The Abayudaya Jews

African culture and Jewish traditions meet in Uganda

In 2000 and then again in January of this year, Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, associate chaplain and executive director of the Hillel Foundation, traveled to eastern Uganda to meet the members of an unusual community. Living on a diet of rice, beans, bananas and Power Bars, Summit prayed, sang and recorded a group of about 600 Africans known as the Abayudaya (the Jewish People), whose community goes back several generations.

Summit, who earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Tufts, recorded their music, Jewish melodies influenced by African rhythms and harmonies. He attended synagogue services, where he was moved when the congregation sang a traditional prayer, Lekah dodi, to the same melody used by students at Tufts Hillel. And he made connections, both cultural and emotional, that he expects will last a lifetime.

© Richard Sobol

This month, Abbeville Press will publish Abuyudaya, the Jews of Uganda, a collection of photographs of the Ugandan Jews by Tufts alumnus Richard Sobol, A76, that includes a CD of Summit's field recordings as well as an essay on their musical traditions. Next year, Smithsonian Folkways will issue a broader range of music recorded by Summit, including lullabies and instrumental music. Together, Sobol and Summit are working on a documentary film.

The Abuyudaya Jews of Uganda date back to 1917, when Semei Kakungulu, a Buganda leader who had resisted European colonialists and missionaries, embraced Jewish practice as described in the Hebrew Bible. During the 1920s, a European Jewish trader taught Kakungulu and his community the theory and practice of Judaism.

Today the community observes the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, attends services, follows dietary laws and worships in a mud and brick synagogue. During the reign of dictator Idi Amin, synagogues were closed, and the community prayed in secret.

© Richard Sobol

Summit says he has been deeply touched by the people he met in Uganda and expects he will return. "It's amazing to be with these people," he said. "On one hand, the prayers and the Hebrew feel so much a part of my regular cultural and religious experience. On the other hand, you're sitting with this community in a clay and brick synagogue in the bush outside of Mbale, the nearest city, with Bantu people who are leading committed Jewish lives. I love the way that their story challenges our stereotypes about Jewish identity and expands our understanding of what it means to belong to a specific culture and tradition."

Sobol, who earned a BFA from Tufts, has also been moved by his interactions with the Abuyudaya. A freelance photographer who has worked around the world, Sobol has had many assignments, including shooting pictures of wildlife, primarily for animal conservation groups.

"I had been to Uganda to photograph elephants, and I heard a recording of the Abuyudaya, and I listened to it for 48 hours," Sobol said. "I couldn't believe it was real. I had a sense of rural Africa, and this didn't fit in. This was a mix of cultures I had to basically see for myself."

© Richard Sobol

Sobol made contact with the leaders of the community and went to Mbale to meet them. "I went, not knowing what I would find or where I would go with the story, but this struck me as an opportunity that comes around rarely, a story that is personally compelling and is unique. I was hearing prayers that I knew with African music that I loved. It sounded familiar, but not quite."

Sobol stayed in the community for eight days, sleeping on the floor in the office of the high school headmaster. When he returned to the United States, he played some recordings he had made for Summit, with whom he has been friends for 25 years. Sobol returned five months later with Summit and a videographer, and this time three people slept on the floor of the office of the high school headmaster.

"The thing that struck me right away was the depth of their devotion and commitment," said Sobol. "These people are fourth-generation, practicing Jews, and they knew their traditions and their culture because their fathers and grandfathers taught them. Their conversion was organic. There was no rabbinical authority saying yes, you are officially part of the religion. They just started doing it the right way.

"It raises questions about how we identify people. If someone chooses something and lives and breathes it, that's their accreditation." Last spring, a group of Conservative and Reform rabbis from the United States visited the community and conducted official conversions for hundreds of members. Still Sobol stressed, "These people are happy to have the official, legal status of conversion, but they were fine without it. They knew who they were even before they had that."