“Some Israelis are more willing to give land to Palestinians than to give a warm bed to brothers who left a long time ago,” says Esther Thangsom, 24, who came to Israel 18 months ago. “Others go out of their way to welcome us back.”
But it doesn’t matter whether people make the way home easy or hard, because God helps us,” she says in her calm and gentle manner. “We’re a patient people. We’ve waited almost 3,000 years; we can wait a few years longer.”
Thangsom is part of a new immigrant community in Israel that now numbers 340. They are known as Bnei Menashe, or Shinlung, names acquired at different stages of their long journey. The first signifies their belief that they’re descended from the Israelite tribe. According to their tradition they lived as part of the Hebrew nation till the days of the First Temple, when they fled east from the Assyrian conquerors of 744 B.C.E. and, 400 years later, farther east still from the armies of Alexander the Great, through Tibet and into China. Believing they were the only Jews left, they lived quietly under the Chinese until the Middle Ages.
Late in the thirteenth century they were threatened once again by conversion to Christianity. They fled south to Indochina, where they acquired their second name. For two generations they found refuge in a remote valley of caves; Shinlung means cave dwellers. The Chinese eventually found them, seized their holy parchment (which they believe was the Torah) and drove them into today’s Thailand and Burma. From here many migrated into the north Indian provinces of Mizoram and Manipur, where it is estimated 1.25 million to 4 million live today. There are 10,000 actively Jewish Bnei Menashe in 13 towns. Of this number 3,500 have formally converted to Orthodox Judaism.
“We never felt we belonged in India,” asserts Ruth Thangsom, 25, Esther’s sister. The family comes from Manipur and their features, like those of other Bnei Menashe, are Mongolian. “We felt lost. We don’t look like Indians, we don’t think like them or identify with them. We were sojourners. We always knew we belonged to the land and people of Israel. In college, when I was studying for my B.A. in English literature, I used to think: What I want more than anything is to be in Israel, where I can live according to the Torah and the mitzvot.”
“I grew up with a longing to be Jewish and to come to Israel,” says Esther, a psychologist who is studying social work. “I used to tell my friends at boarding school in New Delhi: ‘I’m not Indian. It’s a geographical and political mistake that I’m here. One day, I’ll live in Israel.’”
“I’ve wanted to come to Israel ever since my midteens when I [found out about] Israel,” says Shmuel Joram, 38, a draftsman who grew up in Mizoram. Like so many Bnei Menashe he speaks quietly and respectfully, but with determination and conviction. Today Joram, the Thangsom sisters and their brother Yitzhak, 30, an economist, all live in Jerusalem. They have formally converted to Judaism and are citizens. If they don’t yet feel Israeli, they have a strong sense of having found their place. “In my heart, I resented undergoing conversion when I feel so utterly Jewish,” says Yitzhak with controlled dignity. “But as our path back to our roots was through Christianity, I accept it was necessary.”
After the loss of their precious parchment, they nursed a tradition that one day a white man would come to return their holy books. When a Reverend Pettigrew arrived in India from Britain in 1813, ablaze with Baptist fervor and copies of the Christian Bible, the Bnei Menashe believed the prophecy had been fulfilled. Large parts of the book, from Adam and Eve to the Exodus from Egypt, echoed their oral tradition. Within a decade, the whole community was Christian.
“Our grandfather was orphaned young and raised by missionaries,” says Yitzhak. “That’s how our family became Christian. Our father reversed it. He was a deeply religious man who sought the truth. I remember him giving me a siddur and telling me: Judaism is the true faith.”
The way back was shown by a community member who came to be regarded as a modern-day prophet.
“His name was Challa Mala,” explains Joram. “In the 1950’s, he had a vision that the Bnei Menashe were Israelites. His vision ignited the community. They stopped working and began preparing to return to Israel, expecting daily the appearance of the Messiah. A delegation was sent to the Israeli consulate in Calcutta.”
This first attempt to return collapsed quickly in the face of opposition from local Indian authorities and Jewish leaders. But a connection had been forged and the Bnei Menashe stayed in touch with Jewish communities in Calcutta and Bombay 600 miles away. Members like the elder Thangsom embraced their Judaism.
“When you find the truth it hits your heart,” Joram says. “I remember my father weeping because he had found the true faith.”
In the 1970’s a group of educated middle-class Bnei Menashe made a formal decision to return to Judaism. They built synagogues, took on Sabbath observance and brit mila. It was shortly after this that Rabbi Eliyahu Avihail first heard of them; one of the many letters they wrote asking for help in coming to Israel was passed along to him. “I was interested, of course,” Avihail says. After several attempts he obtained permission to go into Manipur and Mizoram, an area closed because of a border conflict. He also met community representatives in Calcutta and managed to bring two of them to study in Israeli yeshivot, so they could return to India as Jewish teachers.
“The more I got to know the community, the more certain I became that their tradition was true and they were indeed descended from the tribe of Menashe,” says Avihail. “Their customs are very close to prerabbinical Judaism. They have songs thousands of years old, with words from the Bible. One is: ‘Let us go to Zion!’ even though they didn’t even know what Zion was. They give their children names unknown in the surrounding Indian community, such as Apram, Yakov, Sinai and Shilo. Among their customs are white garments for the kohen, an altar and animal sacrifices. The kohen will not speak God’s name. They have a garment that resembles blue and white tzitziot. The eating of blood is prohibited. They have laws of family purity and follow a lunar calendar. Corpses are seen as impure.
“All this is too close to be coincidence—and too far to have been recently brought to them. These are ancient customs, corrupted over time.”
In their scrolls there were strange stories about Adam and Eve, the Flood, Avihail points out. “The Tower of Babel, for example, was built to wage war on God, Who turned the stones to poison, whereupon the builders forgot their language and were dispersed.”
Avihail began his long struggle on their behalf. “In 1988 we made a symbolic beginning, converting 24 in Calcutta,” he says. “But then as now Israel’s interior ministry reaction was: Do you want to submerge Israel with these people? But I persisted, and ended up pleading the case before the Supreme Court. It found in our favor and in 1989 I brought over the first group and settled them in Kfar Etzion.”
Avihail’s aim is to bring the 10,000 or so Bnei Menashe who are today practicing, if not yet converted, Jews. With every incoming group, however, he faces a major struggle. “In 1993 I brought [some] with the help of the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which paid for the plane,” he says. “Days before they were due, a scare story was leaked to the Hebrew press that ‘untouchables’ were about to flood the country. This delayed their aliya by seven months-and they’d already sold their homes and businesses. I turned to the Lubavitcher rebbe, who was then very sick. ‘Should I be doing this?’ I asked him. ‘Yes!’ he said. ‘Bring them to Israel!’”
“Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has been good to us,” says Yitzhak. “They insist on a full Orthodox conversion [bet din and mikve] but I think they go easier on us than on other converts by not making us wait months before being called to the bet din. They recognize our genuine faith. The absorption ministry has also been helpful and is giving [us] temporary resident status so we can live in absorption centers while we study Hebrew and Judaism.
“But the interior ministry is very different. They delayed granting us citizenship for almost a year after the bet din converted us. Their tactics included streams of questions about our conversion, like: How did you step into the mikve? They insisted each of us produce a full genealogical tree. It was only when we threatened to go to the Supreme Court that they gave us our citizenship papers.”
Today the Bnei Menashe are scattered throughout the country; they have settled in and are doing well. Some are in higher education, others run small businesses, many live on settlements—Kiryat Arba, Ofra, Beit El, Eilon Moreh and Gush Katif. Most are politically right wing (“We all want peace,” says Esther), all are ready to serve in the army, and all, without exception, are religiously observant.
Some are married to English-speakers from the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States (Yehoshua Wertheime of Boston, for example, has married into the community); others have married Jews from other Indian communities (like Elisheva Ganteh who married Yehuda Ben Eliayahu, originally from Cochin); but most, like the Thangsoms and Joram, hope to marry within their own community.
“We didn’t know all these people in India, but we feel very close,” says Ruth. “There’s always somewhere to go on Shabbat and festivals and we share one another’s weddings and bar mitzvas. There are already sabra Bnei Menashe in the community.”
The Thangsoms and Joram are still living and studying in the Nahalat Zvi yeshiva, where they prepared for conversion. “It’s home to us,” Joram says. “The rosh yeshiva [yeshiva head] totally accepts us ’raw’ from India. He carries the spark of holiness within him. I’m planning to stay on for another year. Then I’ll think about my career and how to earn money and settle down.”
Ruth, too, wants to continue her Jewish studies. “Without learning you miss out on what it takes to be a Jew,” she says. “Every Jew needs to find his own path, but you can’t find it without knowledge.” After full-time study, she’d like to teach.
“You have to be educated in your faith,” says Esther. “We’d be missing the point of being in Israel if we didn’t know how to connect with God. Being in Israel is not enough. The soul is important, too.”
For the remaining Bnei Menashe in India who are interested in living a Jewish life, moving to Israel would be more than enough for the moment. Many enjoy comfortable middle class lives, but their hearts are in their ancestral land. They also faced danger 18 months ago, when their communities in Manipur were attacked by neighbors from the Naya tribe. Two synagogues were burned and several people were killed.
But this isn’t why the Bnei Menashe want to come. “They want to live in Israel for the same reasons that we do,” says Joram, “the same reasons that any Jew wants to live in his own land. Because it’s ours. Because it’s home.”