aka Dinner with Ugandan Jews
Tonight, me, Nrupa, and our friend Dave (also Jewish) went to have dinner with the Abayudaya, a community of Ugandan Jews 8km outside of Mbale town. It was amazing! As soon as we stepped out of the car part of me felt like I was 13 and back at camp (not always a good thing, but it was tonight). We were going to drive there ourselves, but thankfully Dave's truck was still at the shop so we had to get a special hire. We most definitely would have gotten lost.
As we pulled into the gate, we saw standard Ugandan buildings painted with menorahs and Hebrew phrases. There were men wearing yarmulkes with Stars of David and menorahs stitched into them.
We first went to the guest house, where we were greeted by a roomful of kids volunteering with the American Jewish World Service. They were asking Isaac, the man who runs the guest and I think is sort of like a PR guy for the community, about the origins and history of the Abayudaya. Unfortunately we were a bit late and missed all but the last two questions. Then we never actually had a chance to ask more. I have Isaac's email so hopefully I can ask him some questions that way.
After the Q&A, we headed off to the synogogue for the service. It was definitely Jewish, but had a distinct African/African American feel to it. I was comparing it to the time I went to Catholic mass at a black church. I'd never been to mass before, but my friends kept insisting that this service was much more lively than at their churches, with a lot of singing and hallelujahing. This was like that too. During L'cha dodi everyone got up and started dancing around the bimah. That would never happen at home. Also, the service was in three languages. Obviously there was Hebrew, but there were also parts in English and Luganda, one of the local languages. There was a translator standing next to the Rabbi who repeated anything he said in English into Luganda (even though I'm pretty sure the Rabbi speaks both), then there were some hymns that were only in Luganda. It was a perfect blending of the cultures. I could follow definitely follow along (all of the prayers were the same as those we sing at home, though perhaps with some slight tune adjustments), but not always well enough that I felt like I was attending Shabbat at home.
I really wanted to take pictures, but that definitely would not have been kosher. There were two guitarists and one drummer as accompanists. And everyone just seemed so happy and glad to be there. And glad to have guests as well. There were probably about 15 extra people (muzungus) in attendance, but the community welcomed us so completely. It was great.
After services, we said the Kiddush and M'otze. We drank a sip of wine that tasted like grape juice and some delicious homemade Challah. I would have been content just eating the entire Challah. It was so nice to have good, homemade, non-stale bread. Dinner, however, was also excellent. I had potatoes, chapatti, pasta, and cabbage with carrots and beans. It was great being able to eat all of the cabbage I wanted rather than the meager portions that Regina gives us.
We met some interesting people too. There were a lot of MPH students/recent graduations, so we heard about the different projects they've done. One is in Uganda doing a follow-up study on malaria and bed nets. And another spent 3 months in Israel working with on diarrheal issues. I also ended up sitting next to someone who knows the only three people I kind of know in Kampala. Small world indeed.
There are a few things I found strange. Firstly, not a single person I asked had TASO had ever even heard of the Abayudaya community in Mbale. One guy told me he knew of one near Tororo, which is about an hour from here. I don't understand how they're so hidden from the surrounding community. I mean, they just opened a clinic near the center of town, and apparently even the nurses who work there don't really understand what Judaism is. One of the girls I was sitting next to is staying with the Abayudaya, working at the new clinic. She told me it took about 10 minutes for the nurses to understand that Judaism is the religion where you don't eat pork, and that was about the extent of their knowledge. I know that Christianity is the most pervasive religion, but I still can't believe that everyone is so wrapped up in Jesus they don't even realize that a whole community of Jews lives just outside of town. Though maybe that's better. Some coworkers told us today that, as Christians, they are commanded to preach the word at every opportunity. I don't want a bunch of proselytizing people ruining this community. Maybe they intentionally keep their existence and location quiet from the surrounding areas on purpose--they must be even more sick of all the Jesus talk than Nrupa and I are! Secondly, all of the muzungus sat in the front seats during the service and gathered mostly closely around the table during the pre-meal prayers. At first this bothered me because I felt like we were all invading someone else's territory and pushing them to the background. But then, after discussing this with Dave and Nrupa, I realized it was just their way of welcoming us.
All in all, it was a really special experience, though I'm having trouble verbalizing why. It was just so unique. African Jew seems like an odd pairing of words. Nrupa, Dave and I were joking on the drive there asking each other if anyone we passed looked Jewish. I wonder what would have happened if Israel was in Uganda instead of the Middle East as originally planned...