Chanukah came and left without any comment from me, unfortunately.  Afropop Worldwide didn’t forget.  The public radio news magazine offers insights into the music of the Abayudayah, a tribe of Uganda who converted to Judaism.  Ethnomusicologist Jeffrey Summit gives rare insights into their identity, as well as music, in this long interview.  Here’s a taste:

… Now, in contrast to [other Jewish] communities [in Africa], the Abayudaya, which means “Jewish people of Uganda,” proudly reference their conversion to Judaism in the 1920s, stating that they were drawn to Jewish practice by the truth of the Torah, the five books of Moses.  Their founder, Semei Kakungulu, was a powerful Ganda leader, and he considered Christianity and Islam, and then according to community elders, said, “Why should I follow the shoots when I could have the root.”

Presently, the Abayudaya number of approximately 750 people, and live in villages surrounding Mbale in eastern Uganda.  Many members scrupulously follow Jewish ritual, observe the laws of the Sabbath, celebrate Jewish holidays, keep kosher, and pray in Hebrew.  Since the community’s original self conversion, and through the difficult period of Idi Amin’s rule in the 1970s, the Abayudaya have been distinguished by their commitment to following mainstream Jewish practice, an approach that’s been amplified since their increased contact with Jews from North America and Israel since the mid-1990s. …

… One thing that really distinguishes the Abayudaya is that they talk proudly of their conversion to Jewish practice, and the way they were drawn to Jewish life but the truth of the Torah.  They see Jewish practice and ritual, and the teachings of the tradition to be a way to enrich and to deepen their lives.  They don’t talk about being a lost tribe, and they don’t talk about long historical roots.  They came to their religious identity through a process of intellect and faith, and values they found to be compelling. …

I’ll tell one story. I was with the community in 2002, right before their official conversion, and the discussions in the community were really interesting at that point, because here were people who had practiced as Jews, many for four generations.  I was sitting in a meeting of the Abayudaya Leadership Council, and one member said, “I have a question.  We are talking about conversion here, but I’m Jewish, my father was Jewish, my grandfather was Jewish.  Can you tell me exactly what I am converting to?”  And the leadership, Gershom Sizomu and J.J. Keki, were very thoughtful here.  They said, “We understand.  We are not saying that we’re not Jewish.  But there are formalities that need to be practiced in order for us to be recognized by world Jewry.”  So the community decided not to call this a “conversion.”  Internally, they called it a “confirmation” of their Judaism.  They were confirming their Jewish identity, but they felt that they had been Jewish since the initial conversion by Semei Kakungulu in the early 1920s.

The community also talked a lot about what it meant to value their own traditions, even as they were very, very interested in learning about the traditions of the broader Jewish community.  So we sat one night after the Sabbath was over, and Israel Siriri, who is now the president of the community, shared a Midrash, a rabbinic story that asks, “Why on Shabbat evening when parents bless their children, are sons blessed in the names of Ephraim and Menasha?”  And the answer that the rabbinic tradition gives is that when Joseph’s brothers were dwelling in Egypt, it was Ephraim and Menasha who steadfastly preserved and maintained Jewish tradition.  So Israel Siriri explained, “Just as the Abayudaya proudly maintained their traditions during the persecutions of Idi Amin, and through all their struggles to establish their community, we should continue to sing and teach our own melodies, and our own traditions, that have strengthened us over the years.”  At that point, one of the other leaders, turned to me and said, “We need to sing our own traditional music.  If not, what would be the need for you to come and see the Abayudaya?  What would be the purpose?  What would you be coming to learn?  Nothing.  Because we would be doing the same thing you are doing.  And I doubt that God likes that.”  He said, “Why did God place some Jews in Uganda, and other Jews in America.  I think the purpose was to create a more colorful world.” …

In many ways, Kakungulu’s self conversion to Judaism was an act of rejection of the British.  A rejection of the British.  A rejection of colonialism.  It was Kakungulu and his followers saying, “No longer will we followed your directions here.  We are going to follow our own spiritual path.”  The British didn’t know what to make of Kakungulu’s Judaism.  The book to read on this is Michael Twaddle’s book, “Kakungulu and the Creation of Uganda—1868 to 1928.”  But basically, Kakungulu’s adoption of Judaism was very much him going off on his own path, not only religiously but politically, asserting his separation from the British, who were totally identified with the Anglican Church. …

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