‘Engaging’ Look Back on a Vanished Jewish Community

By RUTH SCHWEITZER

Janice Masur grew up in the Ugandan capital of Kampala’s tiny Ashkenazi Jewish community in the 1950s, at a time Uganda was part of British East Africa and African independence movements were close to ending British colonial rule.

At its largest – in 1957 – Kampala’s Ashkenazi Jewish community numbered 23 families, about 60 people in all, Masur writes in Shalom Uganda: A Jewish Community on the Equator (Behind the Book, 2020), a community history and memoir. Unsurprisingly, they found it difficult to form a minyan.

Masur was born in Asmara, now in Eritrea, in 1944, to Lily Janes, a Londoner who had immigrated to Palestine in 1935, and Helmut Masur, who escaped from Germany to Palestine before the Nazis rose to power. Masur’s parents met in Haifa and married in 1936. 

In 1942, they left Haifa for Asmara for better job opportunities, Masur writes. “Also causing my parents angst were the German troops in the Caucasus and Rommel with his fast-advancing Afrika Korps moving eastward through Egypt and toward the Suez Canal and Palestine.”

Janice Masur

Her father left Eritrea in 1949 to look for work in Kenya, a popular destination for Jewish immigrants, but he was unable to afford the 50-Pound tariff required for a would-be settler. A Jewish businessman from Nairobi hired Masur’s father to manage the isolated Kampala Tile and Brickwork outside Kampala Township, in a tropical forest.

At the brickwork, Masur’s mother found rats bouncing and cavorting in the ceiling of their home, a tin-roofed shack. “Nor was she pleased to find a snake curled up at the base of the toilet one day and later one curled up in her sewing basket,” Masur writes. On top of that, “there were malarial mosquitoes aplenty and jiggers (parasitic insects) to burrow into unsuspecting toes if one ran barefoot.”

By 1952, her family’s circumstances had improved – her father had become a car salesman – and they moved to a rented house in Kampala. Their home, on an acre of land, was a tropical paradise, with blooming trees and bushes, and a tall palm that sheltered colourful weaver birds.

Janice Masur (first row, left) with family, in Entebbe Botanical Gardens, 1953

At her new home, Masur recalls her mother screaming at Odera, the family’s houseboy, in frustration at his inability to follow instructions, which, Masur later learned, was a passive show of rebellion against British rule.

Her father was part of a volunteer European auxiliary police force, organized because the community feared political unrest. “Armed only with a truncheon, he was to help keep the white population safe in case of African agitation for better work conditions or a potential political motive,” she writes.

Once, during a family holiday in Kenya, the men at their hotel were asked to join a special police corps to patrol the area. No incident occurred, “but the writing was on the wall, a warning about the future,” Masur says in the book. “My family began to discuss where to go when we were able to leave Uganda.” Masur’s family left for New Zealand in 1961.

While Masur does touch on the white population’s relationship with the Black majority in 1950s Uganda, the book’s focus is her little-known Ashkenazi Jewish community.

Meticulously footnoted, it’s an engaging read about a Jewish community that exists mostly in the memories of the people who were once part of it.

Some antisemitism did exist in 1950s Uganda, affecting admission to certain schools, housing choices and job opportunities. But the Kampala Jewish community was widely accepted by the white population and faced no open religious discrimination, Masur writes.

While there was no religious discrimination, religious observance in such a small community, without a synagogue, a rabbi, a Torah or a burial society was a challenge. Masur’s parents preserved Jewish traditions “as best they could,” she writes, offering their house for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

In 1953, a rare Yom Kippur service led by a rabbi from South Africa was held at her family’s home. “I was nine years old at the time, and I recall having been told by my parents to eat breakfast in the bathroom so that the rabbi would not know that I was not observing the traditional fast,” Masur writes.

“Many years later I learned that children under the age of 12 were permitted to eat on the fast day of Yom Kippur, so it seems that Jewish law was not fully understood. Still, my parents did their best with whatever they remembered.”

Without an organized Jewish community in Kampala, children missed out on a formal Jewish education. Holidays were usually observed without services.

“When somebody died, there were people who could lead a service. Somehow I knew that I was Jewish and my parents made sure that I knew I was Jewish,” Masur told the CJR in an interview from her home in Vancouver.

Masur’s Ashkenazi Jewish community has disappeared without a trace. Even the small cemetery has vanished, overgrown with tropical vegetation, and its headstones destroyed, perhaps during periods of civil unrest in the country, she writes.

Today, a Black Jewish community of 2,000-3,000, the Abayudaya (“People of Judah” in the Luganda tongue), with roots in the 19th century, thrives in Uganda. Kampala friends of Masur’s family, Phil Levitan and Victor Franco, gave the Abayudaya religious instruction in the 1950s.

“These two men might have offered clandestine financial and philanthropic support to this Black community and liaised with the government of Israel to alert it to the existence of the community,” Masur writes.

“In that era, the concept of Black Jews existing anywhere was almost unheard of and incomprehensible,” she goes on. “Their efforts initiated a process that has resulted in the present recognition of these Black Jews by North American Reform and Conservative congregations.”

Shalom Uganda: A Jewish Community on the Equator is available on amazon.ca.