In Search of Uganda’s Incredible Jews

December 28, 2018

5 min read

The name Entebbe is one that conjures indelible images for most Israelis. In 1976, an Air France plane with 248 passengers on-board was hijacked on its way from Tel Aviv to Paris. The hijackers eventually flew the plane to Entebbe, Uganda – the place where Israel launched one of the most daring rescue missions in military history. It was also the place where Yoni Netanyahu – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s older brother – was killed in action. Whereas once, Uganda may have been viewed as unsafe for Jews, this can no longer be said.  Well for at least the one tribe of Jews that lives here.

Having landed, our group piled into a small car and drove the 225 kilometers to our destination, but it didn’t take us more than about eight hours.

A narrow road, (they drive on the left side here), packed with motorcycles and cows that cross the street whenever they please, and packed buses that stop whenever there is a road side market place, so the peddlers can surround it from all sides and sell cheap food to the people through the windows.

In the meantime, our driver is stuck helplessly behind, all he can do is honk and honk, hoping that it will push the driver in front to speed up.

The next day starts with morning prayers, morning blessings, the same ones that we recite every morning at home in Israel, then the morning psalms are sung, in a mix of Hebrew and their local tribal language to the beat of an African drum.

You may well ask, how did a Jewish tribe of about 3,000 people ended up in East Uganda? Approximately 100 years ago a British general was appointed to be in charge of East Africa. One day as he was reading the Bible, he asked himself, “why do we not circumcise our male young?”; so he circumcised himself and his family. People began to make fun of them calling them “Jews” and saying that they killed Jesus. His children were not able to go to school with others of their age and they were constantly beaten up and harassed by Catholic neighbors; but their Jewish faith remained strong.

Over the past 20 years, rabbis came and preformed official conversions for them, and now they live in harmony with their neighbors.

Their homes are self-built with mud bricks that they make on site. At almost every group of homes, you can still see the left over piles of bricks that was used. Each home consists of a living room, and two small bedrooms. The walls are bare, no shelves, no pictures, and almost no furniture. In the bedrooms lie thin mattresses on the floor for people to sleep on.

Every morning and evening, the girls walk to the nearby watering hole to draw fresh water. You are considered lucky and living on prime real estate if you only have to walk 100 meters to the watering hole.

Until recently, everyone had to walk at least a mile  through the swamp lands, and draw water from a spring, but now the government has drilled holes and installed hand pumps so people have access to clean water closer to their homes.

“It has made our children lazy and spoiled when we have a water pump so close to our home, ” one of the mothers told me. Meanwhile, I think to myself how my kids are too lazy to walk to the fridge, or even fill up the ice tray so that their water will be freezing cold, because supposedly it is undrinkable otherwise.

The water pump is also the community hang out, so, I am told it is where one is most likely to find one’s spouse. The biblical echoes called to me loudly; just like Eliezer found Rebecca, Jacob found Rachel, and even Moses met Tsipora. here to, the local. It is inspiring and comforting to see a millennia old ritual still being played out today.

Here you will see girls placing 20 liter jerry cans on their head – and then setting off for home.

This water will be used for drinking, cooking, washing dishes, and even showering.

In every compound there is a small separate room – a kitchen – in which you can see the burning smoke marks from the sides of the windows.

A tiny room, with three bricks in the corner and a little twig fire lit with a pot sitting on top. The father of the family that I visited has many rice fields. One can tell that his children are not wearing torn clothes and in the pot on the fire, kosher goat meat is cooking.

Twice-a-week, one of the community’s two shochets (ritual animal slaughterers) – who actually trained in Israel for a whole year – perform the kosher slaughtering process. The meat is then salted with kosher salt, ready to be cooked and eaten.

There are of course no fridges, or even power so you have to eat it up pretty fast.

I asked how they keep the food warm on Shabbat (Sabbath), they said that for Shabbat day, they have to eat the food cold, because they have no way to heat it up.

In most of the yards, when we came in, there was a woman doing laundry, in to pails, scrubbing the clothes with a bar of soap then hanging them across the yard or drying them on nearby bushes.

Each person has two pairs of regular day clothes, and one for Shabbat. Many of the children in the village, wore torn clothes, some of them without any shoes or sometimes only one.

I met a 14-year-old girl named Ruth. “Why do you only have one shoe?” I asked.  “No money,” came the reply. So, how much do shoes cost? About 5,000 shillings – or a little more than $1.

Leaving this tiny Jewish community on the long drive back to Entebbe my mind was filled with mixed feelings.

A Y Katsof stands with members of the Jewish community in East Uganda. (Credit: A Y Katsof/Heart of Israel)

Here is a community, which converted to Judaism more than 100 years ago and lived Jewish lives under many hardships. Most likely our Jewish ancestors from thousands of years ago lived lives very similar to this. The support and connection of these people to the Jewish community in Israel is very lightly felt. I would think the most natural thing for us to do would be to give them at least minimal support to help facilitate a stronger connection between them and Israel.

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