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Mangoes, Medjools, & Mitzvahs

This article is dedicated to the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. Yes, there are Jews in Uganda! I first learned about the Abayudaya when I participated in Josh Drazner's bar mitzvah project at our temple (Emanu-El in Dallas). A family friend had told Josh about the poor Jewish community in Uganda that desperately needed a medical clinic. Remembering his own difficult childhood (Josh had been abused and neglected before being adopted into a loving Jewish home), he decided to help his fellow Jews by raising funds to build a clinic that would serve the entire Abayudayan community--Jews, Christians, and Muslims. With the assistance of twenty volunteers, all from Emanu-El, Josh organized an auction of paintings, photographs, blown glass, and sculptures donated by more than fifty artists. I bet you can guess who coordinated the food?!

Unlike the Jews of Ethiopia, the Abayudaya--Ugandan for "the people of Judah"--are not an ancient Jewish community. They trace their Jewish roots to Semei Kakungulu, a Ugandan tribal chief who in 1919 began studying a Bible he'd received from a Christian missionary, and then decided that the whole tribe should adopt a new religion--Judaism. Ever since, the Abayudaya have observed Shabbat, circumcised their newborn sons, and learned Hebrew from Jewish visitors. In 2002, half of the community formally converted to Judaism, and last year their rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, was granted a visa to Israel to continue his studies. Now, under the strong spiritual leadership of J. J. Keki, an affable man in his mid-fifties, this now 750-member farming community, which has no running water or electricity, has managed to build a successful coffee enterprise (their Mirembe Kawomera coffee is available at

I met J. J. Keki when he came to Dallas to attend the art auction. During Shabbat services he led our congregation in prayer, and at the oneg he led us in song, teaching us new tunes to familiar prayers. Afterwards, the two of us sat down and talked. Soon our conversation turned to holiday foods, and (always thinking of my Reform Judaism readers) I asked him what dishes are served in his village on Sukkot. He looked at me a little puzzled, not because he didn't understand the symbolic foods of Sukkot, but because he took my words literally--the Abayudaya don't eat "dishes"; they eat food. It turns out that the "food" of choice to eat in an Abayudayan sukkah is jackfruit, a green fruit which can sometimes weigh as much as 100 pounds. An unripe jackfruit's flesh and seeds are used in cooked dishes; with ripe jackfruit, the bulbs are separated from the "rag" (inedible flesh) and eaten as dessert--it's a perfect accent to ice cream or fruit salad. If you've had any experience with fresh jackfruit, you'll be relieved to know I'm not suggesting you use it! Extracting the bulb from its inedible housing--massive numbers of small leaves resembling the choke of an artichoke--is a chore akin to removing the seeds from a pumpkin while avoiding the stringy mass. Fortunately, canned jackfruit is available in Asian food markets--all you have to do is open the can and drain the fruit.

Utilizing the fresh fruits and vegetables readily available in Uganda, I have devised some "Ugandan Fusion" recipes you can enjoy in your sukkah. And as you delight in these dishes, you can think of our brothers and sisters in Uganda as this year's ushpizim (visitors).

May we continue to take pride in the diversity of the Jewish people. And may we eat in good health!