Rabbi Worch Visits the Abayudaya, Part II:

Shabbes Cholent in Uganda?

(Worch, a Lubavitch rabbi living in Australia, visited the Abayudaya in Uganda last August. Following, in Part II, are excerpts from his writings. Part I, describing his discovery of a 70-year-old mikveh, appeared in the previous newsletter.)

It was more than three hours past midnight on a Friday night. I am in Africa, a few minutes north of the Equator, close to the source of the River Nile. I am sitting on a wicker chair with my friends the Bayudaya. As I told a story, all around me on the red earthen floor they were taut with listening. The oldest and youngest of the group snored softly on their bamboo mats. I finished my story.

The dark was overwhelming, palpable; I could not make out a hand in front of my face. It was time for us to retire, to rest, to sleep. But we were much too excited.

“Shall we dance?” I asked. For an answer there came a swish, a rustling of clothing, shuffling feet, and we were dancing. Mine were the only feet in shoes that night as we all danced and danced.

I began singing a simple melody I remembered from my childhood. I had heard it from the Sekulener Rebbe 30, maybe more, years ago. We held hands and stomped our feet, singing quietly, “U’Vyoim Ha’Shabbes, Shabbes Koidesh, Sissu V’Simchu…”

A little to one side stood the women, Mamma Debra, Mamma Naom, Mamma Erina and other intrepid mothers of the tribe, swaying, listening, humming, with their fingers interlaced, their heads nodding.

These women, the tribal mothers, fast too much. If one has a bad dream she declares a fast. When prayers must be answered—a child is sick, a crop is failing—they fast, days and weeks. And perhaps I am too judgmental, but I gave them a rabbinical ruling: Fasts may be subsumed by cash. A few shillings donated to charity is equal to one day of fasting.

I had thought of telling them about the popular European Jewish sublimation, “chai” the number “18”, but I stopped myself just in time. There are nearly one thousand Ugandan Shillings to the dollar, but 18 is much too much to suggest as a pidyon (redemption) to these holy women who survive by subsistence-farming.

Eventually we slept. In the morning we prayed and I read the Torah. They asked me to speak yet again after davening, but I had already explained the Torah readings as I had gone through them. “Any rabbi,” quipped I, “can speechify at the drop of a hat. But only a truly great rabbi knows when to be quiet.”

Actually, I was aware all the time that most of the congregation had been walking since dawn to reach the central synagogue where the services were being held that day. None of them had eaten or had anything to drink. I suggested we meet again to talk after lunch.

Only five or six people could eat at one time, there being only five or six plates on which to serve food to the 60 or 70 people gathered there. The elderly and very young were fed first. When Sarah, the reigning baale-bosteh, served the cholent which I had so painstakingly prepared, it was greeted with hostility and suspicion. What kind of Shabbes-goy was I, cooking on Shabbes, they wanted to know. What kind of fraudulent Judaism was I trying to sell them here in Uganda, they demanded.

You should have seen the grin on the faces of the young leaders of the community as they showed their elders the Shabbes-oven I had built into the packed earth floor of my bedroom, a shining smile that went from ear to ear. Eighty years they have waited for my cholent, can you imagine, the first hot food on a Shabbes morning for 80 years! Prometheus had no such thrill. Perhaps Moses, watching the Israelites licking their fingers over Manna in the wilderness may have had such naches, maybe.

Most people know nothing about cholent, and those who do probably consider it no more than an odd quirk in the Jewish diet, something akin to gefilte-fish or latkes.

To a hushed audience I explained the significance of the food they were eating. How Rabbinical Judaism, the Halacha, the Talmud well nigh demands hot food on Shabbes morning. This is how we Orthodox Jews may be distinguished from Karaites, Samaritans and other fundamentalists who rejected the Oral Torah. The hushed silence broke into a thunderous applause.

On Friday I had been driven into town. First I bought a new cooking pot with lid and a ladle, wondering all the while how I might toivel it in which mikveh. The pot resembled something you might buy in a hardware shop. It was made in someone’s back yard from salvaged materials. Hub caps, engine blocks, bulldozers, who knows what goes to make up a brand new cooking utensil in that part of the world? It was unusable in its pristine state. The inside was scoured crudely as though turned on a lathe and hollowed with a blunt instrument. I decided to glaze it as I might a new cast-iron skillet. I went looking for some peanut oil or any kosher edible oil that can withstand high temperatures before igniting. The smallest quantity I could purchase of oil of whose kashrut I was sure came in 10-litre cans.

Mohammed, my guide, driver and protektsia, businessman and politician (honorably defeated in 1994 campaign for a Parliamentary seat ) helped me avoid those beans on sale which had been sprayed with chemicals and which were for planting only. He showed me those unsprayed, healthier-looking items which might be used safely for eating. I found good kidney beans, red and white, black-eyed peas and other local varieties of legume.

Onions, garlic, salt, pepper, cloves, cumin and other more esoteric ingredients made up the remainder of my shopping list. I had bottled water purchased in Entebbe on the way from the airport and a bottle of Carmel grape juice, which had traveled rather well from Manchester, England. Two huge loaves of rye bread I had commissioned at the vegan village of Salem-Cologne, where I was renting a grass-thatched hut. I was about ready to begin cooking for Shabbes!

I wanted to avoid getting in the way of the women hard at work in the smoky communal kitchen, so I was given a small portable stove made from condensed-milk tins. It was an ingenious contraption standing perhaps 20 centimetres off the ground, and fueled by charcoal purchased from the charcoal maker down the road. The main problem with that particular purchase was finding the plastic sack in which to take my charcoal home. Nothing is simple or swift in rural Uganda, where untreated water must be carried on someone’s head three kilometers from a water hole shared by umpteen villages after waiting in line all morning to fill the jerry-can.

Once the pot was bake-blazed with cooking oil, after I had extinguished the blaze and waited for all the components to cool off again, I boiled some water in it. Then I borrowed a hammer and closed off all the tiny holes leaking the precious water from my new cooking pot. Locals told me that they would use grains of soft rice to plug such holes, but my less elegant and more violent solution had quite solved the mikveh problem, once and for all. A pot made by a Jew does not require immersion in a mikveh, and by that time I was sure the pot was my own creation!

After lunch on Shabbes afternoon I met with all the women who had come for the Halacha learning. That was when I told them about the tzedakah (charity) in lieu of fasting. They asked me for the Halacha concerning marriages between consanguine cousins of the first remove. I described a chuppa marriage ceremony, the spiderweb-spinning, circling of the bridegroom by the veiled bride who is led by her mothers , holding candles. The placing of the ring, the reading of the ketubah, the seven benedictions and the smashing of the glass beneath the foot of the bridegroom.

There was much deep sighing and wistful remembering as I spoke. Bayudaya women have no wedding rings or jewelry made of precious metals, yet they have romance. They live in mud huts and dream of sufficient candles to light their Friday nights, when most actually make do with smoking naphtha lamps and crude wicks which reek and blacken the ceiling. I am referring to those affluent Bayudaya who can afford lighting lamps at night.

“Please,” they whispered, “send us someone who will teach us how to use the mikveh properly.” They discussed the Halachic difficulties around the care of their beautiful wiry black hair on Shabbes. When hair cannot be brushed without pulling out hair, it may not be brushed on Shabbes. At that gathering they decided to adopt a special Shabbes hairstyle, which would be arranged on Friday into tiny plaits and ribbons, obviating the need for combing on Shabbes altogether.

And all the time I am thinking in Yiddish: “Wher kan schatzen a Yid?” (Who can take the measure of a Jew?)

Personally, I feel moved to tears by the Abayudaya. Some part of my heart is left with them in Uganda.