BOOKS OF THE TIMES; A Quest for a People Who May No Longer Exist

In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel
By Hillel Halkin
Illustrated. 394 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $28.

About 1,100 years ago, a Hebrew-speaking man named Eldad Ha-Dani appeared before the Jewish community of Tunisia and gave it the remarkable news that he belonged to the biblical tribe of Dan, one of the fabled 10 lost tribes of Israel. He lived, he said, in ”the fertile and gem-rich ‘land of Havilah’ near ‘the seven kings of Cush’ — the biblical name for Ethiopia” — alongside three other lost tribes, Naphtali, Gad and Asher.

For Hillel Halkin, author of ”Across the Sabbath River,” which is also an amazing tale of a lost tribe, Ha-Dani was the first to give the lost tribes a geographical identity, even if he himself was probably an impostor and the tribes he claimed to live among did not exist. In the centuries that followed, as Mr. Halkin shows in some fascinating background chapters, the lost tribes generated an enormous wealth of claims and speculation. But near the end of the 19th century, critical scholarship put to rest the notion that any of the tribes — sent into exile by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser in the eighth century B.C. — still existed.

”Where are the 10 Tribes?” the Jewish Orientalist Adolf Neubauer asked in a book in 1889. ”We can only answer, Nowhere.”

Not so fast, says Mr. Halkin, an American-born Israeli journalist and translator who in his way is a latter-day Ha-Dani, though clearly no impostor and also thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Western skepticism. In this learned book, rich in both geographical and intellectual adventure and spiked with wry wit, Mr. Halkin argues, contrary to his own expectations, that an actual lost tribe might really still exist. The people who deserve this designation — and who energetically claim it for themselves — are the Kuki, a Tibetan-Burmese group that lives in Manipur State in the arm of India between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

In fact, the Kuki are one of several groups in Manipur and neighboring Mizoram — the Mizo and the Chin are the main others — who not only believe themselves to be descendants of the biblical lost tribes but believe themselves to be Jews as well. They have a first ancestor, Manasia, whose name, they say, derives from the tribe of Manasseh. They arrived in what is now northeast India after long peregrinations that took them first to China, where, they believe, the emperor forced them to work on the Great Wall and burned their Torah scroll.

In recent years, having decided to assert their historical identity, they have built synagogues in which they conduct Hebrew prayers. They have formed organizations with names like Chhinlung Israel People Convention, which has 100,000 supporters and chapters in 280 villages, says its president, Lalchhanhima Sailo. The group has petitioned the United Nations to recognize its lost-tribe status. It also has a spiritual leader, an Israeli rabbi from Jerusalem, Eliahu Avichail, who has spent decades searching remote corners of Asia for descendants of the lost tribes.

Mr. Halkin himself started seeking them in 1998 when he accompanied Rabbi Avichail on an expedition to southwest China and northern Thailand, a trip that allows him to demonstrate his flair for evocative travel writing. Continuing with the rabbi to northeast India, Mr. Halkin discovered the communities that have attached themselves to Rabbi Avichail as their mentor and lawgiver and that fiercely long to be accepted as Jews and to enjoy the right of return to Israel. A year later, Mr. Halkin, still reflecting on the people he met in northeast India, went back to write a book about them.

”Either a Tibeto-Burmese people in a remote corner of southeast Asia had a mysterious connection with ancient Israel, or they were the victims of a mass delusion,” he writes. ”Either way, there was a story to be written.”

For the most part, Mr. Halkin believes more in the mass-delusion explanation than in any historical connection to biblical Israel. He methodically interviews community leaders and elders trying to see if there is any more than a coincidental similarity between old tribal rites and Judaism. The task is made difficult because 50 or so years ago, most of the Mizos and Kukis were converted to Christianity, so the old rites, belonging to what the local people call the old religion, have fallen into abeyance.

Mr. Halkin finds some of the most active purveyors of the lost-tribe idea to be little more than charlatans, and for many of its pages, ”Across the Sabbath River” is more a tale of desperate identity search than it is about real lost tribes. For example, he meets with the argument that in Kuki folklore there is a great bird of prey identical to the roc of the ”Arabian Nights,” and since the roc is not native to Manipur, Mr. Halkin’s interviewee maintains, this proves his people come from the Middle East.

”As it stood,” Mr. Halkin writes well along in his investigation, ”I was one more unsuccessful Lost Tribe hunter.”

Then, when he was about to give up, he met Khuplam Lenthang, a doctor who had spent decades collecting local folk tales and collating them into a single volume called ”The Wonderful Genealogical Tales of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo.” Reading that book in translation, Mr. Halkin realized that Dr. Khuplam was an extraordinary figure who had carried out extraordinary ethnograhic research. No ”Arabian Nights” rocs here, but rather, strong evidence of old religious practices and terms that seemed unexplainable except by recourse to a lost-tribes theory.

But let Mr. Halkin himself provide the persuasive and closely examined details, which come at the end of a book that has many delights, a variegated cast of characters and a conclusion stimulating many thoughts about the persistence of ancient behavior and belief.


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