Why is this Passover different for me? A Ugandan Jew gave me new insights
My friend Jacob reaches out to me in Albany, New York, 7,677 milesfrom his home in Mbale, Uganda. He is seeking matzofor Passover and prayers for his community, known as the Abayudaya. I will mail the matzo to him before the holiday.
Abayudaya means "People of Judah" in Luganda, a Bantu language spoken widely in Uganda. Their ancestors adopted the Jewish religion a little over a century ago. Their founder, the political leader Semei Kakungulu, renounced his political work for the British Empire and started studying Judaism, gradually developing a full commitment to the religion in the 1910s, bringing along with him other members of his family and extended community who had been studying and practicing with him.
The Abayudaya have faithfully practiced Judaism since then, at times suffering terrible persecution, most notably in the 1970s under the dictatorship of Idi Amin. Amin banned Jewish religious observances, forcibly closed down synagogues and forbade the ownership of Jewish books and Jewish burials — all in an effort to force Uganda's Jews to stop being Jewish.
Since then, the Abayudaya have painstakingly rebuilt their community through profound faith and determination as well as help from Jewish communities throughout the world. Today there are an estimated 2,500 Abayudaya Jews in Uganda — about 97 of them in Jacob's village.
I met Jacob in 2022 through an online class on the biblical Cain and Abel story and the Holocaust that I was teaching. He later emailed me to tell me how intrigued he was by the way in which the story of the world's first murder can shed light on the ugly phenomenon of genocide.
Our friendship has evolved, entangled in a mind-bending paradox: In a fraction of a second, we can write or speak to each other with the miraculous technology of WhatsApp. But members of Jacob's isolated Jewish communitycan't do what Jews in the Western world take for granted: stop by a corner store to buy a box of matzo, the chief symbol of freedom during the Passover holiday for the ritual Seder meal.
Before I met Jacob, my awareness of the Abayudaya Jews was proud but paternalistic and uninformed. I mainly focused on how my religious denomination, Conservative Judaism, was instrumental in connecting this community to the rest of the Jewish people. Since the late '90s, the Conservative movement, along with others, has worked with the Abayudaya, providing support for their ongoing training in religious skills: leading prayers, reading from the holy scroll of the Torah, reading and speaking Hebrew and learning more about world Jewish history and current affairs from which the Abayudaya have been isolated. The movement has also sought to assist the community with funding to spread the word about the presence of the Abayudaya community — for example, publishing a Passover Haggadah that incorporates the Abayudaya's story, music and liturgy.
What I failed to do was focus on getting to know the Abayudaya on their own terms and in their own right.
Jacob's questions to me about the Bible and Jewish theology, and his reports to me about the Jews of Uganda, remind me that the Jewish experience goes far beyond the millions of white, North American Jews of Eastern European descent that we in the United States are used to, and even well beyond the millions of Sephardic Jews and Jews of Middle Eastern ethnic descent known as mizrachi -- Eastern Jews.
Even though the lives of the Jews in Uganda and in other countries can be vastly different, we are all bound together through time and space by simple rituals like eating matzo. Unleavened, flat and crumbly, matzo is referred to in the Hebrew Bible as the "bread of affliction and poverty."
At the Seder's opening, we point to the matzo and declare that this is the bread our Israelite ancestors ate as slaves in Egypt. And after we speak about our links to our ancestors comes the physical act: We consume the matzo, assimilating into our bodies our empathy and solidarity with the poverty, hunger and oppression of our past. Yet we also look past this history of oppression to the hope we share with our fellow Jews also eating matzo throughout the world, in real time, on Seder night.
At the Seder we also declare: Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are needy celebrate freedom together. We make this declaration to our fellow Jews who need our help on the Seder night while also recognizing the universal hope that humanity will find the means to eradicate hunger everywhere.
As I stand in line at the post office with gift boxes of matzo, I reflect that the Abayudaya are giving me a Passover gift as well. Despite the pharaohs of their past and the challenges of their present, these Ugandan Jews — members of my worldwide Jewish community — evince a quiet yet fierce refusal to abandon Judaism. Their steadfastness grants hope to all who wish to live in freedom, free of persecution. For me, that gift of hope is more precious than gold.
Dan Ornstein is the rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, N.Y. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Journey and can be reached at danornstein.com.
Note: This is a version of a story that originally ran on the website of public radio station WAMC.
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