ZION ON THE MYANMAR BORDER
On a rare visit to the B’nei Menashe of northeast India, Tibor Krausz meets members of the ‘Lost Tribe’ of Mizos and Kukis, who are pursuing Judaism with a rapidly deepening fervor as they wait to make aliyah.
The hand-painted letters on the shutters of the “public phone service” announce “Sabbath close.” On any other day, locals can call long distance for 42 rupees a minute (around $ 1) from the worn touch-tone phone at this little convenience kiosk. But today is Shabbat and the booth’s owner is at home in a sparse cinder-block cubicle at the back, which serves both as a tin-pot kitchen and a single-cot bedroom, and is dissected diagonally by the underside of stairs belonging to the residence above. She’s a petite woman in a knitted white cloche, and is just saying Kiddush over Styrofoam cups of grape juice and chocolate-cream biscuits, beneath a photocopied pin-up of the Ten Commandments rendered into the Mizo tongue.
She then recites the Shabbat blessing over her two young sons in phonetically memorized Hebrew: “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” She utters it matter-of-factly; the words, however, are plenty poignant: 35-year-old Esther Thangluah believes herself to be a far-flung descendant of the Biblical Manasseh, father to one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. She’s now reclaiming that ancient heritage as a member of the 5,000-strong B’nei Menashe (Children of Menashe) community living in the adjoining states of Mizoram and Manipur in northeast India.
Teardrops escape from her eyes. “I always cry in longing to return to Zion,” she apologizes through her interpreter, Elisheva Zodingliani, 45, a fellow B’nei Menashe. “But I’m crying tears of joy.”
Zodingliani, too, begins to weep. “With all our hearts, souls and minds,” she says, “we’re children of a Lost Tribe.” Bespectacled and prissy, Zodingliani resembles a schoolmarm; indeed she homeschools some 30 fellow Mizos in basic Hebrew and publishes Israel Tlangau (Israel Herald), a thick newsletter carrying primers about Jewish customs, news from Israel and B’nei Menashe community updates. “Please let us go to Israel,” she pleads. “We’re strangers here, feeling in exile in our own homeland.”
Thangluah, a one-time Seventh-day Adventist, found Judaism in 1992 after, she says, receiving a recurrent vision in which she saw the Mount of God sheltering the Chosen of Israel in an apocalyptic thunderstorm. She was living in Ratu, her native village in northern Mizoram, where four decades earlier a Pentecostal Christian called Chala, “the Mizo Prophet,” had received his own vision about an angel who revealed the Mizos to be a Lost Tribe. Chala’s vision inspired a spiritual movement that has since transformed the life of a once isolated, inward-looking people. Convinced she was spiritually a Jew, Thangluah began searching for an observant B’nei Menashe community and in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, she’s found one.
“We pray to Hashem every day to help us return to Israel,” she repeats. “We” means she and her sons, Dael, 11, and Samson, 7. The boys, who wear crocheted yarmulkes and tzitzit, speak with a gravity far beyond their age. Earlier this year they had their circumcision, they say. “My mommy told us we had to obey Pathian,” explains Dael, using the Mizos’ traditional name for God. “I want to follow His laws and teach others to do that too. I want to be a rabbi.”
Dael and Samson study full time in the nearby Amishav Hebrew Center, a four-story yeshivah run by the eponymous Jerusalem-based outreach organization, which serves for B’nei Menashe students as a latter-day incarnation of the traditional zawlbuk (bachelors’ dormitory), where Mizo youth once learned their lessons for their tribal rites of passage. But these boys now receive their formative ideas from Orthodox Judaism; only doodles of Batman crayoned on the pockmarked wall above their shared bed betray alternative dreams. “I teach my sons they’ll have to become soldiers and defend Israel,” says Thangluah between singing Hebrew songs and tending to her meager crop of edible hibiscus, bitter cucumber and balsam-apple sprouting from tin oil cans on her asphalt roof “garden.” “I’ll die happy if I can die in Jerusalem.”
Around the Indian state of Mizoram, a mountainous strip of land wedged between Myanmar and Bangladesh, lush primordial forests lurk at the edges of human habitation to reclaim soil lost to rice paddies and patches of squash, sugarcane and mustard. Aizawl, its mountaintop capital lying at 4,000 feet and housing 180,000 souls (whose name, curiously, means “lowland ginger”), spreads across the hills like a sprawling montage of slapdash alpine mock-ups. Crowded together in suffocating clusters atop the ridges of ravines and gorges, the concrete bungalows and the shanties banged together from weathered planks, tin sheets and plasterboards appear like synthetic fungi on a crumpled green bedspread. They cascade down precipitous hillsides or balance precariously beyond the rim of rock ledges with only long stilts holding them back from free fall into the abyss.
Look closer, though, and Aizawl – whose inhabitants are predominantly pious Christians – takes on the trappings of a surreal Zionist shtetl. The city has localities called Canaan and Beth El, and its main thoroughfare is Zion Street. It’s a busy, zigzagging, up-and-down road on which so many Israel Shops and Stores ply their trade, selling everything from footwear to haberdashery, that they seem like chains (Israel Electricals, Israel Dental Clinic, Israel Hardware…). Behind a bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi stands Solomon’s Cave Shopping Center; adjoining it is Exodus Auto Parts. You can grab a bite at Moses Snack Bar, book a tour at Joshua Travel, buy a new getup at Isaac Ready-Made Store, get a timepiece at Joseph Watchmaker. The Baptist-run SHALOM Medical Center, whose acronym stands for Society for HIV/Aids & Lifeline Operation in Mizoram, treats HIV-positive addicts, who obtain their prescriptions next door at Zion Drug Store. And there’s the Shalom Zion Synagogue – the center of the small community that has taken its fascination with the Torah and Israel to the next level by declaring itself Jewish.
Overlooking a valley covered in huts nestled among giant ferns, the large wood-framed affair with its corrugated iron roof stands on stilts atop the naked concrete skeleton of a far larger synagogue in the making. It’s Friday evening, but today is no ordinary Shabbat. “Mizoram Welcomes Rav Eliyahu Avichail, the Father of B’nei Menashe,” proclaims a sign outside; a solemnly festive atmosphere reigns inside. Wearing knitted yarmulkes, dripping with tzitzit, numerous Burmese and Lao-looking Mizo men strain forward on molded plastic chairs, the better to hang on every word of an elderly Israeli. So, sitting appropriately aside, do the women, parading flashy headscarves, pillbox hats and bonnets, some with toddlers slung like papooses on their backs. (In her zeal to conform to Orthodox Judaism, one young woman has dressed her 2-year-old in a yarmulke and tzitzit – although the toddler is a girl.)
In town for the ninth time since his first visit in 1992, Rabbi Avichail, a 72-year-old Bible teacher turned Lost Tribe hunter from Jerusalem, is regaling them with stories from his worldwide travels in search of lost Jews over the past 20 years. Gesticulating spiritedly with his slender manicured fingers, he tells them how he was taken for a spy in Kashmir. How he broadcast a message on the Voice of America to the Pashtuns of Afghanistan that they were descendants of Jews. And how back in 1979 as rabbi of the Hebrew University, he chanced on a letter from the hitherto unheard-of “Jews of Northeast India” who called themselves the Children of Manmasi.
An originator of that letter is sitting right here. A neatly groomed accountant, Yehoshua Ngaihte, 61, founded the Israel Family Association in 1972, declared its members B’nei Menashe, and appealed unsuccessfully for help to Bene Israel communities in Bombay, to the Jewish Agency, and finally to David Ben-Gurion. “Hashem first revealed to me we were Children of Menashe as I was lying in bed with malarial fever,” Ngaihte recalls. (Shamanist-animists turned Christians, locals attach great importance to their dreams, interpreting them as visions and revelations.) He received his vision in rural Manipur independently, he insists, from Chala’s own vision two decades earlier in Mizoram. In 1979, Ngaihte and a handful of other self-declared Israelites from Mizoram and Manipur wrote to the Hebrew University with a plea for books on Judaism; their letter wound up in the hands of Avichail, who soon became convinced he was dealing with a Lost Tribe.
From a thick manila folder, Ngaihte fishes out his group’s original manifesto, a typed booklet with brittle yellowed pages. It declares in quaint English: “Our Objectives are to strengthen Judaism to live, act and die as what we are – the sons of one of the 10 tribes. Hance we are neither be neglected nor be rejected by our brothers in Yisrael.”
“But we never dared hope we’d achieve so much,” muses Ngaihte, whose 90-year-old father, two sisters and three brothers, all past conversion, now live in Kiryat Arba, the settlement bordering Hebron. “God has blessed us.”
More certainly Rabbi Avichail has. Spearheading Amishav (My People Returns) – which he founded in 1975 on the request of his mentor, Israeli chief rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, with a view to bringing “lost” Jews to the Promised Land – he has single-handedly internationalized the Lost Tribe aspirations of an obscure faraway people, while also entrenching locals in their beliefs. Before he came along, the folk tradition of Mizos (a melange of a dozen interrelated tribes whose collective name means “highlanders”) had maintained that their ancestors emerged from under a rock, the chhinlung, corking up the portal to the underworld in southwestern China, from where they migrated to present-day India around the 16th century.
Avichail thought otherwise. Marrying his Lost Tribe theories to Mizo folk tales, he mapped out the tribes’ putative route from Israel: After wandering through Afghanistan, the Himalayas, Mongolia and Tibet, the Tribe of Menashe fetched up in Kaifeng in central China by the 1st century BCE, he posits. A few remained, becoming ancestors of the Kaifeng Jews (mainstream history traces the origin of Kaifeng Jews to Jewish merchants on the Silk Road a millennium later). The rest decamped into cavernous mountains in Yunnan Province. They would soon flee Chinese persecution to Burma (today Myanmar) and India; en route priests allegedly continued to hand down fragmented Jewish traditions and rituals in songs and stories, some of which would survive in northeast India until the arrival of Christian missionaries.
Invigorated by this rabbinic seal of approval, from the mid-1980s the tiny original B’nei Menashe communities in Mizoram and Manipur started swelling with increasing numbers of Mizos and Kukis (living respectively in Mizoram and Manipur who, along with the Chins of Myanmar, have been collectively called the Shinlung by outsiders). The newcomers announced themselves B’nei Menashe, underwent circumcision, and began observing Shabbat. Much of the larger Christian community also came around to endorsing Israelite descent as several pastors, themselves new converts to the idea of Lost Tribehood, decided to inculcate their flocks with it. “All Mizos love Israel,” asserts Henry Lalbuanga, 34, a shaven-pated burly construction engineer. Lalbuanga says he doesn’t want to renege on his forefather’s Protestantism by converting to Judaism, yet he proclaims: “Trust me, given a chance, any Christian Mizo will come to an Israeli’s rescue. Because of Menashe, our ancestor, we’re bound to our Israeli brothers.”
Others have launched into collecting old folk tales and traditions to comb them for any similarity to Israelite customs in the Bible. They “discovered” their ancestors had been proto-monotheists even before converting to Christianity, offered animal sacrifice to a god called Ya, and invoked the name of a mysterious ancestor called Manmase or Manasia at every ceremonial opportunity. Not even such blatantly non-Biblical tribal customs as headhunting stood in the way of proof. “Didn’t David also cut off the head of Goliath to prove he’d slain him?” asks Zaithanchhungi, 60, the Mizos’ leading homegrown authority on their putative Israelite descent.
Yet for all that, many Mizos, while embracing their self-proclaimed Biblical heritage, clearly feel the need to fortify their beliefs with confirmation by outsiders. “Do you think we’re a Lost Tribe?” is a staple query to Jewish foreigners.
Avichail harbors no doubts. and under his tutelage untold numbers have been fortified in their mounting belief. In 1989, with Mizoram still off-limits to foreigners because of a simmering anti-Indian insurgency, he dispatched a rabbi to Bombay to convert 24 Mizo men and women, who were allowed to make aliyah the same year. “The Mizos aren’t Jewish,” Avichail allows. “Yet they’re descendants of Jews, so after undergoing conversion they must be permitted to return to Israel.” A tireless advocate of the Mizos and Kukis, Avichail has since managed to bring some 800 B’nei Menashe to Israel; already converted, they’re living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. And the rabbi is working hard to bring the rest under the country’s Law of Return – Israel’s government permitting.
In the Amishav Hebrew Center, uphill from Zion Street, the poster of a conceptualized Third Temple hangs over the miniature replica of a traditional Mizo bamboo hut; the placing is coincidental, but not so their implied kinship. Avichail sees the B’nei Menashe’s heady emergence as proof for the end-of-days ingathering of the exiles to Israel, which heralds the coming of the messiah and the construction of the Temple.
The B’nei Menashe in turn revere their mentor and “discoverer” as a latter-day Moses who will lead his long-mislaid flock back to the Promised Land – planeload by new planeload; a new batch of 71 Mizos arrived in Israel last June. “Rabbi Avichail is our beram vengtu (shepherd),” volunteers Eliezer Sela, the community’s 60-year-old cantor who renamed most of his nine children (now between the ages of 20 and 36, all of whom have made aliyah) after “heroes of Israel” – Allenby Sela, Gurion Sela, Rabin Sela. “We were like stray sheep wandering aimlessly in the jungle when the rabbi appeared and found us.”
Former semi-nomads who continue to practice slash-and-burn jhum cultivation, locals have never made a secret of not feeling at home in India, where ethnographers say they arrived from China via Burma only around four centuries ago. Soon after a plague of rats induced statewide famine by devouring rice and vegetable crops in 1959, (interestingly, the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac), they rose against Indian rule. (To this day rebel bands are holding out in Manipur.) They’re strangers in a strange land doubly: a largely forgotten ethnic minority in a poor semi-autonomous hinterland, and a 2-million-strong Christianized community in a country of 1 billion Hindus and Muslims. It’s hardly a wonder they should be in restive search of a defining identity… and Avichail has given them one.
Avichail, an alternately sweet and peppery man (who with his potbelly, snow-white beard and twinkling blue eyes could moonlight as a shopping-mall Santa), mingles among his proteges with the bearing of a Biblical patriarch. He arbitrates and adjudicates, counsels and educates. Right now, his left arm grabbing a Mizo boy, his right arm supporting a man his age, the rabbi is belting out – with a hundred-mouth chorus of merrymakers – “Shabbat Shalom! Shabbat Shalom!”
“I’m 72, and who knows how long I may continue to guide them,” he says, panting. “But with or without me, they’ll have to carry on until they’ve all made aliyah.” Amishav has enrolled five Mizos in Jerusalem yeshivot, soon to return home as rabbis to help bring all of Mizoram’s and Manipur’s B’nei Menashe to Israel by 2010.
“They’re knocking at our national door, asking to be allowed in,” says Amishav Director Michael Freund, once a deputy communications director for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It’s time we let them in. They constitute an untapped demographic reservoir to help us maintain a Jewish majority in Israel.”
Yet Israeli officials remain skeptical Even after the Mizos are converted in Israel, only willy-nilly does the government recognize their right to citizenship. But Avichail is undaunted. “Let the government try to stop me,” he declares. “It’ll crumble before the strength of my beliefs!”
A year ago, Peter Zokhuma quit his job as an electrician for a local World Bank project and by now he’s used up almost all his savings. But in the process, he says, he’s made a priceless investment: As one of Amishav House’s 200-plus full-time students since the building opened its doors last November, Zokhuma, 47, has learned basic Hebrew and schooled himself in Torah studies by help of the dozen (and counting) religious textbooks translated into Mizo. By the dim flicker of candles after a power outage, he pores over his Hebrew primer, side by side with his three sons, the youngest of whom, Mordechai, is only 4. “I trust Hashem to help my family,” says Zokhuma. “I’m fully committed to making aliyah. I’d take a flight to Israel today if I could.”
So would thousands of others. “A wizened old man who was near-blind and leaning heavily on a bamboo stick shuffled up to me and grabbed me by the arm,” recounts Hanoch Avizedek, 40, an organic olive farmer from Ateret, near Ramallah, who’s on a six-week stint in Aizawl as a Hebrew and Torah teacher for Amishav. “The old man said, ‘I’ve walked a great distance just to see a Jewish face perhaps for the last time. Tell me, when can I go to Israel? I’ve been waiting 40 years.’ He cried and I cried too.”
The encounter happened during a tour of Manipur by Avichail and entourage a few days earlier. Rural Manipur, a patchy network of hamlets fashioned from thatch, bamboo and wattle, many of which seem poised to melt back into mud and mulch, is a prohibitively dangerous land. Some two dozen rebel bands prowl the jungles engaging in banditry, running drugs, and staging ambushes on Indian patrols and rival paramilitaries. Into this rolled a caravan of jam-packed buses bedecked in Israeli banners, flanked by armored military jeeps, and announced ahead by blaring Hebrew songs.
Heading up a 200-strong delegation of Manipuri notables and B’nei Menashe groups from Imphal, the state capital, Avichail was calling on his flock in villages with names like He whizzed in and out of hamlets built around thatched mud-walled synagogues often housing little more than wooden menorahs garlanded with dry leaves. He lectured to barefooted subsistence farmers and officiated at services using the locals’ Torah scroll photocopies. And he inspected the memorials erected in his honor, from improvised steles to extravagant obelisks commemorating “the 25th Anniversary Foundation of Judaism in Northeast India.”
“Before I accepted Rabbi Avichail’s invitation to come here, I thought of him as some eccentric Dr. Doolittle,” notes Avizedek, a bearish man who refers to Mizos and Kukis as “my brothers and sisters.” “But the rabbi has worked magic here. People come and touch me as if I was a great holy rebbe just because I’m an Israeli.”
Visible through an open door of Amishav House back in Aizawl, Mizo men are participating in the evening prayer, acting with the confidence of autodidact liturgists blessed with the talents of mimics. “I lectured them on some esoteric points of kabbalah,” says Rabbi Israel Isaac Besancon, 59, a French-born Bratslaver hasid from Beit Shemesh who has accompanied Avichail. A large man with disheveled gray hair topped with a pointed pompomed skullcap, he wears his knee-length beard tucked behind his velvet coat. “Probably they didn’t understand much of it but they listened in rapt attention as if their life depended on it. But look at these small boys” – he indicates four children in approximate ultra-Orthodox garb, cavorting and singing Hebrew songs outside. “We’re in the foothills of the Himalayas and they’re dancing like hasidim in prewar Poland!”
In contrast to Poland, though, stalwart Christians too profess to love everything Israeli. Veronica Zatluangi, a retired Roman Catholic civil servant, runs an orphanage and lives in a gingerbread-style chalet on the flat concrete roof of Amishav House, which she owns. “The Indian government wanted to rent my building for 45,000 rupees ($ 1,000) a month, then Michael Freund offered me 25,000 rupees, and I happily gave it to him,” she enthuses, flashing a betel-reddened smile. “When I built the house, an old wise neighbor told me, ‘One day the Children of God will live in it.’ And see, here they are!”
After a 10-day stay, Avichail leaves Aizawl. Yet his charges continue to study and pray as studiously, sing and dance as merrily, as before. And why not? The rabbi has left behind for them a great gift – the promise that one day they can join their brethren in Israel. In return, they presented him with the lyrics of a new song one of them had composed for his visit: “Disconsolate I yearn for Thou Zion, O when can I bid goodbye to this miserable place of my long wanderings? Alas, I can’t rest until I reach the Promised Land.”