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(photo credit: Glenna Gordon)
Banana trees interrupted by occasional villages passed by as the matatu, a mini-van-like bus, meant to seat 10 and carrying 16, jostled over the potholed road for four hours, apples and honey in my backpack.
My shoulder was wedged in my neighbor's armpit, yet I felt isolated and alone. I'd been living in Uganda for almost a year, but this was the first time I'd spend the High Holy Days in Africa where I've been working as a journalist, some 15,000 kilometers away from my family in California.
But I was only 400 km. away from a Ugandan Jewish community, the Abayudaya. I didn't know much about them other than what I had read on the Web, and I hadn't participated in many Jewish activities in years, but I always had a dinner with family and friends on the holidays. I missed this community. This sounded like it might offer a sense of spirituality that I thought I might be looking for on Rosh Hashana.
So I went east, towards Mbale, a small town close to Kenya's western border, and then to the village of Naboguye.
Inside the local chairman's home, the TV's static tuned to Ugandan Broadcast Network and the children's stirring high-pitched voices in the Luganda language were as expected. The knitted kippa, the Jewish calendar and other Judaica scattered about the living room were not.
The combination was jarring. The Luganda language didn't make sense among these icons etched into my psyche. The power went out, making it feel more like Uganda, but I couldn't forget I was talking to Africans with names like Israel, Samson and Hadassah.
An American couple in their mid to late 50s arrived, volunteers in Uganda. The wife, Judy, explained that they had stumbled upon the Abayudaya's music at the Smithsonian Museum some years ago.
"It's amazing to hear these African voices signing L'cha Dodi," she said, just as another American arrived, a Peace Corps volunteer named Rivka.
"Wow, look how many people are here!" said Judy, who didn't seem to count the villagers already living there.
Isaac, a young Abayudaya wearing a red-and-black knit kippa, gave us a tour of the village and told us a bit about the history of the Abayudaya. He pointed toward a distant hill rimmed with thin trees with wide umbrella-like tops, the site of founder Semei Kakungulu's grave. Kakungulu worked under the British as a soldier, helping them to pacify eastern Uganda. A diligent biblical scholar, he read the Bible and questioned why the laws of the Old Testament were not followed. Around 1918, he decided to found his own community, circumcising his sons and keeping kosher. A chance encounter with some Yemenite Jews in the 1920s, who endowed him with some Hebrew texts and taught him Jewish traditions, lead Kakungulu to excise mentions of Jesus from his religious ideology and to more closely follow the laws of Judaism.
The Abayudaya lived in isolation, fluctuating from 300 to 800 people through years of persecution, especially suffering under the infamous Idi Amin. Then, in 1992, they were "discovered" by an American Jew living and working in Kenya who connected them with the American Jewish NGO Kulanu, whose mission it is to support isolated and remote Jewish communities. Eventually, some American rabbis came and did some formal conversions. Israel does not officially recognize the Abayudaya as Jews since the conversions were Conservative rather than Orthodox.
As we toured the upper part of Nabugoye village, we visited the posh new guest house being built by the Kulanu sponsors. In a country where most people live on less than a dollar a day in homes with mud walls and floors and pit latrines, this place was all tile and porcelain toilets - just waiting for all the tourists coming to make an attraction of the Abayudaya.
The next stop on the tour was the school headmaster's office, walls covered with Israel posters, desk crowded with an inflatable globe and an older model printer-scanner duo.
"We have benefited so much from our partnership with America," he told us, displaying a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Rivka, the Peace Corps volunteer, interrupted the tour to ask about buying some Abayudaya kippot. They were very unusual, after all.
Some Israelis joined our entourage as Rivka sifted through a bag of brightly colored knitted kippot in front of Shalom Shopping and Internet Center.
"Most secular Israelis wouldn't past the beit din test," said one of the Israelis, a 19-year-old girl volunteering in the village for a few months, in defense of the Abayudaya.
But I still felt suspicious. Who were these people claiming to be Jews? The kids in the village walked around crying out, "Shabbat shalom." And I wanted to tell them, it isn't Shabbat. But they knew it was a special day, somehow, and they knew that was what they were supposed to say on special days. They ran around in nice dresses and patent leather Mary Jane shoes, and I thought of all of the villages I'd visited where the kids didn't have shoes, let alone holiday shoes.
Two American East Coast Conservative Jews in their early 20s arrived, Adam and Maital. Adam had an I-want-to-be-a-rabbi-when-I-grow-up attitude, and he was there to lead services. We entered the small synagogue, complete with hand-me-down siddurim from Kulanu and other donors.
Adam belted out Conservative tunes in his just-hit-puberty earnest voice, so strange to hear in a village just outside Mbale, standing underneath an Abayudaya flag that incorporated their symbolism with the blue-and-white stripes of the Israeli flag, near a rudimentary ark.
Later, when they brought out the Torah, I wondered if I was being so judgmental of their connection to Judaism because I could not muster my own. I thought of what the Israeli girl said about the beit din and the earnest American leading services. Was this community only Jewish to benefit from the aid dollars flowing steadily into the village? But, they had really only begun to benefit from aid in the past 10 years, and they'd been Jewish for nearly a century.
I'd never wanted to call my family more. I wanted to write, to take pictures, to jump up and down, to do anything other than stand there and watch two East Coast white kids trying diligently to roll the Torah to the right place. This didn't feel like the spiritual connection I was looking for.
Then they called Isaac to the Torah for an aliya. He was still wearing his black-and-red kippa, and he sang the bracha carefully and intently. That was nice, watching one of the members of the community participate in the services. Then they called a 13-year-old girl to the Torah. She wore a bright green head scarf with modest pride.
When they finished, Samson, the chairman, carried the Torah around the room. I pulled out a siddur from the slot underneath one of the paint-chipped metal chairs, and held it waiting for the Torah to pass by.
Samson stopped right in front of me for what felt like a long time, but maybe he stopped in front of everyone in the sparsely filled room for that long. I put the prayer book to the Torah and then to my lips and kissed it with a smack, finally feeling connected to something.