Monday, July 21, 2008

710. The Jews of Uganda

This is fascinating:
Can efforts to save a culture destroy it?

It's an article reprinted from the Duluth News Tribune about the Abayudaya, a community of Jews in Uganda:

Once totally unknown to the larger Jewish world, the Abayudaya are the result of a proselytizing effort gone awry a century ago. Given a Christian Bible, their founder, Semei Kakungulu, invariably described as a chief and a king, elected to embrace the Old Testament and throw off the New. When missionaries objected, telling him he’d then be a Jew, he found his calling. He spread his new religion to his subjects and though still isolated, acquired Hebrew liturgy and texts but without the associated European music. Substituting their Lugandan harmonies, their spirituality blossomed, and devoutly and quietly, endured until the regime of Idi Amin.

Like Muslims, Uganda’s Jews suffered the dictator’s wrath, and many shed the religion in fear. When Amin was toppled in 1979, only about 300 of 3,000 Abayudaya still practiced.

The article goes on to tell of a visit to Uganda by a group of Conservative rabbis in celebration of the recent ordination of the very first Abayudayan rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, from the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. The visitors, and many other Americans who rallied behind the Abayudaya, are pictured as well-meaning but somewhat insensitive colonizers, trying their best but not really understanding the nuances of the prevailing culture. The Abayudaya are grateful for the support, but not without mixed feelings:

“It used to be a shame to say you were Abayudaya,” [says Samson Wamani, the community’s medical director]. “Now, you are proud.”

But their spirituality has been diminished. “Before the outsiders came, our Judaism was very strict. We became diluted.” The Westerners, he says, “didn’t teach us by example.”

And the author of the article describes attending a service that begins "with full participation" set to African melodies, but ends tepidly to the sound of Western tunes sung by a tone-deaf American rabbi.

I was reminded of my trip in 2002 to visit the Cuban Jewish community—not quite the same problems, as few local traditions remained from the days before religious observance was banned from the island. (Communities practiced in secret until 1993, when post-Soviet-era Cuba was starving and Castro correctly figured that international religious communities could offer much-needed economic support.) Although we were welcomed like family, I still couldn't shake the sense that they saw us as rich cousins gawking at quaint native customs. (Then again, I could have been paranoid because I'm pretty sure the Cuban police were surreptitiously gawking at and following us.) I knew we were much more sensitive to the issue than other groups who had visited in the past. At an Orthodox synagogue recently renovated by an international organization, the old, low curtain mechitza had been replaced by a 5-food tall translucent plastic affair that impeded both sight and sound. During a conversation at breakfast after a (for me, mostly unheard) Shaharit service, a few of the Cuban women admitted that they hated the thing. But they were grateful for other help from the organization, so would live with it.

I wonder how I'd feel if my own synagogue for some horrible reason lost the right to pray with our own music, traditions and interpretation of what heartfelt prayer should sound like. Like the Abayudaya, music is the cornerstone of our style of worship—but we have the resources to keep and shape it as we please. I hope the Jews of Uganda are able to find a balance, and become integrated into the larger Jewish community while also maintaining the unique art of their own liturgy.

1 comment:

Regina said...

Wow- very interesting indeed.
The courage of these people to hang onto their religious faith alone is daunting (for them) and encouraging (for us)... we should be grateful as well as cautious... one never knows the future...
Thanks, aa..