Black African Rabbi Aims High

photo by Matthew Fishbane.

Matthew Fishbane of Tablet magazine has a great two-part long piece of narrative journalism about the Abayudaya of Uganda, who have been Jewish since a colonial-era chieftain decided to follow the five books of Moses. A century later, a descendant of those African Jews became a rabbi and ran for parliament. Fishbane joined him on the campaign trail last month and brings back the taste of red dust from Africa in “Election,” along with some answers to the question…

What is it to be Jewish? This was at least one of the questions that I wanted the Abayudaya to answer, even during the distraction of Sizomu’s all-consuming campaign for parliament. It’s the question that had brought thousands of visitors before me—people like Meyer and Chamovitz—to this hilly part of East Africa, if not to hear an answer in words then at least to confront their own Jewish identity with a different idea of the same thing. The Abayudaya, having clearly been asked this question again and again, have developed certain straightforward answers that I heard from a number of congregants of all generations. Sizomu’s mother, Devora, a 74-year-old who still lives in Nangolo village on the same land where she gave birth to Sizomu, told me that only God can answer the question of what it means to be Jewish, and that keeping Shabbat is the most important part of the practice. Solomon Magoma, 83, ailing, and lying on a straw mat in a mud hut behind his family’s one-room house, told me that “identifying as that thing, Jewish,” was foremost, and that following the Ten Commandments gave him strength. His grandson, Moshe Sebagabo, took me to see the Namanyonyi syn-a-go-gee, and as we toured the cement-floored interior and opened the ark, with its decorated sheet-metal box, he spoke to me of having “too much religious feeling,” of understanding the essence of his faith as “being an example to others.”

Read part onepart two, and watch the audio slideshow:

Rabbi, Run from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.