Ethnomusicologist rabbi to speak on Ugandan Jews

Young Abayudaya worshippers pray using a combination of traditional Hebrew and African melodies.

Not far from the source of the Nile at Lake Victoria, in a desolate region of Uganda, dwells a remarkable community of 700 African subsistence farmers.
All are practicing Jews. Known as the Abayudaya, or “Children of Judah” in their native Luganda language, they are both shomrei Shabbat (Sabbath observant) and shomrei kashrut (kosher observant).

Their story will be recounted in a lecture at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage on Wed., Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. by Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, a Tufts University ethnomusicologist. Summit will play field recordings he made in Uganda of their peculiar blend of traditional Hebrew and African pop melodies, that are utilized in their prayer services.

The recordings are part of a Grammy-nominated 2004 Smithsonian Folkways release titled “Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda.”

Summit will also have on display pictures of the community snapped by his longtime friend, photojournalist Richard Sobol. Both Summit and Sobol have traveled to Uganda on several occasions to study the Abayudaya. They have collaborated on a book, The Jews of Uganda, which documents the tribe’s religious observance.

“The Abayudaya are a really amazing group of Jews who are African and who converted to Judaism in the 1920s,” relates Summit in a CJN phone interview.

The sect’s original leader, Mugandan military leader Semei Kakungulu, was originally converted to Christianity by British missionaries in the late nineteenth century. Kakungulu hoped that by becoming a Protestant, the British would entrust him with a large share of political power in the region.

When he was limited instead to a relatively small parcel of land, Kakungulu elected to become a Malachite, a nationalist faction dedicated to removing the British from power and whose belief system incorporated elements of Judaism and Christianity.

Disillusioned with the conventional Christian aspects of religion promulgated by the British, Kakungulu was eventually drawn to the elements found in biblical Judaism. These included animal sacrifice.

At that time the African chief was quoted as saying “Why should I follow the shoots when I can have the roots?” to explain why he elected to follow Judaism, according to Summit.

Kakungulu announced “From this day on I am a Jew,” Kakungulu announced. Then he, his sons, and the other male members of his 3,000 followers performed self-circumcisions in order to enter the covenant of Abraham required by the Bible.

Several years later, in 1926, Kakungulu met several Jewish merchants in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. “He was so excited to meet fellow Jews that he invited them back to his village,” explains Summit. “They taught him mainstream Judaism. From the very beginning, the Abayudaya have been very interested in following mainstream Judaism.”

As a result of this interaction with European Jews, the Abayudaya learned traditional Hebrew melodies and how to observe the Sabbath, the High Holidays and other Jewish festivals.

Following the death of Kakungulu in 1928, many of his followers reverted to Christianity. However, at least half of them continued the practice of Judaism, enhancing their worship services with more traditional African melodies, according to Summit.

“What’s interesting about their popular compositions is how they integrate Jewish themes and Hebrew into them,” he says.

The Abayudaya suffered at the hands of dictator Idi Amin when he attempted to convert his entire country to the Islamic religion. Many of them were forcibly converted, but maintained their Jewish heritage by secretly practicing rituals behind the closed doors of their huts.

Their ranks have thinned, but their dedication to Judaism has never been more firm, according to Summit. Recent Jewish outreach groups have established relations with the Abayudaya. Since they had self-converted, they were technically not Jewish. So, a few years ago, a Beit Din from the Conservative movement converted the Abayudaya halachically (according to Jewish law). Today they are recognized as bona fide Jews by both the Reform and Conservative movements.

Two Torah scrolls have been donated to the Abayudaya by American congregations for use in the five mud huts that serve as synagogues in the towns of Mbale, Pallisa and Namatumba. Most of the community is centered around the Moses Synagogue located in Mbale.

“What I love about this story is how this challenges our stereotypes of what Jews look like and who Jews are,” says Summit. “When you’re sitting in synagogue in prayer with them, it is amazing how remarkable and natural it feels.”

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