Monday, November 30, 2009

Ugandan Jews and Their Music

I treat music with the same respect I treat herbal medicine. It is a powerful tonic for the soul and the emotions. Some music I will turn away from as I would from poison. Music that promotes degradation in human relationships or idolatry is banished from my consideration.

I live in an ethnically diverse area. Sometimes on a Sunday morning, I pass Afro Carribean and African American churches and the sounds of their songs filters into the street. It is can readily discerned that rhythms and musical forms from Africa shape such music. In secular and religious music, the pull of different parts of Africa can be felt.

Until now, such music, along with Christian classical liturgical music was off limits to me. Listening to music that is intended to warm its listeners to a faith that is not mine is something I pass on. It is counterproductive for me. There is a group in Uganda that practices Judaism and maintains regular contact with Jews abroad . The group is known as the Abuyudaya. A non orthodox rabinnical court has converted them to Judaism. so close are their practices to mainstream Judaism that many orthodox Jews feel they should be welcomed to the Jewish people by an orthodox rabinnical court.

In 1919, a man in Uganda named Semei Kakungulu came to a belief that only that which he knew as the Old Testament was true. From his understanding, he used his position as a community leader to gather followers around his thinking and practices. The group evolved separately from normative Judaism but identified with it and was strictly monotheistic. describes as follows some of the practices of the early Abayudaya.

Being very ambitious with his new unique faith, Kakungulu, his family and all his followers circumcised all their foreskins and declared to observe the mitzvah of Brit Milah from that day onwards, a practice carried on up to this day. With that astonishing act, the neighboring communities were very surprised and Kakungulu's act prompted the neighboring Christian and Muslim communities to refer to Kakungulu and his community as the "Abayudaya abata Yesu" translated as "Jews who murdered Jesus". This was a phrase aimed at discouraging Kakungulu and his followers but as a result of the gentile's criticism of the adoption of the mitzvoth, Kakungulu and his followers would proudly adopt the title Abaydaya - the Jews of Uganda.

Semei Kakungulu, a few days after the circumcision date composed a book of laws that was to govern the Abayudaya - principally based on the Torah. Among the laws were the observance of Shabbat as said in the scripture, "V'shamru B'nei Yisrael Et Hashabbat" (Sh'mot 31:16-17) translated in English as "And the Children of Israel shall keep the Shabbat�"(Exodus 31:16-17)

According to Semei K. Shabbat was a day meant for rest from all manners of handwork and the Abayudaya by that time only went for prayers in the synagogue and thereafter would turn to Kakungulu's home (which was by then called a palace) for drinks and eatables that were prepared the day before Shabbat. No community member was to be found working on Shabbat and who ever was discovered doing so was answerable to Kakungulu's court of law. Other laws included respect and separation of women while in nidah (menstruation period) as well as the other laws of family purity found in the Torah. However, of all the laws the observation of Shabbat was the most paramount one.

The group encountered resistance and hostility from their Christian and Muslim neighbours yet persevered in their faith. Under the regime of Idi Amin, their religion was banned. Many were forcibly converted to Islam. Others were killed. When Amin was overthrown, the Abuyudaya started returning to the open practice of their faith. They have readily accepted the commandments to which they are introduced by Jews from abroad who come to visit them. Groups like Kulanu with its web site have reached out to help the Abuyudaya. Another group, Shavei Yisrael has a list of groups of people around the world who are descended from communities that became estranged from Judaism and are now returning. There is enough work to keep many such organisations busy. My only skepticism towards Kulanu is the conviction that non orthodox strains of Judaism have led to the assimilation of many Jews, and that exposure to traditional Judaism should be an option for those who are exploring Judaism.

The Abuyudaya have suffered for their faith as have few people I can think of. There is a sincere and heartfelt quality that carries over into their music. I consider them to be role models in faith and tenacity. I treasure their music as spiritually and emotionally uplifting. It opens one branch of African religious music to those like me who refrain from that music which promotes foreign worship.

I hope to stand by the Western Wall with my brothers from the Abuyudaya community. They have watered their fields with thears. May it be G-ds will that they soon reap joy. Sphere: Related Content

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