Monday, October 20, 2008

Rosh Hashanah with the Abayudaya

Before I came to Uganda, I heard about a group of Ugandan Jews, the Abayudaya, Luganda for “people of Judah,” the Abayudaya came into being in 1919, when military leader Semei Kakunglulu took the information he received from British missionaries and found that the old testament appealed to him far more than the rest. When he was told that those traditions were of Jews he announced that he, then, would be a Jew. The population has fluctuated over the years and also took a hit during the Idi Amin years when they had to go into hiding or convert (some never converted back), but they are now free to live as Jews in Uganda and have a thriving population of about 1,000 people.

There are a surprising number of Jewish ex-pats in Kampala and Uganda in general. Before I had been here a month, I had already met several, who had all been to visit the Abayudaya. Most of them seemed quite skeptical about the community, but also encouraged me to visit and make my own decisions. Most of the skepticism comes from the fact that the Jewish villages, while they are still poor African villages, compared to the neighboring Muslim and Christian villages, are quite wealthy owing to the aid focused on them by Jewish charities and the attention they receive from Jewish tourists. Even with this, I hear that it wasn’t uncommon to hear the interim Rabbi talk about how poor they were and how much help they needed during a sermon or to see kids run up to the tourists begging for money or small tokens. Then, not long ago I met another Jewish ex-pat, Sarah, who had been here two years and visited the Abayudaya a number of times and really enjoyed herself, not left with a bad taste in her mouth like the others.

Determined to make up my own mind and have my own experience, I traveled with Sarah to Mbale – a 3 hour drive from Kampala – in the shadow of beautiful Mt. Elgon, for a Rosh Hashanah unlike any I had experienced before.

Sarah gave me a little history and who’s who in the community on the way up; the Rabbi – Rabbi Gershom had been away in the US and Israel going to rabbinical school for the past four years. He had gotten back not long ago and this was going to be his first major holiday back in his home community. As we arrived in the village and walked up to the one-room synagogue, there were kids playing in the yard. They ran up to us with stickers of Hebrew letters on their faces and yelled, “Shabat Shalom!” We walked through the open doors at the back of the overflowing sanctuary, and found women on one side, dressed in their best traditional clothes, some with their hair covered, and the men on the other side, all wearing tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl and hand-made, bright-colored kippot, Jewish skull caps. The sight, like the rest of the experience, was familiar yet so different all at once. We were handed prayer books, found two seats on the women’s side of the room and sat down, we brought the total Muzungu attendance of the service to 11. In this particular synagogue, the men and women are separated but there is no mechitzah(divider) between them and there is as much interaction and participation by the women as there is by the men; seemed to be a conservative congregation more than anything else.

Everything from the Torahs to the prayer books to the tallit was second hand, donated from other congregations in the Diaspora. Most of the prayer shawls worn by the men of the congregation had holes but the Torahs (three of them) seemed to be in decent shape.

As the service progressed and I heard my first song, tears welled up in my eyes. The familiar words were put to rich, beautiful African harmonies that filled the small room and overflowed out across the hillside. Time and again, the congregation would amaze me with the songs.

Then came time for the Torah service, the Aliyahs were performed by a mix of Ugandans, Israelis and Americans, men and women. For one particular American, a friend of mine now, being raised Orthodox, it was her first time to be called to the torah in front of a congregation. She shared with us later that it had been a very meaningful experience for her.

The Haftorah portion was read by a young woman who, I was told, had gone to University in Kampala and had returned to the village to be a teacher at the village school. She had translated the reading from Hebrew to Luganda, so most of the congregation would be able to understand. Following the Torah and Haftorah portions of the service, Rabbi Gershom gave a sermon, but unlike other sermons I’ve witnessed, it was interactive. The Rabbi spoke for a bit and then asked a question, I anticipated it to be rhetorical but then he called on someone to answer, and then someone else, as a man stood near the rabbi translating between Luganda and English. People sharing their views on what they thought the Torah and Haftorah portions meant seemed so natural, I wondered why I hadn’t seen it before.

Following the service, everyone greeted their neighbors with, “Shana Tova!” and we were all invited to sit under the large tree in the yard and eat lunch. The apples and honey were replaced with bread and honey – apples are extremely expensive since they need to be imported.

Blowing the shofar (a type of instrument made from the horn of a ram) is something I always thought I would be able to do since I played the trumpet for 7 years and the way of playing is similar. Sarah encouraged me to ask the Rabbi if I could blow the shofar the following day at services. I approached him after the service and he enthusiastically agreed.

Following lunch, some of the muzungus decided to go for a walk in the beautiful hills that surrounded the villages. Once we returned to the synagogue, I found some men practicing blowing the shofar so I joined them. It turns out that they actually came to this village for Rosh Hashanah from quite far; the village that is the furthest from the original. At sometime during my time there, a story was shared with me about these men and the lengths they had to go to for Judaism. As they were going through the steps of becoming Jewish, it became clear that they would need to be circumcised. They approached the main Rabbi and he refused, told them to find a Muslim to do it, something they weren’t comfortable with. After some back and forth, the story goes, they eventually settled on using a man from a particular Ugandan ethnic group to do the job, that regularly perform circumcision on older boys and men.

So here I was, in an absolutely stunning setting, practicing shofar with three African villagers; quite surreal for someone whose identity has always been molded by her Judaism and is increasingly shaped by her time and experiences in Africa. The first day, the shofar had been greeted by all of the children running inside to witness it and cheers that erupted into high-pitched noises from the ladies side – in case I had forgotten I was still in Africa, that sound reminded me. I was definitely looking forward to performing at the second service.

The next day the crowd had thinned a bit, some of the Ugandans who had come from their distant villages the day before had decided to stay home and muzungu crowd was also diminished, but the service and songs were just as beautiful as the day before. Eventually I was called up to do my part in the service along with 4 or 5 other Ugandan men. “Takiyah, Shevarim, Teruah,” called Rabbi Gershom, denoting the type of notes to be played. Then the big one, that everyone loves; “Takiyah Galodah.” Using parts of my competitive nature and lung capacity that I don’t often use anymore, my Takiyah Gadolah outlasted everyone else’s and the synagogue cheered and laughed as I returned to my seat.

Following the service we hiked down to the community mikvah, a small cement pool used for ritual cleansing, to symbolically toss our sins, wrongdoings and broken promises(represented by stones and bread crumbs) away to start the new year fresh. When we got back to the synagogue, we had another lunch under the big tree with Rabbi Gershom and his family. It was very interesting to ask him about his time in the US and in Israel, his youngest daughter was actually born in Jerusalem. I asked them how it was to return to the village after living in Bel Aire(!). Both the rabbi and his wife responded that they missed the conveniences and steak(their favorite food).

I left the village vowing to myself to come back especially if any of my family come to visit. My mom would especially love seeing the Jewish school and children playing and singing the songs that she has been teaching kids in Madison for so many years. I feel so lucky that I was able to visit the Abayudaya and have such a special experience and I know that my next trips there for Shabbat or Pesach will be just as good.

For another perspective, here is a link to an article my friend Glenna wrote for the Jerusalem Post last year: