February 26, 2004
Out of Africa, Into the Valley
When his father was arrested for building a sukkah at a time when Idi Amin had outlawed Judaism in Uganda, Gershom Sizomu paid the arresting scout five goats for his father's freedom.
"My father was kicked and slapped and mishandled in front of us," said Sizomu, who spoke to The Journal in an office at the University of Judaism (UJ). "It was a big setback to our family income, but the five-goat ransom saved him."
Sizomu is now a long way away from that village in Uganda where the arrest happened, and where his family lived for generations as leaders of the 600-member Ugandan Jewish community. As he describes it, the village is a place where "you will not find paved roads like here. The majority of the people are farmers, and everywhere you see people working in the gardens. Life [there] is without electricity or running water."
Sizomu is now a student at the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies at the UJ and a rabbinic intern at Congregation Shomrei Torah in the Valley. He and his wife, Tzipporah, and their two young children are in the United States as fellows of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research to learn more about their faith and to discover how the rabbinic tradition shaped Judaism over the centuries.
Although the Jewish community in Uganda is relatively new, the traditions of the Abuyadaya (Children of Judah) Jews hail from talmudic days. Sizomu's ancestors converted to Judaism in the early 1900s. The conversion happened when Semei Kakungulu, a warrior and leader who aspired to be king, studied the Bible. He found authenticity in the Torah, rejected the Christian Bible and encouraged his supporters to follow his example and break away from the church and the British powers in Uganda at the time. Kakungulu circumcised himself and his sons, and he and his followers converted en masse and started observing the Shabbat. The conversions, though not accepted by Orthodox authorities, are regarded as valid by other denominations.
Still, the country's isolation from the Western world meant that its Judaism was isolated, too. The traditions developed in a vacuum of sorts that was similar -- but not entirely in sync -- with community mores in established communities elsewhere.
"It is hard to categorize the people of Uganda as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform," Sizomu said. "We developed a unique way of practice. For instance, it seems that American Jews don't regard their synagogue as a temple. Traditionally our community regards our synagogue as a temple in the midst of us, and therefore the rules regarding ritual cleanliness have to be followed. If you touch a dead body, then you would need to dip in the mikvah before you go into the synagogue."
There are other differences in practice. The Abuyadaya might have mezuzot on their front doors but not on every door in the house. They eat chicken only because it is the easiest animal to learn to ritually slaughter. However, until Sizomu learned otherwise, they didn't regard chicken as meat, which means they would not use separate meat dishes to eat it on.
"We thought that chicken is not g'di [a kid lamb]," said Sizomu, referring to the biblical verse, "Do not cook a kid in its mother's milk," the source for separating milk and meat in kashrut. "Now I have discovered that chicken is meat, so we have to go into all those details in terms of keeping dishes separate. Previously we only had vegetarian dishes."
Here in America, Sizomu is bringing some African traditions to Los Angeles. When he leads the services at Shomrei Torah, he sings Abuyadaya melodies to the Shabbat prayers.
Tzipporah has been keeping busy, too. She takes Hebrew and computer classes here, and in her spare time has been knitting the big Abuyadaya kippot that are now sold in the Shomrei Torah gift shop, which are becoming the accepted headwear for members there.
When Sizomu's studies are over, he plans to take his new Jewish knowledge back to Uganda and use it reinvigorate the Jewish community there. He has big plans for Judaism in Africa, and he sees his future role as a roving rabbi who will travel the continent and dig out the Jewish souls.
"I will be one of the first real rabbis in Uganda and Africa, when I get back," he said. "My dream is to make Africa Jewish, and it is a very big dream. I want to unite the communities. There are many African societies that believe they are part of the lost tribes and I want to reawaken that."