Long-lost Jews

Long-lost Jews
by Michael Freund / The Jerusalem Post Magazine, March 27, 2002

The road to Aizawl winds perilously through lush green hills, with hair-pin turns and narrow, unmarked lanes adding a tangible sense of danger to the journey. The route passes through numerous villages, many of which are essentially small clusters of makeshift homes built from bamboo, wood and whatever else is available.

After a long and tiring journey, a van carrying four Israeli rabbis pulls up in the town, which is the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram. The visitors stand before a building whose metal roof is crowned by a sign reading "Shalom Tzion Beit Knesset." Dozens of men wearing kippot and tzitzit, and women wearing long sleeves and head-coverings, gather at the entrance, greeting the delegation with Hebrew songs and hearty cries of "Shalom." Many have tears in their eyes as they wave Israeli flags briskly in the air.

The Israeli team, consisting of Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum of the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Eliyahu Avihail of the Amishav organization, and his son Rabbi David Avihail of Mitzpe Ramon, are clearly touched by the scene. After all, they are being welcomed by the Bnei Menashe, a group that claims descent from one of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel.

About 4,500 Bnei Menashe live in towns and villages scattered throughout the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, with a handful in Assam and Myanmar as well. Members of the Mizo and Kuki tribes, they have passed down through the generations the tradition that they are descendants of the lost tribe of Manasseh, which was exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrians in 723 BCE.

A century ago, when British missionaries entered the region, they were astonished to find that the local tribesmen worshipped one God and were familiar with many of the stories of the Bible. Before long, the missionaries managed to convert most of Mizoram's population. Yet many of them, Christians and other tribesmen alike, continue to preserve the belief that they are descended from the ancient Israelites.

A little over 25 years ago a group of Bnei Menashe decided to return to Judaism. They began building synagogues and mikvaot (ritual baths), and undertook to live in accordance with Jewish law. Shortly thereafter, an Indian Jew living in Israel passed along a letter from the Bnei Menashe to Rabbi Eliyahu Avihail of Jerusalem, who seeks out and assists "lost Jews." As founder and director of Amishav (literally "my people returns"), Rabbi Avihail has since been to India six times to investigate the Bnei Menashe. He is convinced of the authenticity of their traditions.

"As I studied the community and learned about its ancient beliefs, I could not help but conclude that they are in fact descended from the tribe of Menashe," says Rabbi Avihail. "They have ancient songs and chants with words from the Bible. For centuries, their children have been taught to sing, "Litenten Zion," which means "Let us go to Zion," even though they had no idea what Zion was." Rabbi Avihail was especially intrigued to learn of the Bnei Menashe's customs, such as laws of family purity, the use of a lunar calendar, and mourning rites - many of which bear a striking resemblance to those in the Bible. "There is simply too much similarity between their customs and ours for it to be coincidental," he said.

In the past decade, Rabbi Avihail has brought some 600 Bnei Menashe to Israel, with the approval of the Interior Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate. Recently he was back in India to introduce his colleagues, Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Birnbaum to the community.

After entering the synagogue in Aizawl, the rabbis join the 100-odd worshipers in afternoon prayer, led in fluent Hebrew by the Bnei Menashe's chief cantor, Eliezer Sela. Sela, a father of nine, has seven children living in Israel, each of whom has undergone formal conversion. "I cannot wait to go to Israel, the land of my forefathers," Sela says, adding, "we pray for its well-being every day."

At the end of the prayer service, Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Avihail address the community, emphasizing the importance of adhering to Jewish law and studying the Torah. Rabbi Riskin speaks emotionally about the need to have faith in God's promise of redemption, and he captures his listeners' hearts by telling them, in the local Mizo dialect, "You are my brothers and sisters."

To locals living in Mizoram, there is no question regarding the origins of the Bnei Menashe. Lal Thlamuana, 45, a devout Christian, who is the proprietor and principal of the local Home Mission School, has no doubt about the Israelite origins of the Mizo people. Thlamuana is a member of Aizawl's elite, speaks fluent English, has traveled abroad, and lives in a grand home brimming with servants. "Even Christian Mizos believe that we are descendants of Israel," he says, and proceeds 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.

The British, Thlamuana notes, referred to the Mizo people as Lushei, a mispronunciation of Lu Se, which means "Ten Tribes" in the language of neighboring Burma. 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 in India.

A sampling of Christian Mizos throughout Aizawl seemed to verify Thlamuana's assertion. Shopkeepers, airport workers, and others, when asked about the origins of the Mizo people, all respond with the same answer: "we are from the Israelites." Mr. Ropianga, a polished receptionist at the government-run tourist lodge in Aizawl, replies matter-of-factly, "Yes, of course we are descended from Israel. Everyone knows this." Though a practicing Christian, he was visibly moved when handed a postcard bearing an Israeli flag on it.

Driving through the streets of Aizawl, it is evident that there is a great deal of identification and support for Israel among the general populace. The main market is located on a thoroughfare called Zion Street, and many shops have names such as "Jewish Store" and "Israel Warehouse," none of which are owned by Jews.

While in Mizoram, Rabbi Riskin and his colleagues met with Mr. F. Malsawma, Mizoram's state minister of law. A devoutly religious Christian, the minister was more than happy to discuss the issue of the Mizos' Israelite descent. "We have a sentimental attachment to Israel, by blood also," he said, noting that "We claim to be Israelites -­ even our church leaders agree."

Malsawma told the rabbis that the government of Mizoram was researching the link between the Mizos and the Jews. "We are in the process of doing the research to see if we are descended from Menashe. Time will reveal the truth." The meeting between the rabbis and the minister led off the local television news that evening.

As part of their visit, Rabbi Riskin and his colleagues also spoke with a large number of people from the Bnei Menashe community itself. One of them, Yossi Hualngo, a 65-year old resident of Aizawl, provided a key piece of the puzzle. Two of his father's brothers were priests who conducted the ancient Mizo rituals prior to the arrival of the Christian missionaries a century ago. Hualngo, speaking through an interpreter, offered a detailed description of the Mizo rites recounted to him decades ago by his uncles. As Rabbi Riskin noted, the similarities with Jewish ritual are startling.

According to Hualngo, his uncles would don white garments before carrying out sacrificial rites, including one with strings dangling from its four corners, reminiscent of the tallit with arba kanfot (the four-cornered ritual prayer shawl) worn by Jews. In the spring, an animal would be slaughtered and offered up as a sacrifice, and its blood smeared on the doorways of people's homes, suggesting the ancient Passover rite. Indeed, according to Hualngo, there was a rule that the Mizo priests had to carefully remove the meat from the bones of the animal without breaking any of them, just as Jewish law requires.

Then, in a remarkable scene, Hualngo proceeds to chant one of the incantations that his uncles had told him they used to sing while conducting important sacrificial ceremonies. The words in the song, and their biblical origin, are unmistakable: Terah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Red Sea, Marah and Shiloh (site of the ancient tabernacle and capital of the Twelve Tribes of Israel until the Assyrian conquest). Those present, Rabbi Riskin included, are stunned. "If anyone doubts the tremendous power of the Jewish soul, if anyone questions the magnificent strength of Jewish traditions, if anyone for one moment would question the eternity of the Jewish people, this proves its strength," Rabbi Riskin says.

"For me, it is surrealistic. I look around,­ I am in India, near the Burmese border, with tremendous poverty all around me, and here are what appear to be contented Jews living a very Jewish life and having one real hope and dream: to come to Israel as soon as possible and rejoin their people. It is the miracle of Jewish survival," he says.

Among the leading proponents of the theory that the Mizos are descendants of Israel is a local Christian scholar, Mrs. Zaithanchhungi, whose husband is a member of parliament. "Many people believe the Mizos are descended from Menashe," she says, adding, "I didnšt believe it at first, but I went throughout Mizoram and spoke to village elders and collected ancient traditions and folklore." She has written a book, Israel-Mizo Identity, which details Mizo customs and compares them with Jewish tradition. Before the advent of Christianity in the area, Zaithanchhungi writes, "the Mizos believed in one Almighty God, the Creator of all things." At family sacrificial ceremonies, they would chant, "God above, we the sons of Menashe, offer you the blood of an animal."

She also quotes an ancient song sung by the Mizos on special occasions, which parallels the biblical account of the Jews' Exodus from Egypt: "We had to cross the Red Sea, our enemies were coming after us with chariots, the Sea swallowed them all, as if they are meat. We are 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."

While in Mizoram, the rabbis visited Bnei Menashe communities outside Aizawl as well, including synagogues in the villages of Vairengte, Kolasib, and Sihphir. In each township, they joined local communities in prayer and study, praising their commitment to Judaism and urging them to learn more about their heritage. After spending three days in Mizoram, the delegation proceeded to the neighboring state of Manipur, where the bulk of the Bnei Menashe live.

Upon arrival in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, the rabbis are taken straight from the airport to a large theater, where over 500 Bnei Menashe have gathered to greet them. The rabbis are presented with flowers, and community dignitaries express hope that the community will soon be allowed to immigrate to Israel.

Manipur itself is a politically unstable region that is home to dozens of underground groups fighting the government. Elections being held contribute to the tension, and the streets of the capital are filled with armed soldiers and policemen in riot gear. Violent protests and riots have recently taken place, though all appears quiet during the rabbis' stay.

Over Shabbat, Rabbi Riskin and the rest of the Israeli delegation stay at Amishav House, a community center and synagogue built by Rabbi Avihail on behalf of the Bnei Menashe. Shabbat services are held, complete with a great deal of singing and dancing.

Rabbi Riskin describes it as one of the most invigorating Shabbats he has ever had. "To see 500 people in a synagogue on Shabbat in Imphal, Manipur, praying with all their hearts, and reading Hebrew and singing magnificent songs - it was just an amazingly inspiring experience."

On Shabbat, the community comes together for a celebration, when the nephew of Bnei Menashe Council general-secretary Lemuel Haokip undergoes circumcision. The ceremony is performed by one of the community's two mohels (ritual circumcizers) and the boy is given the Hebrew name Shimon. Afterwards, the child's proud uncle delivered a lesson on Israel's covenantal relationship with God.

Prior to their return to Israel, the rabbis visited Churachandpur near the Burmese border, where the local Bnei Menashe community is completing construction of its third synagogue. Hundreds of men and women turn out and Rabbi Riskin offers a modest donation for the project.

Asked later whether he believes the Bnei Menashe are indeed descendants of a lost tribe of Israel, Rabbi Riskin says he "was very skeptical about the Lost Ten Tribes... the notion of the Lost Tribes and bringing the Lost Ten Tribes back to Israel always had for me an almost fairy-tale kind of aspect." However, his visit to India seems to have altered his view.

"I have now become convinced from listening to the stories that they record from their grandparents about the ancient customs, and from the fact that their Christian neighbors recognize that they too come from that same background. The fact is it is very difficult not to accept their traditions that they come from the tribe of Menashe," Rabbi Riskin says. "The Bnei Menashe have maintained fundamental ceremonies and practices of Judaism for what seems to be thousands of years, despite the fact that they have been cut off appreciably from the rest of the Jewish people."

Summarizing his impressions of the Bnei Menashe, Rabbi Riskin says, "They have tremendous commitment, a tremendous sense of sacrifice, and tremendous love for Judaism and for the State of Israel. I can't think of better future citizens for our country," he adds.

Those sentiments are sure to bring a smile to the face of Lemuel Haokip and his fellow Bnei Menashe, all of whom are longing to come to Israel. As a child, Haokip recalls that on special occasions, such as a lunar or solar eclipse or upon feeling the tremors of an earthquake, his father would rush out of their home, gaze toward heaven and declare: "The Children of Menashe still live! The Children of Menashe still live!" And so, it seems, they do.

For further information about the Bnei Menashe of India, contact Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, chairman of Amishav, at (02) 642-4606 or via e-mail at: [email protected]

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