Passover from Albany to Uganda
My friend, Jacob, reaches out to me in Albany, New York, 7,677 miles and many worlds away, from his home in Mbale, Uganda. He is seeking matzah bread for Passover and prayers for his community, known as the Abayudaya, whose pregnant mothers are being devastated by a disease that is killing their babies in the womb. Our friendship has evolved for more than a year, 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 his isolated Jewish community can’t afford matzah for the Passover seder or access quality medical care to prevent their pregnant women from losing their children. The crystal-clear photos and videos that he sends to me reveal starkly and brightly the turbulent mix of steadfast Jewish faith and devastating poverty that are woven into the fabric of his life in Africa.
The Abayudaya are a community of mostly Bagwere tribal descent. They have practiced Judaism for over a century, at times suffering terrible persecution, most notably in the 1970’s under the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin. Abayudaya means “People of Judah” in Luganda, a Bantu language spoken widely in Uganda. Before I met Jacob through an online class that I was teaching, my awareness of the Abayudaya Jews was proud but paternalistic and uninformed. I focused almost entirely on the extensive achievements of my religious denomination, Conservative Judaism, in connecting this community to the rest of the Jewish people, not on the Abayudaya themselves. Jacob’s questions to me about the Bible and Jewish theology, and his reports to me about the Jews of Uganda, force me to remember that the Abayudaya are an integral part of the worldwide Jewish community. The vast Jewish experience is not the exclusive domain of largely white, North American Jews of Eastern European descent. The painfully graphic photos and videos Jacob sends me portray with an almost eerie informality all Ugandans’ struggles with nature, disease and hunger. They warn me of the danger of our treating Africa as an afterthought and of ignoring its millions of citizens -Jewish and non-Jewish, who lack the necessities upon which we in the West would insist for ourselves.
As I prepare for the Passover holiday, I’m thinking a lot about the Passover matzah I’ve sent his community over the last two years.
Unleavened, flat and crumbly, matzah is referred to in the Hebrew Bible as the “bread of affliction and poverty”, which is consumed during the Passover seder meal. Like all rituals and ritual objects, eating matzah connects us to our fellow Jews, vertically through time and horizontally through space. At the seder’s opening, we point to the matzah and declare that this is the poor man’s bread of affliction which our Israelite ancestors ate as slaves in Egypt. The verbal act of speaking about our links to our ancestors is later replaced with the physical act of eating: we consume matzah-as-symbol, 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 matzah throughout the world, in real time, on seder night. At that time, we also declare: let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are needy celebrate freedom together.
Standing online in the post office with a large, taped box of matzah bound for Uganda, I imagine sharing this vertical and horizontal solidarity with Jacob and the Jews in his village so distant from me. Western or African, wealthier or poorer, white or black, we all descend from the Israelites of Egypt: their experience of slavery and redemption established the basic standards of human decency that no one should be a slave to any Pharaoh, whether political or nutritional. And we all are bound together across tremendous distances, as Jews, as members of global humanity, seeking to nourish each other with the great hope that hunger, hatred, and the heartache of mothers who lose their children will forever cease.
It’s not my intention to exoticize the Abayudaya as “magical Jews of color” onto whom I and others project our own Western fantasies and stereotypes. They are people with the same - and worse - problems as other groups of human beings. Nonetheless, standing online in the post office, I’m overwhelmed by the miraculous asymmetry between what I’m giving to my Jewish brothers and sisters in Uganda and what they are giving to me. For all its symbolic force, the matzah I’m sending to them doesn’t amount to more than unleavened breadcrumbs. The Ugandan Jews’ quiet, yet fierce refusal to give up Judaism, despite the Pharaohs of their past and present, grants me inspiration and hope that is more precious than gold.
Dan Ornstein is the rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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