Abayudaya Ugandan Jewish story told in music, photos at Pitt program


Moses, the “Drummer of Putti” as he’s known, outside the doorway of his home in Putti, Uganda. Richard Sobol photo

The inspiring story of 600 unlikely but dedicated Jews – the Abayudaya tribe of eastern Uganda – will be told through photographs and music Thursday, Feb. 12, at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium of the University of Pittsburgh.

The multimedia presentation features the work of photojournalist Richard Sobol, who spent months living with and photographing the Abayudaya. Sobol is the first photojournalist to document this small Jewish community’s struggles and triumphs.

“The Abayudaya were converted by a tribal chief in 1919, who converted himself along with 3,000 of his followers,” said Sobol, speaking from his home in Massachusetts.

British missionaries had converted the chief, Semei Kukungulu, to Christianity in the 1880s. He eventually had a falling out with the Christian missionaries, and rejected the New Testament. He began practicing biblical Judaism, following the Five Books of Moses.

In the mid-1900s, the Abayudaya were exposed to Jews from Yemen and India, who introduced them to rabbinic Judaism and Hebrew.

The Abayudaya Jewish community flourished in its early years, with 36 synagogues serving some 3,000 people. During the reign of Idi Amin in the 1970s, however, the community shrank to 300 Jews as a result of the dictator’s ban on Judaism. Since the 1980s, the community has been growing, and now has several synagogues.

Sobol, whose wildlife and political photographs have appeared in National Geographic, Time and Newsweek, became interested in the Abayudaya when he heard their music from an anthropology student who had recorded their African renditions of traditional Hebrew payers. Sobol first went to visit the community in 2000.

“They had had very few visitors,” he said. “They were eager to be noticed and recognized. They said one of their greatest challenges was isolation [from the rest of the Jewish world].”

Sobol’s book of photographs and text, “Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda,” was published by Abbeville Press in 2004. The book includes a CD of Abayudaya music, recorded by Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, an ethnomusicologist at Tufts University. The CD was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2005.

Since the publication of his book, Sobol has continued to visit Uganda, and has continued to photograph the Abayudaya.

“It’s an evolving community,” he said.

Like most other Jewish communities, levels of observance vary from family to family, Sobol said. “There is a various blend of devotion. But the synagogues are crowded on Shabbat mornings.”

He explained that the Abayudaya are subsistence farmers, many of whom have engaged in a coffee growing and exporting business with their Muslim and Christian neighbors.

“It’s an interfaith cooperation, and its succeeding,” said Sobol, noting that it serves as a good example for the rest of the world.

The multimedia presentation will feature about 100 photographs, accompanied by the tribe’s own music. Some of the songs are sung in Hebrew, while others are in Ugandan.

“Their music is mesmerizing and enchanting,” Sobol said. “The Abayudaya are sincere in their devotion to Jewish tradition.”
(Tags: Abayudaya, Uganda, Photography)

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