WHO’S A JEW?
Across the Sabbath River By Hillel Halkin – Houghton Mifflin 382 pp.; $ 28
Though his initial investigations left him dubious about claims that a Lost Tribe had been discovered in India, a trip there convinced Hillel Halkin that he’d located descendants of the tribe of Manasseh
The so-called lost tribes of Israel, the Jews carried off by Assyria in the 8th century BCE, have been traced to everywhere. Scholars, crackpots and racists with various agendas have claimed that the Tribes’ descendants include the English, the Welsh, the Armenians and any number of more exotic peoples scattered across the globe.
Writer and distinguished translator Hillel Halkin’s frustrating and over-long book is the latest chapter in the centuries-old fascination with tracing the supposed migrations of those lost Jews.
In 1998, he traveled to China, Thailand and Northeastern India with an Israeli rabbi dedicated to finding the Lost Tribes, returning empty-handed. Halkin’s own later return to India to provinces bordering Burma proved more personally compelling.
Halkin believes that members of at least one tribe, Manasseh, migrated to southeast Asia, where their descendants preserve traces of their Biblical past in various cultural references, particularly in calling themselves Children of “Manmasi.” There are some other parallels that weren’t convincing to this reader, including a song about the parting of a red sea, reports of seventh-day mock circumcisions, and supposed parallels between ancient Hebrew words and words currently used by the peoples he investigated, the Mizo and Kuki.
The problem with any of Halkin’s conclusions is that before he reaches them, he has debunked so many other “lost tribalists” who ventured their own fervid conclusions before him, that it’s hard to take his evidence seriously. The book reads more like the fever dream of someone who’s succumbed to the fantasy of connecting to lost Jews than a convincing presentation of evidence in the context of a travel book/detective story.
Halkin’s earlier working hypothesis in the book is just as likely: These people owe their belief that they descend from the Israelites to Christian missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries. Bringing a new religion that elevated the locals above their Muslim, Hindi and Buddhist neighbors, the British also offered education, modern health care, and association with “a British ruling class” – if they converted. But the converts had lost touch with their roots in taking on Christianity, and ironically, in discovering earthier and more dramatic stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, they could claim that they were actually ancient Israelites reborn, not Christian converts.
“Across the Sabbath River,” whose title refers to the river in rabbinic literature beyond which the lost tribes had been exiled, is a sometimes numbing book. Despite the glossary, and even if one reads slowly, one is still likely to stumble into a fog of foreign names that rises up to cloud the narrative. Here’s an example, quoted in its entirety to capture the full effect. Halkin is meeting with one Zaliana, from a Tribal Research Institute. They are discussing, among other things, whether local usage of the term “children of Manmasi” is really a corruption of Manasseh, indicating a local people’s descent from a lost tribe.
“To the best of his knowledge, the Hmar form of Manmasi was not a corruption but the original name. He disagreed, however, with the assumption, made by Vimson in ‘Zo History’ and Padaihte in ‘The Education of the Hmar People,’ that Manmasi was the Hmars’ first ancestor. In Hmar tradition this was Luahpuia, who lived five generations after Minminha and Chinhila, the supposed progenitors of all Mizos. Zaliana questioned the antiquity of the red sea song, too. Most of the oldest Mizo folk songs were in Lai, more correctly known as Pawi, and that song had no Pawi version. Pawi was closest to the original speech from which all Mizo dialects had developed. The oldest of these dialects was spoken by the Hmar. They were the pioneer group to break away from the other tribes by migrating from the Chin hills into present-day Mizoram, near Champhai, in the sixteenth century, first moving along the Tuipui River valley in a southwesterly direction before turning and heading north through the Lushai Hills. The word hmar means ‘northerners.'”
In passages like these, it’s almost as if Halkin is unconsciously parodying the fanatical lost tribalists, bombarding us with detail to make or dispute a point, but unable to recognize when to stop. A conscientious editor would have radically pruned the overgrown narrative: the opening chapters, for example, in which Halkin follows dull dead ends in China and Thailand could have been drastically condensed.
Halkin writes movingly about the touching and pathetic longing for Israel expressed by people he met on his journey, his descriptions of dense jungle and towering mountains are quite appealing, and he’s good at sketching comic cross-cultural misunderstandings. But he deprives the book of real drama by seemingly reporting every trivial and frustrating conversation he had. The last thing we should be thinking while we read this book is a weary, “Who cares where the Lost Tribes are?”
Lev Raphael is the book critic for NPR’s The Todd Mundt Show.