FROM GUTSY GREAT-GRANDMA TO AFRICAN MAMA
As a great-grandmother, maybe she should be home knitting. But sitting at home isn’t in the busy schedule-book of Rancho Bernardo resident Lynne Elson.
“When I can’t sleep,” says the diminutive, energetic, good-humored 85 year-old, “I count countries.” That’d be the countries she’s visited, a whopping 161 to date. When she did alight about a year ago, she wrote her autobiography, “Now It’s My Turn: My Life Story.” She had it bound for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, 27 in all, a family flock she flew to Maui last winter to celebrate her 85th.
In her worldwide peregrinations, Elson has some favorites. She’s lived in and revisited Israel, traveled to China nine times (she belongs to the Sino-Judaic Institute), and twice to Uganda. The latter were mercy missions, labors of love and unforgettable experiences.
It all started in 2004, when Elson heard a speaker at Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, where she’s been an active member for decades, and still works in the office. The lecturer spoke about a remote area of eastern Uganda, home to five small villages populated by about 700 Abayudaya Jews (their name means “people of Judah”). These subsistence farmers have devoutly observed Jewish customs since 1919, when Bagandan elephant hunter and local military leader Semei Kakungulu decided to adopt all of Moses’ commandments, including circumcision, which he performed on himself and his sons.
“I was absolutely awe-struck by their story,” says Elson, “and I said ‘Some day, I’m going to go there.'” Then she learned about Kulanu (Hebrew for “all of us”), a Maryland-based organization dedicated to finding and assisting lost Jewish communities. In 2006, she signed up for their “Jewish Life in Uganda Mitzvah Tour.”
“The first time I visited,” she explains, “they lived in mud huts and didn’t have running water or electricity. My Kulanu group of four was treated like royalty. They sang for us, and their singing, which is so good it sounds professional, was mesmerizing.”
She noticed, with surprise, that the Abayudaya had Biblical names, like Samson and Aaron. And they wore oversized, handmade yarmulkes; she figured a small kippah would never stay put on their shaved heads.
Elson was an object of wonder to her hosts. “One little girl took one look at me and started screaming. Her mother explained that they usually don’t see people this old. Their average lifespan is the late 40s.” They were smitten by her warmth and enthusiasm, and affectionately dubbed her “Mama.”
She was so taken by the people, their determination and their needs, that she quickly planned a second visit, undertaken completely on her own. She tagged along with two of her three daughters (she also has a son), who were headed to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. She went with them as far as Nairobi (“not the most direct route – it required a 12-hour, 300-mile drive that felt like riding on top of a washboard”) and continued on from there alone. She wanted to teach Hebrew to the Abayudaya Jews.
A former elementary and special education teacher, Elson had developed a 12-week course of Hebrew reading instruction, which she used for 11 years in teaching adults at Adat Shalom. Her African students were mostly from the village of Apach, a war-torn area 200 miles north of Nabugoye, where the ‘school’ was located.
“It was bashert [meant to be]. They wanted to learn and I wanted to teach. Some of them have gone on from my basics to Bar Mitzvah. Ninety more are in the process of converting.”
She taught her 12-week course in four days. “They were very eager and very smart. I quickly realized that they were auditory learners. So I used a lot of singing, and that helped a lot.
“They had no paper, no pencils. I came loaded down with two sets of books and lots of stuff our synagogue kids had sent as a mitzvah [good deed] – crayons, paper, pencils. I don’t think they’d ever seen a crayon, and the boys [all her Ugandan students, child and adult, were male] fought over the crayons.”
Elson paid for the books herself, and also bought the writing desks now proudly displayed at the school, which doubles as the “Moses Synagogue.” In the year since her first visit, the community changed; they acquired a well, electricity, a doctor, a rabbi and three Torahs.
Returning to the States, she brought back a pile of tri-lingual thank-you notes from the Ugandan school kids (ages 9-15) to their American counterparts, written in English, Hebrew and their native language, Luganda.
Elson loves to share her photos, lovingly displayed in neatly organized albums. Her home is filled with Judaica, family pictures and travel mementos.
Her life has been a globe-trotting whirlwind of activity and accomplishment. She studied drama at Chicago’s acclaimed Goodman Theatre, performed poetry in Yiddish, attended a music academy, taught piano from the age of 13, was an educator, mother and devoted wife. But when she was 66, her husband of 45 years, her soul mate, an accomplished Ph.D. chemist, died of a heart attack while they were in China. “That first year, I didn’t want to live. Then I had a complete turnaround and decided I’d live my life to the fullest.”
“Travel,” says Elson, when asked what she’s learned over the years, “gives you a different view of life and the world. It also makes you realize what how fortunate you are. Most of all, you have to maintain a positive attitude, and focus on what you can do to help people.”
Right now, Elson is busy with her family and her assiduous workout regimen (after two back surgeries, she’s an “exercise nut”), which includes swimming, heavy housework, gym membership and a weekly 3- mile jog to Vons.
Perhaps there’s another trip to Uganda in the offing. “I wish I had the guts to do it again,” the gutsy grandma says of Uganda. Then she re-considers. “Maybe in 2009. I’ve got trips to China, Canada and Hawaii planned for the next year. And there are still a couple of places I’d like to go where I haven’t yet been.”