Reaching Out From the ‘Other’ Promised Land
Even Gershom Sizomu’s glad that Uganda’s not the Jewish state.
Had Theodore Herzl’s desperate proposal that the East African British colony serve as a refuge for Jewish victims of Russian pogroms, Sizomu could have been spared the intercontinental relocation to complete his year of studies in the Jewish nation.
“We were very disappointed,” Sizomu says of the initial reaction his countrymen had to learning, in the 1960s, of Herzl’s unrealized Uganda initiative. Though at the time the 36-year-old was not yet born, he’s heard the stories from older members of Uganda’s tight-knit Jewish community, a group which first sprung up in 1919 when a local leader embraced the Old Testament. The community has existed in virtual isolation almost ever since.
Now, exactly 100 years after the Seventh Zionist Congress voted against Jewish settlement outside of Palestine, Sizomu has become the first native son of Uganda’s 750-strong Jewish community to reach the original Promised Land. He’s convinced the congress made the right decision about where to establish Israel.
“It’s better because there’s a historical connection in this land more than in Uganda.”
That makes Sizomu, a Conservative rabbinical student with charcoal-black skin and a gleaming white smile, more comfortable in Israel than any other place in the world.
“I feel more spiritually connected here than anywhere else on earth,” he says, “more relaxed, more comfortable.”
Though Sizomu’s only been living in Jerusalem for one month, he already knows that he likes what he sees, as does his nine-year-old daughter, Dafnah. She, along with her mother, Tzipporah, and 11-year-old brother Igaal, accompanied Sizomu for his year here, mandated as part of his five-year, California-based study program.
“My daughter says, ‘Oh, why do we go back?'” he mimics, sitting on the balcony of his apartment, not far from the couch on which Dafnah is watching children’s TV. In their home in Uganda, there is no electricity or running water.
“The temptation is there,” he says of aliya, “but I have no choice but to go back to Uganda, because whatever I’m doing is on behalf of the community back there.”
He details his dream of returning and opening a yeshiva, of which there are currently none in what he characterizes as “tropical Africa.”
“I have to take back a lot of knowledge,” he explains,”so we can give Jewish life to those communities.”
“The most educated people there feel an obligation to give to the community, rather than take advantage of the fact that they are more educated and can better their lives materially,” says Andrew Sacks, a Conservative rabbi and mohel who travelled to Uganda in February of 2002.
Sacks was part of a delegation there to officially convert the community, including performing the hatafat dam ceremony in which a drop of blood is symbolically taken from the scar left by circumcision. All of the males had already been circumcised, as they follow Jewish law, but the procedure must be performed by a Jew to be halachicly sound.
Sacks is the first to admit he had his doubts about the community before he arrived.
“My first reaction was skepticism,” he says. “[But] it was completely different than anything I expected in terms of the community’s knowledge and level of commitment.”
He continues, “The American rabbis who are just barely [able] to get people in the synagogue doors would be inspired.”
He describes, for instance, a fully functional mikve set in the middle of a field of banana trees and sugar cane. He recalls questions the community had on Rashi commentaries and Likud party politics.
He also notes that the “charismatic” and “dynamic” Sizomu was already well-versed in key Jewish rituals, such as performing circumcisions and the kosher slaughter of animals, as well as Hebrew.
Much of the community’s Jewish educational items — such as Torah scrolls and prayer books — came from the organization Kulanu, dedicated to assisting Jews in far-flung corners of the earth.
Kulanu heard about the Abayudaya (Jews), as Sizomu’s community is called, from a backpacker who visited a synagogue in Nairobi, Kenya, on Yom Kippur in 1992. As Sizomu himself tells it, “I’m in the synagogue and I’m the only black man there, so I stand out.”
The traveler ended up visiting the community and documenting it, sharing what he found with people in America when he returned.
The community had tried to reach out to the Nairobi community years earlier but had been rebuffed, according to Arye Oded, who wrote the book Judaism Inside Africa: The History of the Abayudaya in 1993.
Until Sizomu’s chance encounter in Nairobi on Yom Kippur, Oded was the community’s central contact with the outside Jewish world and, specifically, Israel. Sent to the Ugandan capital of Kampala in 1961 by the Foreign Ministry to study the region, Oded heard of the Abayudaya and travelled 300 kilometers to their home base to investigate.
What he found was a community where “everything which was written in the Old Testament they knew, but they didn’t know the later developments of Judaism.”
Oded explains that the group got its start when Semei Kakungulu, a military leader who assisted the British, left military life after becoming disillusioned with it and immersed himself in the Bible given him by missionaries. He noticed that much of what was written in the Old Testament, such as circumcision, wasn’t being followed and felt that it should be. In 1919, he declared that his community would be Jewish, but it wasn’t until a trader named Joseph visited in 1926 that he learned that Jews didn’t follow the second half of the Bible he was given, which spoke of Jesus. Joseph also gave the community a Hebrew-English Tanach and taught them some Hebrew.
Oded brought the community its next installment of holy books, as well as volumes about the history of the Jewish people and Israel. It was from him that they learned of the Zionist discussion about Uganda as a Jewish state.
They also learned that some of the rituals they had been following — such as animal sacrifice — were no longer practiced.
And some things they already did as Jews elsewhere do: Pessah, Sukkot and other rituals spelled out in the Old Testament.
Sizomu recounts how the Biblical passage about not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk — a key pillar of kashrut — was clearly connected to cooking, and therefore the Abayudaya had long separated milk and red meat, the latter of which was in any case scarce. But it didn’t occur to the community that the rule applied to chicken, so until recently people mixed the two — and some still struggle not to.
Sacks says that during his visit, he and the rabbis with him stressed that when it comes to customs, if not Jewish law, there was a lot of room for local interpretation and accent — for instance, in the melodies used for prayers. He also recalls that when the community learned about holding marriage ceremonies under a huppa, they gave it a local touch by using tall canes of sugar to hold up the canopy. Afterwards, they chopped up the poles and gave the sweet pieces out to children, much like other Jews throw candy to kids to celebrate a bar mitzva.
“It’s important to preserve local customs,” Sacks says. “We did not want to impose our specific Western type of Jewish customs on them.”
At the same time, the Abayudaya have themselves taken a somewhat progressive approach to Jewish practice, for instance, having women read from the Torah.
Such conventions make the community fit better within the Conservative Movement rather than within Orthodoxy, according to Sacks, while their keeping of Shabbat and kashrut wouldn’t accord well with the Reform.
“We feel we can’t leave our women behind. That’s one of the positive aspects of Conservative Judaism,” says Sizomu, who also credits the movement with “opening a door for our community to enter the [wider] Jewish world. We were living on the outskirts and the Conservative community opened a door for us to enter.”
Oded worries, however, that once Sizomu is fully identified as a Conservative rabbi, it will inevitably cause a split in the community. Already, he says, half the males didn’t want to undergo the Conservative conversion — many because they already believed themselves to be fully Jewish.
Sizomu, though, avoids the Conservative label. “It’s unfair to say that our community is a Conservative [congregation],” he says. “We don’t know differences in Judaism in Uganda… It is even sad to hear that the Jewish people are divided into streams and those streams divide the Jewish people.”
Coming to Israel, Sizomu has even been startled by some of the differences in observance he’s seen here.
“I was surprised that there are so many people who call themselves hiloni [secular or nonobservant],” he says, “because I feel people here have a much deeper connection to Torah.”
He looks out the wide windows of the apartment he has been loaned by one of his teachers, gazing at the roads running from a busy Jerusalem intersection up to the Knesset.
“There are so many cars here even on Shabbat,” he notes.
But then he’ll stroll along Ben-Yehuda Street and find himself surrounded by men wearing tzitzit and a kippa like himself.
So he thinks, “So far so good. I like it here. I now know the reason why people come here and stay.”
This article can also be read at The Jerusalem Post site.
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