November 5, 2010
Taking the long road back home
The road leading to the village of Churachandpur winds through lush and verdant fields. Aside from an occasional military checkpoint, there is little vehicular activity along the thoroughfare in this remote region of India’s northeast.
Located in the state of Manipur, near the border with Burma, Churachandpur is a sprawling complex of stone, wood and bamboo structures interspersed with vast meadows and farmland. The rhythm of daily life is pastoral and tranquil, lending an air of calm to the people who call it home.
It is late in the afternoon, and hundreds of members of the local Bnei Menashe community, a group believed to be descended from one of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel, have gathered in the local synagogue to recite the afternoon prayers, where the men sway back and forth, reciting the words in Hebrew with precision and care. They rise and turn towards the west, facing Jerusalem as they reaffirm their determination to return to the land of their ancestors. When closing one’s eyes and listening to the chazzan recite the repetition of the Amidah prayer, it is easy to forget that one is standing in a synagogue in northeastern India, rather than in London, New York or Tel Aviv.
The story of the Bnei Menashe almost defies rational explanation. Despite being cut off from the rest of world Jewry for more than 2,700 years, they managed to preserve their Judaism. Some 7,000 Bnei Menashe currently reside in the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. Their tradition, passed down through generations, says that they are descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Manasseh, which was exiled by the Assyrians in 723 BCE.
Throughout their wandering, the Bnei Menashe observed Shabbat, practised circumcision on the eighth day, kept the laws of kashrut and upheld the rules of family purity. They even established cities of refuge, where people who had killed another inadvertently could flee, just as the Torah prescribes.
Evidence of the Bnei Menashe’s ancient connection with the Jewish people abounds. On a visit to the community in India, I met with a Bnei Menashe elder named Yossi, a resident of Aizawl, capital of the state of Mizoram, where many Bnei Menashe currently live. Two of Yossi’s uncles served as village priests and, speaking through an interpreter, he offered a detailed description of the ceremonies they performed. His uncles, he said, would don white garments before carrying out sacrificial rites, including one with strings dangling from its four corners, reminiscent of the tallit with arbah kanfot (four corners). In the spring, at Passover time, they would mark an annual festival by sacrificing an animal, but not before smearing its blood on doorways, just as the Israelites had done during the Exodus from Egypt. Indeed, according to Yossi, there was a rule that the priests had to carefully remove the meat from the bones of the animal without breaking any of them, just as the Torah instructs.
Yossi proceeded to chant one of the prayers that his uncles used to utter while conducting the sacrificial ceremony. The words and their biblical origin are unmistakable: Terach, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Red Sea, Marah and Shiloh (site of the ancient Tabernacle and capital of the northern tribes of Israel until the Assyrian conquest). This ancient Bnei Menashe prayer, known as “Miriam’s Song,” parallels the biblical account of the Exodus: “We had to cross the Red Sea, our enemies were coming after us with chariots, the sea swallowed them all, as if they were meat. We were led by the cloud during the day and by fire at night. Take those birds for the food, and drink water coming out from the rock.”
To locals, there is no question regarding the origins of the Bnei Menashe. Lal Thlamuana, a Christian who is the proprietor and principal of the local Home Mission School, has no doubt about the Israelite origins of Mizos (the local name for the tribe from which the Bnei Menashe come).
“Even Christian Mizos believe the Bnei Menashe are descendants of Israel,” he said, proceeding to expound on a number of the community’s ancient customs and traditions, such as circumcision of newborn boys on the eighth day, levirate marriage and strict laws regarding menstruation, all of which are strikingly similar to Jewish law. British colonialists, Thlamuana noted, referred to Mizo people as Lushei, a mispronunciation of Lu Se, which means 10 Tribes. According to the Bnei Menashe, their ancestors migrated south from China to escape persecution, settling in Burma and then moving westward into what is now Mizoram and Manipur.
A century ago, when British missionaries first arrived in India’s northeast, they were astonished to find that the locals worshiped one God, were familiar with many Bible stories and were practising a form of biblical Judaism. Before long, the missionaries succeeded in converting most of Mizoram’s population. Yet many of those same people proudly continued to preserve the tradition that they are descended from the ancient Israelites.
Some, however, did not convert, and remained faithful to the ways of their ancestors. In recent decades, Bnei Menashe have built dozens of synagogues across India’s northeast. They have continued to grow in Jewish knowledge and practice, and hundreds of Bnei Menashe currently study at one of the three educational centres established in Mizoram and Manipur.
Over the past decade, thanks largely to Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based group that facilitates the return of Bnei Menashe and other “lost Jews” to the Jewish people, some 1,700 Bnei Menashe have moved to Israel. There they have undergone formal conversion to Judaism, removing any doubts regarding their status. In March 2005, after I approached Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and asked him to study the community and its origins, Amar formally recognized Bnei Menashe as “descendants of the Jewish people,” and agreed to facilitate their return.
In September 2005, Amar dispatched a rabbinical court to India, which converted 218 Bnei Menashe in Mizoram back to Judaism and, in November 2006, they made aliyah. An additional group of 230 Bnei Menashe made aliyah in 2007, completing the conversion process once there. Recently, two Bnei Menashe scholars have since received rabbinical ordination, while another is a certified religious scribe. In the summer of 2006, more than a dozen young Bnei Menashe served as soldiers on the front lines in Lebanon and Gaza.
For Tzvi Khaute, a Bnei Menashe community leader in Israel, the separation from his family back in India has not been easy. Though he has been living in Israel for 10 years and has successfully been absorbed in the country, he still feels pangs of yearning for his close relatives who remain behind.
One of six children, Khaute’s youngest brother is serving in the Indian army, he has a cousin who is the chief of the Indian police intelligence department in his home state of Manipur and another cousin who is a former government minister. But, as a child growing up in Churachandpur, Khaute recalled, he didn’t pay all that much attention to Jewish tradition. Like most kids, Khaute was more interested in playing soccer with his friends and doing well at school. Nonetheless, even from a very young age, he always knew that by being Jewish he was different. “My grandfather, who was the chief priest of the village, told us that our living in India was only a sojourn and temporary, and that we Bnei Menashe are separate from the rest of the country – politically, socially and ethnically,” he recounted.
His family instilled within him a deep pride and, as he grew up, Khaute began to take more interest in his heritage. He took note of the rituals that he would later learn were in many ways parallel to modern Jewish observance. “Shabbat was always observed as a rest day from work,” he said. “We never mixed milk and meat, and chicken and cattle were slaughtered by the community priest.”
Other Bnei Menashe customs Khaute remembered include a form of circumcision, which was followed by a community feast, a mourning period that lasted 30 days, tithing one-tenth of agricultural produce to sustain the community’s priestly caste and a strict policy against intermarriage.
The community yearned for Zion, Khaute said, but “we thought Zion was in heaven. We didn’t know it was real.” After the creation of the state of Israel, the Bnei Menashe began their struggle to reach the Promised Land. “The first official letter was sent in the name of the Bnei Menashe to [then prime minister] Golda Meir in 1974. We wrote ‘We are Jewish. We want to come back home.’ But we received no answer.”
After his arrival in Israel 10 years ago, Khaute began working in the greenhouses in the village of Sussia. With a degree in economics from India’s prestigious University of New Delhi, he served as the greenhouse’s in-house statistician. In order to deepen his knowledge of Judaism, he spent six years studying Torah part-time at the Machon Meir yeshivah in Jerusalem.
Khaute’s grandparents – who were influential in his initial Jewish reawakening – died before he arrived in Israel, and never fulfilled their lifelong vision of reaching the Promised Land. But he remains confident that the rest of his family and community will soon be able to make aliyah. “We pray and hope for them every day,” he said.
Michael Freund is the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (shavei.org). This article originally appeared on asianjewishlife.org.