When I was growing up in the Ugandan village of Nasenyi, one of the highlights of our Rosh Hashana meal was having rice to eat as part of the festival meal that followed synagogue prayers. Rice was a rarity in those days, but so was the divisiveness that has come to our Ugandan Jewish community in the last 30 years or so.
In the old days, members of the Abayudaya, as we call ourselves, would host other families from different communities in their homes. Elders would go from home to home, leading singing and dancing to the tunes of the songs of Moshe from Parshat Haazinu (Deuteronomy chapter 32). We call these the Songs of Kakungulu, named after our founder who converted to Judaism more than a century ago. The celebration included drinking a special beverage brewed from local grain. It continued for the first nine days of the New Year as a means of renewing our communal bonds and forgiving each other before heading into Yom Kippur. In those good old days, we all looked at each other simply as Jews. No one judged another as not being “Jewish enough” to prepare a meal for a fellow Jew.
I miss this kind of communal celebration that started to decline in the late 1990s as we began to be organized into Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, and other denominations. Today some Jews no longer agree to host even members of their own family who have ‘converted’ to a different denomination.
Our Abayudaya population has grown to about 3,000 and we now have 14 different synagogues across Uganda. Literacy levels and the standard of living have improved for some communities, while others continue to struggle to organize communal meals on the Jewish holidays.
Among the changes we have experienced is replacing the eating of rice with the custom of eating apples dipped in honey and pomegranates during the festive Rosh Hashana meal. However, as these fruits are not readily available and expensive, we often instead partake of sweet Ugandan pineapples.
As Rosh Hashana approaches, we invite our fellow Abayudaya as well as our fellow Jews around the world to reflect on how we can renew ourselves in a united way. Here in my home village of Nasenyi we would like to reach out to fellow Jews outside Uganda, especially in North America, and think about ways we can strengthen one another. We miss the visits many of you made in the pre-Covid era and would gladly welcome you back. Even if travel is not possible, we would be delighted to sing some of our inspirational renditions of the Rosh Hashana songs together with you, perhaps through a ZOOM or other virtual meeting.
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