Lugandan Psalms

The Abayudaya's Moses Synagogue, on Nabugoye Hill outside of Mbale, Uganda. Photo by Jay Sand, (c) 2003 <em>Scattered Among the Nations</em>

The Abayudaya


“Rabbi” Aaron Kintu Moses was never ordained, but he led his congregation through their atonement paces by candlelight and torch on Judaism’s holiest night of the year. His temple, the Moses Synagogue, is a small, yellow concrete building in the shadow of Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda. It lacks electricity and water.

I strained my eyes to follow the prayers as darkness spread, failing to catch the rays of the limited light. But the Yom Kippur prayers, familiar from years of half-assed observance, granted me some comfort as I, together with 200 or so Ugandans, launched the annual drive to repent for our many sins.

Israeli and Ugandan flags hung from the synagogue’s ceiling, symbols of patriotism and identity, and visual reminders of the divided nature of the service. Liturgically, one didn’t need to be reminded — that trilingualism triumphed here was hard to miss as English, Hebrew, and the local language Lugandan took their turns beseeching God for forgiveness.

To put it another way, Rabbi Moses and his older brother, Joab Ben Jonadav “JJ” Keki, served as God-loving DJs and the congregation functioned as their turntable. The two coaxed out Hebrew melodies that flowed into Lugandan Psalms and melted back into Hebrew harmonized by a sweet-singing choir, sometimes with gospel overtones. Then came chants in English, including a call-and-response of the anguished prayer “For the sins we have committed…and for the sins we have committed…and for the sins we have committed…”

Not all three languages are created equal in the eyes of the Ugandan Jews, known as the Abayudaya. What Hebrew they speak is halting and weak. Even English only entered their lives in the 1970s, and it remains unknown to the older generation.

“The congregation is always comfortable with mostly Lugandan because now the largest number is Lugandan. That is for the old people,” Keki told me. “Now when it comes to the youth, they are almost all English. So they are now comfortable with English, a few of them. But now those who had learned English, they go with Hebrew.”

If that’s the case, then the Abayudaya are the slow learners of Judaism’s Diaspora. At times, it sounded to me as if Moses and other participating congregants read the Hebrew Yom Kippur prayers as if they had never seen them before. Some words and sentences gained new pronunciations in their mouths; others merely became unintelligible.

I doubted they even understood what they were saying and what they were doing. What else could have led Moses to call upon me, without warning or practice, to chant the Haftorah?

The last time I performed a similar task, singing a segment from the Prophets featured on Sabbaths and festivals read after the Torah, I was living in Sydney, Nova Scotia, in the summer of 1999 where I, as the youngest congregant by multiple decades, occasionally attended the local synagogue. Perhaps the congregants wanted to honor me, but I could have done without the abject humiliation. No one told me that I was terrible, but that conclusion was unavoidable while I tunelessly plowed through the Hebrew text.

Standing in a Ugandan synagogue more than four years later, I had no recollection of the particular melody or trope I was supposed to employ in my reading, so I adopted what I’d call a “free jazz” approach. I made the melody up as I went along — that is, when I bothered to use any melody at all.

This time, though, no one seemed to know the difference, and they appeared to be appreciative.

“Half of the things they do, they do because they were taught that way without understanding at all what it is, what is the meaning,” Vered Ben-Yaakov, a visiting Israeli woman told me. “Their traditionalism to the idea of being Jewish is fantastic,” she said. “When I do something, I have to understand first of all what I’m doing at the time I’m doing it.”

The Abayudaya apparently have no such requirement.

To be fair, the Abayudaya are some of the newer Jews on the planet, so I would not expect their observance or their Hebrew to pass muster in Jerusalem. After all, their association with the faith began less than a hundred years ago. That was when Semei Kakungulu, their long-dead patriarch, performed one of the oddest examples of outreach in Jewish history.

A military leader under British command, Semei Kakungulu headed east to Mbale at the beginning of the new century. The British had demanded Kakungulu flex his religious muscles, along with his military might, by converting the masses to Christianity. But this soldier/missionary fell out with his masters — they had promised him a kingdom but failed to deliver — and he began preaching the wrong religion.

“This is a man who read the Bible,” Keki told me. “Now after reading the Bible, he discovered that the true book is the Torah.”

By 1919, Kakungulu and his followers, who included his sons and other community members who accepted the God of the Jews, became the newest, if unofficial, members of the tribe: They followed everything the Torah said, according to Keki, observing Sabbaths and all the festivals. And like all Jews, the new recruits soon understood one of Judaism’s fundamental truths is no pain, no gain, and all the male believers were circumcised.

Since then, the Abayudaya have managed to squeeze 2,000 or so years of oppression into less than a century. During that period, they survived the death of Kakungulu, poverty, aggressive Christian missionaries, the harsh rule of Idi Amin, and Israeli, and rabbinical intransigence. But like the Hebrews who wandered through the desert for 40 years, hundreds of Ugandan Jews achieved a measure of redemption in 2002 when they received the official seal of approval from the Conservative Rabbinate.

While their abilities in Judaism’s lingua franca remain awkward, both Moses and Keki understand that it, not Lugandan, informs their community’s future. They know Hebrew can unite them with the brothers and sisters in the Diaspora who have their own local languages, whether they are Russian, English, French or Spanish.

“And it is me who encourages everybody that they must be most futuring to Hebrew than to anything else because, as I have gone around to other synagogues, I found that most synagogues are comfortable with Hebrew,” Keki told me.

My own High Holiday experiences in Riga and Nairobi suggest you can throw together a linguistically divided crew of Jews into a hall during the Days of Awe, mix in Hebrew prayers and create a common denominator where there wasn’t one before.

If spending Yom Kippur in eastern Uganda was my journey into Judaism’s Appalachia Mountains searching for redemption among poor African Jews, then it was also my discovery about the power of belief. The Abayudaya possess what many Jews do not: total commitment to the faith.

Yes, that faith is at times expressed awkwardly, but they do pray with intent. Maybe, as the young Israeli woman suggested to me, their lack of understanding can be eventually overcome.

“Even when the rabbi reads the prayers, he barely understands the meaning.” But that’s alright, she said. “There’s no other way to do it.”