Tag Archives: gershom sizomu

History of the Abayudaya

“In the Putti Synagogue a young man, who is still learning Hebrew, reads from a tattered copy of the Bible translated into Luganda,” by Richard Sobol, from Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda.

We’d like to continue the story we started last time, of the founding of the Abayudaya in the early 1920s by Semei Kakungulu. In his luminous book, Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda, published by Abbeville Press, Richard Sobol relates the origin and history of this isolated Jewish community, which has persevered through overwhelming hardships for four generations in eastern Uganda. As we mentioned in our last post, after Kakungulu’s disenchantment with the British colonial government, he faced a personal religious crisis. Sobol recounts:

As he looked around, he was troubled and confused that the British and French Christians whom he had met had abandoned the basic principles of the Hebrews… After several days in seclusion he emerged and ripped the missionary Bible in half, discarding the New Testament and beseeching his three thousand followers to adhere to Moses’ commandments.

Once Kakungulu decided to adopt the Jewish faith, his first step was to put into practice those commandments: he circumcised himself and his sons, his family prepared all food according to the laws of kashrut, and he began observance of the Sabbath. He handwrote his own “guidebook” in Lugandan in order to ensure proper understanding of the Torah for his followers. Several years passed before the community had any contact with other Jews. Rabbi Samson Mogombe still remembers their first Jewish visitor, and he recalls:

In 1926 we were visited by Yosefu, who was a Jewish trader from Yemen. He took an interest in our community and came to live with Semei Kakungulu. He taught us how to perform ritual slaughter. He also taught us the  Hebrew names for the months and the Hebrew alphabet. Yosefu presented us with a large Bible written in Hebrew and English. For the first time I learned that there are many Jews around the world—in the USA, Europe, South Africa, and Israel.

It was not until 2002—more than eighty years after Kakungulu’s adoption of the Jewish faith—that a rabbinic court arrived in Uganda to officially convert more than 300 practicing Abayudaya. When devout members of the group questioned the significance of the conversion, considering their lifelong devotion to the Torah, community leader Rabbi Gershom Sizomu replied:

Call it a confirmation, if that will help you to accept it. It is time to end our isolation. We have always known who we are. We have always been Jews. That will not change.

“Rabbi Gershom Sizomu holds the Torah at the Moses Synagogue and recites the prayer affirming the oneness of God,” by Richard Sobol, from Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda.

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