A Ugandan Jewish Wedding
Photo Credit: Courtesy Ottinger
The views expressed in this article are the author's and not necessarily those of Brandeis University.
By Rebecca Ottinger '15
I'm standing in a synagogue on Shabbat with my prayer book open to Psalm 150, ready to join in.
It's the same prayer we sing in the U.S., but I hear the fast, pounding beat of a traditional Ugandan drum. Guitar strumming follows, and congregants sway as they sing in a mix of Hebrew and Luganda, the local language in Uganda. I don't know what the words mean, but the connection to prayer and the community is overwhelming.
This was the first of many encounters I had with the Abayudaya peoples of Uganda in early 2022. I learned about the community while visiting a friend living in the country and was determined to visit. I ended up spending several Shabbat weekends with them and even participated in a Ugandan Jewish wedding.
We may have been thousands of miles away, but I felt like I was praying with my Jewish community in my hometown of San Diego. There's a spirit of joy, tradition and learning among the Abayudaya that transcends any one village or country. The community has suffered a great deal to live as a Jewish people, yet despite discrimination and antisemitism, they continue to persevere.
The Conversion of a Chieftan
The Abayudaya (the name means "people of Judah" in Luganda) converted to Judaism in 1919 after the founder, the African chieftain and military leader Semei Kakungulu, read the Torah and decided to adopt Jewish customs and laws. Kakungulu circumcised his sons and himself, and his community in Eastern Uganda began to practice Judaism.
By the 1960s, the Abayudaya had around 1,500 followers, but they suffered great religious persecution under dictator Idi Amin's regime throughout the 1970s.
Synagogues were destroyed, the government prohibited Jewish observance, and many Abayudaya felt forced to convert to Christianity or Islam. By the time Idi Amin left power, there were about 300 Jews left in the community. But the younger generation rebuilt the community back to what it is now, over 2,000 members strong.
The Abayudaya keep kosher, celebrate Jewish holidays, and welcome people from around the world to come and pray. They have nine synagogues spread out across nine villages and are now part of the modern conservative Jewish movement.
The rabbi, Gershom Sizoum, is Ugandan and was ordained by the American Jewish University rabbinical school in Los Angeles. As Sizomu explained in a documentary, "Our Jewish practice is [a] part of us and has become our culture. It has become our tradition."
Shabbat with Drumming and Guitar
On my first Shabbat with the Abayudaya, one of the elder brothers, Seth, greeted me at the bus stop with a friendly smile. He drove along miles of long bumpy dirt roads to get to the village of Nabugoye as I experienced what one Abayudaya woman described as the "African massage" of Ugandan roads.
Upon arriving, I noticed that most houses were made of bricks or timber and mud, typical for Ugandan villages. There were a lot of children sneaking a peek at me, and many were sitting around due to schools being closed from COVID, while others were working to break up rocks for construction.
Nabugoye is the central village of Jewish life in Uganda. The Stern Synagogue, named for an American benefactor, sits at the top of a hill at the village's center, surrounded by large acacia trees. The inside is simple: three long columns of benches, a beautiful bimah (raised platform) and Torahs gifted by U.S. Jewish communities.
I met Seth's wife, Esther, sitting on the front porch feeding their baby. She greeted me with a warm smile and graciously showed me the beautiful handmade jewelry and yarmulkes she and other women sell. I am very grateful for the laughter, smiles and stories that these powerhouse women shared with me. Every day they make everything possible, and they do so with an open heart, strength and hope for the future.
Friday nights, Rabbi Sizomu and his wife, Tziporah, host a Shabbat dinner of chicken, rice, matoke (the staple banana-type food of Uganda) and root vegetables for friends and family, cooked on charcoal stoves outside. Saturdays after services, the community gathers in a large open circle outside and shares their comments and questions about that week's Torah portion.
When Shabbat is over, people change into their everyday clothes and return to their daily chores. Men look for work wherever they can (jobs are hard to find) and women take care of the household and children and other tasks. Most families practice subsistence farming (groundnuts, beans and corn are a few staples).
Gomesi and Josh Groban
The wedding I attended was a welcome celebration for everyone. Around 600 villagers from Nabugoye and surrounding towns attended. The entire day was a tribute to the hard work and foundation laid by the previous generations.
In the morning, I learned I would be an "older sister" in the bride Binah Abigail Nambozo's "introduction ceremony," a traditional Ugandan practice where the two families publicly give permission and blessings for the marriage, including offerings of chickens, rice, flour, beans and other staples to the community. Guests sat under big white tents at tables on either side of the aisle. The introduction ceremony lasted about six hours!
All of the bridal party wore gomesi, dresses with sashes around the waist that go down to the floor. My gomesi was aqua colored with a green sash and puffy shoulders. Binah came out four times during the ceremony, wearing a different gomesi, sparkling jewelry and silver crown for each appearance. She was glowing.
The traditional Jewish wedding ceremony was at the end of the day. The bridesmaids walked down in impeccable off-the-shoulder, floor-length gowns, the men in burgundy suits and bow ties. Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up" played over speakers in Hebrew. The groom, Ariel Eyal Okiror, came down the aisle in a traditional kittel (white robe), and Binah walked down with her mother and uncle in a beautiful white ball gown with lace sleeves.
Binah and Ariel followed the Jewish wedding traditions: walking seven circles around each other, sipping from a glass of wine, delivering prayers, signing the ketubah (marriage contract), and finally, crushing the glass. After a big "mazel tov," the villagers lined up to present the bride and groom with big hugs and wedding gifts for their future life together.
Coming back to the U.S., I felt like I had a new extended family, and a better understanding of the power of community, faith and love.