Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda (Culture 24)

The daily lives of a small Jewish community in Eastern Uganda are captured in Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda, running until November 12 2006 at The Jewish Museum. The twenty or so images in this exhibition complement the Jewish Museum’s larger Identities display.

The Abayudaya (meaning Children of Judah in Lugandan) are unique because their practice of Judaism was developed in isolation, with no contact with other Jewry until the 1990s.

Photographer Rena Pearl spent two weeks with the Abayudaya in December 2005. “My aim was to document the simplicity of their lives and how they were practising Judaism. They are extremely contented and happy people, and work at building relationships with Muslims and Christians. We could learn a lot about living in harmony from the Abayudaya” she says of her time with them.

The history of the Abayudaya goes back to Semei Kakungulu, an important military and political figure in Uganda who helped the British conquer and establish their rule in Eastern Uganda in the 1890s. He was also a missionary, responsible for converting the people of Mbale to Christianity by the British. But Kakungulu was Jewish and spread Judaism instead.

He went on to join the Malaki Christians, a dissident group who incorporated Jewish ideas into their religious practice. In 1919 Kakungulu set up his own community, deriving a set of rules from the Old Testament.

A meeting with a Jewish trader named Joseph in 1962 lead to the Abayudaya’s practice of Judaism changing again. Joseph, upon realising Kakungulu’s practice of a mixture of Judaism, Christianity and the New Testament, taught him and the community the basics of the Jewish faith and Hebrew.

After Kakungulu’s death in 1928, the community was spilt by a leadership battle and many Abayudaya converted to Christianity or returned to the Malaki group. In 1962 Israel opened an embassy in Uganda and supported the 1,000 remaining Jews, giving them clothing and prayer books. When Idi Amin came to power in 1971 he banned Jewish practice and ordered Jews to convert to Christianity or Islam. He closed the Israeli embassy, which has never re-opened and took the synagogues for public use. The Abayudaya of today are descendants of some 300 Jews who continued to practise Judaism in secret during Amin’s rule.

JJ Keki, the leader of the Abayudaya today is the first Jew in political office in Uganda. He has taken the community forward, starting a cooperative of 400 Jewish, Muslim and Christian coffee farmers.

The photographs show the Abayudaya in everyday settings, at times practising Jewish traditions, at others showing their everyday lives, such as a group of children clustering around a well to draw water for Shabbat, or a woman lighting coals to heat water for tea. A student standing outside a school with a modified Hebrew alphabet on the wall hints at their past of translating and practising Judaism with no official teachings.

Their portrayal in this exhibition shows a simple form of practising Judaism, without any extravagance. It is possibly the purest form of practicing any religion – suggesting no excesses are necessary when you have a strong faith.

Accompanying the exhibition are a series of lectures by photographer Rena Pearl, on the history, culture and music of the Abayudaya.

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