On September 16, Biakenga, an ethnic Mizo in his late 60s, came out of the specially constructed mikve at Zuangtui, a few kilometers from Aizawl, India, beaming with joy.
His two-and-half decade-old love story with Israel had just been consummated with him taking the final step of converting into Orthodox Judaism. The mikve (ritual bath) ceremony was conducted by a team of nine Israeli rabbis brought there for the purpose by Shavei Israel, an Israel-based organization that has set up centers in India recently.
The group, under the aegis of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, landed in Aizawl on September 13. On arrival, they held their Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) and pronounced an initial 198 persons fit to be Jews, later adding more during the mikve process.
The air was festive as young, old, children male and female gathered at the mikve, which was constructed hurriedly over the last three months under Rabbi Doron Malca, considered a specialist in constructing mikvaot. Rabbi Hanoch Avizedek, who had been in the area for more than two months, conducted the preliminary interviews. The next day, after Shabbat, 36 newly Judaized couples, were remarried according to Jewish law at the Shavei Center where there was much merry-making after the men crushed the custom ary glass under their feet.
Forty-seven-year-old Lalnghinglovi, a member of the Khawlhring clan of the Mizo by birth, dreamt of nothing but going “home” to Israel since 1987. For her, too, that once distant wish became a reality on the same day, as it did for more than 230 Mizo who “passed” the Beit Din interviews held for two days preceding the mikve ceremonies they all went through.
“My dream is fulfilled today, Juda kan ni tawh (now I’m a Jew),” said Lalnghinglovi – now called by her Hebrew name, Malka – as she came out of the mikve laughing and hugging her friends. She and her husband, together with their four children, all became Jews today, she said. They all hope to “return” to Israel within the next few months. She said they had all undergone a tough period of study at the local Shavei Center, learning Jewish traditions and the laws of Judaism in preparation for the Beit Din, in order to reach this point.
“THIS AUTOMATICALLY makes her and her colleagues eligible to ‘return to Israel’ under the Israeli Law of Return,” said Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, who was part of the team. Asked on what basis the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel had declared them descendants of Menashe, Freund said that there were various works by people on the subject‚ particularly Israeli author Hillel Halkin, who wrote Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel.
“These various works are based on anthropological and ethnographic data of oral traditions collected by him and others in Mizoram and Manipur which links many of our customs,” he said. “I have come here five times and when I saw the sincerity of these people I became convinced that they are linked to the Jewish nation,” he said. By 2010 he hopes to bring all 7,000 members of the community to Israel, he said.
Malka’s family belongs to a minuscule section of a huge population of overwhelmingly Christian Mizo-Kuki-Chin people inhabiting the states of Mizoram and Manipur, Indian states bordering Burma and Bangladesh, who believe they are descendants of Menashe, a legendary Lost Tribe of Israel. The hunger for Judaism was spawned in this remote mountainous region in the late Forties, interestingly about the same time the State of Israel was in the process of being born.
Their cause was picked up by Israeli Lost Tribe hunter, Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail – founder of Amishav, an organization which predated Shavei Israel – who has visited the region nearly a dozen times since the locals first made contact with him in the mid-70s. He first recognized them as the Bnei Menashe, and has already settled 800 people of this community over the years. His campaign seems to have paid off.
CONVERSION IS a sensitive issue in India, but as far as the rabbis are concerned this is not a conversion. “What is happening here is not conversion,” stressed Rabbi Zvi Lifshitz of the Beit Din. “We call it a return to their original place. They are Bnei Menashe. We are bringing them back to their own people,” he said.
Asked if he believed the Mizos were really descendants of one of the Lost Tribes, he said, “We are rabbis; we simply believe what the experts tell us – that there are traditions and customs that are similar to ours which prove that they are our lost tribe,” he said. Could they now “return home to Israel” as they so reverently seem to want?
“If they want to, they can go. They will have the right to do so under our government’s Law of Return. They can come home like any other Jew from any part of the world, Lifshitz said. “They sincerely want to be Jews, I have seen it. In Judaism we give people the chance to turn away many times, but these people have stuck it out. They are sincere. So we accept them,” said Rabbi David Bass, also from the Israeli team.
According to Bass it was really “an issue of belief.” “It’s a matter of thousands of years and either way there are no written documents to prove or disprove it,” he said. The majority of Mizos are Christians of the Presbyterian school, which has launched a campaign against the growing Judaism among the Mizos as “misguided Christians who took a wrong turn.” But despite this, a walk down any street in the capital proves their love affair with anything to do with Israel as one comes across Zion Street, Israel Point, Bethlehem village, Bethel Church. You name it from the Book and it’s here!
|This interview, excerpted from Across the Sabbath by Hillel Halkin (2002), was conducted in 1999 in the town of Ratu in northern Mizoram with a woman named Ramisiami, who took part in the original "Israel movement," that occurred in the nearby town of Buolawng and that eventually led to the formation of the Judaizing Bnei Menashe. |
Halkin comments: "While anyone reading this and other passages might well conclude that I think the whole 'Manmasi-Manasseh' equation is purely fanciful, the ultimate conclusion of my book, as incredible as it may seem (and did at first to me), is that it is not, and that there is a real historical connection between these two names and between ancient tribe of Menahse and some of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo's ancestors." -The Editor