Sitting on the rocks under the trees overlooking the valley on a Shabbat afternoon, three of us (Lucy Steinitz, Janet Kurland and I), staff members of Jewish Family Services in Baltimore and members of the Kulanu delegation to Uganda in June to visit the Abayudaya, indigenous Africans who have been practicing Judaism since 1919, when their leader embraced the religion. We were joined by 20-25 Abayudaya women and a scattering of babies to talk about issues Jewish women to Jewish women. Sarah Nalunkunia served as the translator from English to Luganda.
Arrayed before us was a group of women, most in besutis (their traditional dress with puffy sleeves), and with their heads covered by colorful scarves. They were of varying ages, from early teens to senior citizens, and appeared to sit with the most senior and respected women closer to us and the others farther away. The children freely wandered back and forth from one woman to another.
We opened the discussion by saying how much we were enjoying our visit. We said that we know that women sometimes don’t speak as freely when there are men present and that they might have several questions that they would want to discuss. The women laughed readily at this, acknowledging their understanding that women-to-women we can relate differently. We told them that we, too, are mothers and, in one case, a grandmother, and that we were open to any questions they might ask — they did not need to feel shy.
After hesitation, one of them asked us to start talking in order to stimulate the discussion. We briefly talked about the importance of the home in Judaism, the role of women in the traditional home, and the three mitzvahs given primarily to women: To light candles, to bake challah, and to go to mikvah. This introduction led to more questions and a discussion.
One woman’s concern was with lighting candles. It appears that they keep candles burning for their dead for seven days. However, they are short candles and find it hard to keep them burning. They were amazed that we, in the United States, use a candle that burns for seven days.
They asked what to do if one prays for something and doesn’t get it. They wanted to know what to do if one makes an oath and then can’t keep it. They had several questions about when and how one can cook on the Sabbath. They had several questions about what to do if they don’t have the money to do what is required because Uganda is very poor.
They shared with us the ceremonies that they use for baby naming and a Bat Mitzvah, and one of the younger women described her recent Bat Mitzvah. They asked questions about when women are allowed into the synagogue; it is their custom for women not to enter when they are menstruating.
In our discussing the need for education among women, we learned that almost all could read Luganda, about five could read English, and two said they could haltingly read some Hebrew.
Our answers to them tried to acknowledge their struggle and their efforts, to encourage learning and preservation of their uniqueness as a culture, to empower them to be active partners in their community’s decision-making process, and to develop rituals to meet their own needs when none exist.
We were impressed by the ambiance of the session — the easy manner in which they talked and laughed, the children weaving in and out among their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, and the babies being nursed. Those who had a long walk home and needed to make it back before dark excused themselves and left early.
Their final question was whether it was okay to tell the men what we had talked about. We assured them it was. One of the male leaders had previously shared with us the struggle they have had in trying to go against the dominant culture in their area by allowing their women to eat meat (as men do) and to learn.
The discussion with the women alone was much different from the formal ones at which both men and women were present but mostly the men participated. While the men seemed primarily interested in interpretations of the Bible and in the rituals and halachah of Judaism, the women wanted to know about the practicalities of applying these things in their complex lives.
The best summary was offered by Sarah’s comment that we are really not so different. It did appear that, from halfway around the world and from different racial and cultural backgrounds, a group of women had gotten together to talk about mutual concerns.