presentense article text

in case you don’t have google wave yet, here’s the full text of our PresenTense article.  enjoy!  it touches on a few of the issues that we’ve explored in different ways in various posts.  let us know what you think!


mindy feldman and beruria steinmetz-silber

We pulled up to Putti village, Uganda, on a Wednesday morning in late June. We had barely arrived when children surrounded us, kneeling down to shake our hands. “You are most welcome” was one of the first things we were told, and told again and again. We were taken by their warm hospitality, and began to embrace their behavior. It was only later on in our trip, as deeper philosophical issues arose, that we began to question our adoption of their values and behavior, and what role our own values should play in our interactions with the community.

We began to settle into the three-room mud building that soon became our home. We unpacked our bags: mosquito nets, Malarone pills, and heavy duty water filter bottles for our protection; Heschel, Jack Kerouac, and Junot Diaz for familiarity and enjoyment; and donated siddurim (prayer books), benchers we had snagged from a friend’s wedding, a set of Mishna Berura and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (books of Jewish law), dry erase markers, and roll-up whiteboard sheets for the teaching we would do and that we would leave with the community when we left.

In our final meeting with the community, a Putti friend named Moshe, usually very quiet, shared a Ugandan saying that in order to really know a person, you have to eat with him, live with him and work with him. “That’s what you’ve come here to do, and we are truly grateful for that.” Through eating, living, and working with the Putti community, we indeed got to know a lot. When we first arrived, we would share quizzical looks when someone used a maize leaf as a potholder, or when boys held hands as a sign of affection, or when a particularly reckless driver turned to us in the back seat to announce, “Don’t worry, I’m a reckless driver.”

A few weeks in, we became accustomed to many of these day-to-day differences and even began to adopt some of their practices. We found ourselves wiping our own hands on maize leaves when they were sticky with the juice of freshly cut mangoes or using them to hold the roasted duma (maize) we’d just pulled out of the burning coals. It no longer seemed strange that a baby might sit swaddled in blankets in a basin while we sat around shelling beans. In ways we hadn’t been before, we were attentive to small details–the way eyelashes curled differently, or the sound of a lizard crawling on the dried maize plants.

Though the villagers initially kept their distance during more private moments like meals, by the end of our trip, the youth ate in our living room with us, sharing the nicer food the community continued giving us as a sign of honor. They even let us help with laundry, ironing, and cooking challah on the charcoal stove-top, though we never equalled them at hoeing, wood chopping, and searching for lost goats. It seemed fitting that on our last day in Putti, a hen laid an egg on Aryeh’s bedding—and it didn’t surprise us. By then we could recognize the hen’s squawking and burrowing as signs, one of the facts of the life we had since gotten used to in our home away from home.

Our day-to-day life took on a serenity once we got used to the relaxed pace of Ugandan life. But another category of differences was tougher to reconcile. Two of us—both women—had arrived early in Putti; our third counterpart—a man—joined us just over a week later. Our dynamic within the community shifted dramatically upon his arrival. Despite our attempts to explain that the three of us had comparable backgrounds in Jewish education, “Rabbi Ariel,” as he was respectfully called, was given the more prestigious of the roles we had held in our first week, and our roles more limited.

Though Aryeh worked hard to help us keep our previously held roles, we were still faced with the philosophical choices behind the community rabbi’s assumptions and our responses. We struggled with our role as women and whether we should behave as local women or work to expand the participation of women in communal and ritual life.

Traditional Ugandan women kneel down to the ground when greeting men—the village elder-woman even kneeled to greet teenage boys. Our friends in the village reassured us that we didn’t need to follow these norms as visitors. We assured them that we would never bow down to men. But we wondered whether we could truly be a part of Ugandan life, and still not kneel, or was our refusal just another sign of our visitor status?

There is such a shleimut (completeness) to life in Putti. Back home, we contemplate the possibility of integrating some of the values of Putti—the commitment to community, the lack of materialism, and being present to what unfolds, among others—without giving up our commitments to many of our own values and the pros of our lifestyle, from running water to the privilege of being able to pursue our careers of choice.

In Putti, we came to realize that these questions were present within the fibers of the community itself. On our final shabbat in Putti, the chairman of the community got up to deliver a thank you speech. To our surprise and delight, he announced, “When you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” He thanked us for showing the women and girls of Putti that Jewish women can be knowledgeable and practice Judaism in as serious a way as men, and he told the girls to see us as role models of how women could be educated. Perhaps in some ways, this moment served as a model of integration between our values from home and the traditional values of the Ugandan village.

To read more about our trip and to follow up ways in which you can get involved with the Putti Jewish community, visit our blog:


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