I Knew What A Jew Was. Of Course I Did.
When my daughters were little, we had a cassette tape called Reggae Passover by Alan Eder that we played repeatedly in the weeks leading up to Passover. The album includes traditional Passover songs and original compositions, mixed with elements of reggae and West African music.
As I was cooking for the Seder this year, one song, or, more accurately, part of one song, replayed in my mind. The song is called Four More Questions Peanut Butter and Jelly. It opens with a young child requesting, “peanut butter and jelly on my matzah please.”
The lyrics I most remember are these:
Did you have matzah balls and brisket at your seder?
Yes, we had matzah balls and brisket at the seder.
Can’t stop now.
I got to see you later
I’m going forth from Egypt.
I’m going forth.
For most of my life, I knew what a Jew was.
A Jew was someone with a tendency toward curly brown hair and a larger than average nose. A Jew ate matzah balls and brisket at the seder and appetizing, bagels and a schmear on Sunday mornings when it wasn’t Passover. A Jew cursed in colorful Yiddish, cooked gefilte fish from scratch, went to Hadassah meetings and voted Democrat.
I was very naïve.
Yesterday, I had a meeting with a well-known rabbi in Israel who, upon hearing about my work with non-Jews around the world who are interested in Torah, told me about his upcoming trip to Uganda and the history of the Jews in Uganda.
Jews in Uganda, you say? It’s a fascinating story.
Uganda is located in east central Africa, not far from Ethiopia. Semei Kakungulu, a Ugandan tribal leader, converted to Christianity in the 1880s. Taught to read the Bible in Swahili, Kakungulu became convinced that the Hebrew Scriptures were correct and the Christian Scriptures were filled with errors. One of his early realizations was that Shabbat was the true Biblical Sabbath and not Sunday, as the church taught.
Between 1917 and 1922, Kakungulu and his followers came closer to Judaism than to Christianity. In 1922, Kakungulu published a small guidebook for his followers, which he based on Jewish practices found in the Hebrew Bible.
Until 1925, Kakungulu and his small community were living in the grey zone between Christianity and Judaism. They had no contact with actual Jews until some European Jews, working for the British in Uganda, introduced them to Orthodox Judaism. At that point, much of the community dropped the last of its Christian traditions and began keeping Shabbat, slaughtering animals according to the kosher laws, reciting Hebrew prayers and blessings and even learning to speak some modern Hebrew.
Today, the Abayudaya community in Uganda numbers between 2,000 and 3,000. The Reform and Conservative movements recognize all the Abayudaya as Jews. In the Ugandan village of Putti, there are approximately 150 Abayudaya who underwent an Orthodox conversion in 2016.
Before I lived in Israel, I lived in a major urban Jewish center on the East Coast of the US. For most of my adult life, there has not been a time when I wasn’t surrounded by other Jews. Even so, it wasn’t until I came to live in Israel that I truly understood how diverse the Jewish people are.
Yesterday, I learned more of the history of a tiny Jewish community that lives 3000 miles away from my Jerusalem home. They may not eat matzah balls and brisket at their seder and they may not even know what gefilte fish is, but they circumcise their sons at eight days old, follow the same calendar as my family does and pray the same prayers that are recited in my neighborhood synagogue.
Once, I confidently knew, and would happily tell you, what a Jew was.
It took moving to Israel to learn how narrow my vision actually was.
Photo by Chaya Weinstein
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