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Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda
February 13 - March 23, 2003

Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda features more than 80 color photographs by Richard Sobol, combined with recordings of traditional music made by Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, director of the Hillel Foundation.

Longtime friends, Summit and Sobol, a 1976 graduate of the joint Tufts/School of the Museum of Fine Arts program, traveled to Uganda to document the community and develop not only an exhibition but a book as well. Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda, includes a CD of field recordings and liner notes by Summit that capture the rich cross-cultural mix of African and Jewish sound. The book was published in the fall of 2002 by Abbeville Press.

“I love the way that the Abayudaya Jewish community challenges so many stereotypes about what it means to be Jewish,” said Summit, an ethnomusicologist. “Here we have a deeply committed group of Bantu people leading deeply committed Jewish lives, observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, observing all the holidays. They are drawn to Jewish practice through their love of Torah and their commitment to the unity of the Jewish people. While the Abayudaya survived persecution and repression during the brutal rule of Idi Amin, they now have strong, productive relationships with their Muslim and Christian neighbors. This is a story of hope, of faith and commitment.” For photojournalist Richard Sobol, whose assignments have included photographing the mountain gorillas of Uganda and the great gray whales off the east coast of Mexico, the exhibition grew out of a singular experience three years ago. A friend happened to play a recording of the Hebrew prayer “Lecha Dodi” (“Welcoming the Sabbath”) sung by the East African singers.

“I couldn’t believe it was for real,” he recalled. “There was no African context to imagine a group of orthodox practicing Jews that were virtually unknown. From there, my interest grew deeper and deeper.”

To recapture that experience in the gallery, Abayudaya music of worship and celebration will be integrated into the exhibit. Listening stations at strategic locations will provide visitors an unusual opportunity to simultaneously experience cultural context for the music and the photographs.

“The instrumental music and the community’s singing in Hebrew and Luganda join with the photographs to add depth and vibrancy to the portrayal of this unique community,” said Summit.

The project, funded by philanthropist Dr. Bob Shillman and Tufts, is expected to travel to other institutions, including Plymouth State College and Choate Rosemary Hall.

— Tufts Magazine, Winter 2003 issue

Image: Richard Sobol
Samson Wamani in the doorway of his home in Pallisa
Courtesy of the artist