Rabbi Worch Visits the Abayudaya, Part I:

Another Traveler to Uganda

(Rabbi Worch lives in Caulfield, Victoria, Australia. This article contains excerpts from his writings following his trip to visit the Abayudaya in August.)

It is difficult for me to describe in words without hyperbole my own reaction to their faith and conviction. Here are the remnants of a people, reduced in every way but their indomitable spirit, looking to the world as the last means of preserving the threads of worship and joy in the One God, the Living God, the Jewish God.

“Reduced,” I say, because it is not at all clear to me that we are not already too late. Were we to take a Beth Din there tomorrow, and were we to educate them in the practice of Judaism, and were we to convert them en mass according to the Halacha, can they ever be a viable community of Jews? They are already so reduced in number, so reduced in means and circumstances.

The Jews of Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula may indeed have been poor, but they had a Jewish culture nearly 3000 years old. Rabbis, yeshivot, traditions and infrastructure. Scribes, dayanim, chazanim, paytanim, makers of tefillin and parchment, shochtim, cheder rebbes and all the accouterments of a Jewish society designed to last until the coming of the Messiah.

Semei Kakungulu, who died in 1928, has left the Abayudaya with 20 acre plots of arable earth, scattered hither and thither in Mbale district, and the vision of a glorious ideal, Judaism. For the awareness of the existence of these people to have manifest and registered itself in our consciousness the way it has done, they have already had to travel an immense distance.

The long and short of their story is this:

They are ready to die for the sole reward of being Jewish.

They are willing to die out rather than intermarry with their neighbors.

They are ready to let go of all they have received in the oral tradition of their own elders in order to be accepted into the Family of the Jewish people.

According to the Halacha as it is understood and administered today, if a group of people considers itself Jewish and is willing to die for this belief, even though they are not Jews halachically, we are all under an obligation to do whatever we can for them.

The Abayudaya have a uniquely African culture of music, food and clothing. They have a very fragile clan network based upon family ties and leadership hierarchies. It would be cruel and ill-advised to threaten their existence by removing the youngest and fittest, or interrupting their lives in any major way. To introduce someone into their community as teacher and guide, who is insensitive to the beauty and fragility of the Abayudaya tradition would be an ever bigger crime.

The first and most important job is to provide the Abayudaya with means to improve their health, living standards and comfort level, as well as to create their own wealth…

* * * * *

For days we had talked of the mikveh. How many cubic yards of earth would need moving? What type of brick might be used to line the pit? How best to cover the finished mikveh and how to capture the rainwater?

This is rural Uganda, bricks are made from the wet clay earth you walk on. Air-dried beneath banana leaves in the sun, then stacked in kiln-shaped piles, they are fired in the open air. Families gather to chop firewood and make bricks. Fathers and sons squat for tedious days and nights, stoking and tending, coughing by turns and dreaming of their brick-house. The outside layer of bricks rarely survives the firing process, the rains will come and they will be reduced first to mud and then to the red dusts of Africa. Bricks from the center of the stack may have those properties we, in developed countries, associate with building bricks. They will have been adequately baked. Most, though, will not carry much weight before crumbling, decaying rapidly in water.

The Bayudaya village at Gangama sits on a hill. Drilling down, through to the water-table might involve 50, perhaps more, meters of boring at $50 to $80 a meter, perhaps more.

If the mikveh is to be one of stagnant water, how would hygienic standards be maintained? In a village without running water, what bathing facilities could be realistically designed alongside the mikveh, that might prevent contamination? How many pits would have to be dug?

The more we talked about these problems, the more complex, difficult and unattainable appeared their solution. They understand exactly what are the ramifications of having a kosher mikveh, and how impossible it will be to achieve recognition as a Jewish community without one. They had only been waiting to be shown how to build it when I arrived.

Old Mishael sat listening. He understood nothing of our conversation, belonging as he does to that generation of Bayudaya who refused primary and secondary education in Christian mission schools. The self-educated Bayudaya, generally, can speak, read and write six local languages and Swahili, but the youth have English and Hebrew as well. Mishael is mostly blind; cataracts, viral infection, improper nutrition, who knows? On the morning of my departure I gave him 40 pounds sterling to have his eyes examined by an optician. Did he use it for that purpose? Who knows? Perhaps he has some need more pressing that mere eyesight? I cannot fathom the poverty of these people. Every time I think I have its measure, I stumble over a new, previously unthinkable possibility.

Mishael knows the Hebrew Scriptures. A lifetime of study has made the Bible as familiar to him as the footpaths of his mountainside. When Mishael asked me a question, I reached automatically for my Chumash with Rashi commentary.

The first time I found him learning in the synagogue, he was making hard work of reading the Hebrew Bible text. At first I thought his reading skills might be poor, but wondered why the young men hung on to his every stuttered word. It was his eyesight that was failing, not his language skill. It is his chief joy in life to learn the Chumash. Oh how he knows it! The very first question he put to me was this:

Quoting the text from Genesis, “God said, Let us make man.”

He asked, “Who was God talking to, and why ask their permission?”

I showed him the answer in the 11th century Pirush of Rashi, the most influential and favorite scholar of the Franco/German school, whose commentary is printed in virtually every scholastic edition of the Bible. If I had endowed Mishael with millions, or invested him with the power of prophecy, he could not have been better rewarded. What a smile! To think that he had a thought run through his head like the one Rashi thought?

“Tell it to me again,” he said. “Tell it to me one more time.”

I soon grew to appreciate the speed of his mind, his wit and erudition. It was easy to forget we were in the heart of post-colonial, post-Idi Amin, post-AIDS-epicenter Africa, that this man had no idea what a cheder room with a pot-bellied stove smelled like. That he had never seen or heard a shofar blowing, tasted kiddush wine, challah bread or seen a seder plate.

Aron Kintu Moses, sitting next to me, took the duty of translator. He explained to Mishael the essence of our discussions about mikveh, responding at length to Mishael’s questions about my specifications for the mikveh. I was paying only minimal attention to their conversation when I heard Mishael’s characteristic laugh, followed by rapid speech and excited gesticulation.

“Mishael says he can lead us to a place near here where there is a mikveh just like the one of which you speak,” Aron told me.

“Let’s go,” I said, getting to my feet.

It was uncanny to watch Mishael, the blind old man, complete with white stick, leading us barefoot down the hill. Through farms and small holdings, clusters of mud huts and dense prickly bushes. We came across some children preparing bundles of firewood. Brandishing wicked-looking machetes, called pangas, they were stripping the foliage from a freshly felled tree. We looked at it with dismay. A beautiful jaxfruit tree, cut down for firewood. The ground was strewn with unripe fruit, useless, wasted and testament to the most ignorant and foolish of Sub-Saharan agrarian policy. Our small company of Bayudaya men turned away in disgust; there was nothing to say.

We continued tramping through the increasingly taller grass. We hopped and skipped over a small stream of water hidden in the thick underbrush around our feet. Mishael knew exactly where we were going. He stopped suddenly, pointing with his stick to a tall thicket of elephant grasses and reeds.

“This is where Kakungulu dipped my mother,” he said. “He had his workers dig this pool right here for that purpose.”

Aron, Jonadeb, Gershom, Samson and others began pulling the foliage out by its roots. Two of them ran off, returning swiftly with pangas borrowed from the tree-felling children. There was a growing excitement as we found water. Mishael shouted encouragement to the young men hacking away at the jungle-like growth around the mikveh. And, lo, there it was—undeniable, irrefutable, almost inconceivable—a bubbling spring of natural, living water, about eight feet across, the ultimate mikveh. The ultimate mikveh.

(Editor’s Note: The next newsletter issue will feature Rabbi Worch’s moving account of introducing “Shabbes Cholent” to the Abayudaya! Read that story here.)