews and the Abayudaya community." They will be seeking further funding to complete the project. In addition one colleague, Lucy Steinitz of Baltimore, took thorough notes throughout the visit in preparation for a cover article for the Baltimore Jewish Times.

A Song Called "We Shan't Give Up"

On our second day, we visited the local "public" school (fees are charged) and witnessed 260 students in uniform, aged 6 to 16, standing in lines singing a medley of songs that included David Melech Yisrael. We were told that 180 of the pupils are Abayudaya. Next, at an assembly at the main synagogue (there are four in all), a small choir of young adults and a talented soloist, the diminutive 13-year-old Rachel, sang a song called "You are welcome." This was followed by the Abayudaya "motto song," which features the refrain "We shan't give up," arranged with words from the 23rd psalm, in an infectious African rhythm. After further introductions of Abayudaya community and youth council officers and local teachers who had come for the ceremony, the congregation staged a Shabbat service (it was Thursday) at our request so that filming could be done.

The service was reminiscent of those in many American shuls, except that cocks were crowing in the background. The leaders were fluent in Hebrew and knowledgeable about davening. Women and older men joined in more often when a psalm was sung in the vernacular, Luganda. In his drash about chapter XII of Numbers, the chairman of the congregation, Joab Jonadab ("JJ") Keki pointed out that Moses was chosen as God's leader over Aaron and Miriam, even though he was younger than they. He then commented, partly in jest, that both he, at 34, and Rabbi Cukierkorn, at 28, are relatively young but are accepted as leaders.

Abayudaya men wear attractive kippot with six-pointed stars knitted in. They look remarkably like head gear worn by Muslims -- not surprising since they are knitted by one of the Abayudaya's Muslim neighbors. The Abayudaya are on very good terms with all their neighbors, Christian and Muslim. Muhammed, our driver, had known the Abayudaya previously and attended many of the sessions with the Kulanu delegates.

Next month: The Abayudaya talk about their desire to be recognized as Jews.