Ugandan Jews’ prayers ignored
Israel spurns black tribespeople who converted to Judaism a century ago.
Scraping their flip-flops on the synagogue’s concrete floor, the congregation gathers around the Torah. The men touch their prayer shawls to the scrolls, then shawls to their tongues. To the left, a baby is hushed with its mother’s breast. ‘O Rock of Israel, arise to help thy scattered people,’ prays Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, in guttural Hebrew, from the most isolated corner of the Jewish world. ‘Deliver all who are crushed beneath oppression’s heel.’
Israel is now planning to fetch home some of the most scattered Jews, the Falasha tribesmen of Ethiopia, but for this Ugandan community there is no answer to Sizumo’s prayer.
The Abayudaya, or People of Judah, are in many ways like the Falasha. Both are devoutly orthodox, isolated and sometimes persecuted. Both black African Jewish communities practise slightly different rituals to the wider Jewish world’s. There is one key difference – unlike the Falasha, the Abayudaya do not lay claim to a lineage dating back to David. They were converted to Judaism less than a century ago, after a row with the British.
The Sabbath prayers sung, Sizomu, 33, switches to the local Luganda language. The holy day is to be observed, he says. No stoves are to be lit before sundown: ‘Good Jews don’t cheat. No, we’ll have none of that.’
The Abayudaya are self-taught. They have spent a century fashioning a religion from the Old Testament that is staggeringly close to orthodox Judaism. In 1919, according to Sizomu, the British colonial power broke a promise to give the local chief, Semei Kakungulu, a kingdom. Kakungulu promptly turned his anger on the colony’s Anglican missionaries.
‘Semei had already found contradictions between the two Testaments that troubled him,’ said Sizomu. ‘So, he decided to choose between the two and follow the Old Testament because he wanted to find fault with the British.’
Kakungulu circumcised himself and his sons. With only a Christian Bible for guidance, he cannibalised prayers from the New Testament and set them to African tunes. ‘The only source of Jewish material was the Bible, and the rabbi was the chief, so Semei had to manufacture many things,’ says Sizomu.
In 1926, Kakungulu met two Jewish traders, Moshe and Joseph, who presented him with a bible in English and Hebrew. It became Kakungulu’s text. Paradoxically, Britain was toying with the idea of setting up a Jewish homeland in Uganda at the same time as the Abayudaya were building one.
In 1961, they were discovered by Israel’s first ambassador to east Africa. Outside Mbale town, villages are built around mud churches and mosques. Climb on up Mt Wanale, into the mountain’s shadow, and children call out ‘Shalom!’ A steep mile on is Nabugoya and Sizomu’s small brick synagogue, marked in chalk with the Star of David.
In 1961, there were more than 3,000 Abayudaya with more than 30 synagogues. They had only a few bibles and some literal interpretations of scripture. Animal sacrifice was one. ‘The Israeli diplomat said animal sacrifices had been abolished, so we decided we should stop that one,’ said Sizomu.
A few curious Israeli, British and US Jews came to Nabugoya, bringing prayer books. ‘They would come and pray with us, but they didn’t teach us anything,’ says Sizomu.
If the Abayudaya were not Jewish enough for Israel, they were too Jewish for Idi Amin. In 1972, the Ugandan dictator fell out with his Israeli arms suppliers and banned Judaism. Synagogues were filled with goats, prayer books were burnt and Saturday made a working day. Sizomu’s father was imprisoned after being caught ‘whispering his prayers to God’.
All but 300 of the Abayudaya converted to Islam or Christianity. Those who kept the faith, says Sizomu, ‘had not one letter of support from the Jewish world’. In 1979, on the eve of Passover, Amin was toppled. ‘It was our Exodus,’ says Sizomu.
A few apostates returned and six synagogues were rebuilt, but progress was slow until, in 1992, Sizomu travelled to east Africa’s only official synagogue, in Nairobi, to observe Yom Kippur. ‘I was the only black face there, standing next to an American,’ Sizomu recalls. ‘He was distracted by my fluency in Hebrew. Then I started helping him find his place in the book, and he was astonished.’
Since then, a trickle of Americans have visited the Abayudaya, bringing instruction and ceremonial objects, including the Torah scroll, stored in a blue velvet bag. ‘American Jews are fairly liberal,’ Sizomu explains. ‘They can’t see how we are not Jews if we practise Judaism.’
Sizomu recently spent six months at a conservative rabbinical college in New York. Then, last year, four US rabbis converted 300 Abayudaya Jews in a ceremony consisting of a set-piece question, ‘Why do you want to be Jewish?’, to which the Abayudaya responded: ‘I was born Jewish and I’d like to stay Jewish.’ Others refused to take part saying: ‘We’re already Jewish.’
Sizomu encouraged the conversion in the hope of winning Israel’s recognition. ‘Israel is the proper place to practise Judaism,’ he said. ‘I would prefer to be in Israel.’
But Israel continues to ignore the Abayudaya. The right of return to Israel is premised on ethnicity, not belief. Thus one million former Soviet citizens were welcomed in the 1990s, though many knew little about the religion of their grandparents. If Israel were to change its rules, it could set an awkward precedent. ‘Everywhere there are sects claiming to be Jewish – in South Africa, in Ghana, even in Japan,’ said Sizomu. ‘If Israel took us, they might all want to come.’
Sizomu describes himself as a Zionist, who can live without Israel’s recognition. ‘Our only concern is we should have Israel’s protection if we get another Amin.’
Sizomu does have a reservation about Israel.’If the Arab world declared war on Israel, we would fight and die to protect it. But we are not interested in this petty conflict with the Palestinians.”