A fortuitous introduction to Karen and Aron Primack at an erev Rosh HaShanah service last month in Silver Spring, Md., has enlightened me on a number of obscure Jewish travel destinations.
The Primacks, wife and husband, are founding members of Kulanu, Hebrew for “All of Us,” an organization of Jews nationwide who locate lost and dispersed remnants of Jewish people and help those who wish to join the world Jewish community.
Through subsequent conversations with the Primacks and reading the nonprofit group’s monthly newsletter edited by Karen — as well as exploring her book, “Jews in Places You Never Thought Of ” I learned about such remote places as the villages of Churachandpur and Kangpokpi in the state of Manipur where the Shinlung Jews are concentrated.
The Shinlung, a group of about 2 million in northeastern India, the Chin mountains of Burma and the Chitagong tracts of Bangladesh, claim descent from the tribe of Menasseh — Menashe in Hebrew — one of the 10 tribes dispersed from the Kingdom of Israel after its conquest by Assyria in 722 BCE. Many would like to return to their Jewish roots and migrate to Israel.
From 5,000 to 10,000 of them practice Judaism, try to follow the Torah and perform the mitzvot. Beyond this number, describing themselves as B’nai Menashe, Sons of Menasseh, there is the vast majority of the Shinlung, who have become Christians but whose beliefs and customs are so similar to those of Judaism that most historians believe they are actually so derived.
They call their god Y’wa, their feast days correspond to the Jewish holidays and their system of animal sacrifices resembles those described in Leviticus. Burials are simple, with no cremations. On the eighth day after birth, boys are sanctified. Many of the Shinlung wear blue-and-white tzitzit.
Rabbi Jack Bresler, a former intelligence officer who served in Vietnam, reports on the traditional song of the Shinlung:
We observed the Sipkui festival,
Crossing over the Red Sea running dry before us,
The riding foes of mine
Were swallowed by the sea in thousands.
The B’nai Menashe, who had no idea there were Jews anywhere else in India, were “discovered” by Eliyahu Avichai, an Orthodox rabbi in Israel who had founded Amishav (“Let my people return”) in 1975. He frequently visits lost and dispersed Jewish communities throughout the world.
Four years later he received a letter from the “Jews of North East India” asking for help and describing how they had circumcised themselves, built synagogues and sent their children to study at the ORT school in Bombay some 600 miles distant.
Over a period of 16 years there was correspondence between Rabbi Avichai and the Jews of North East India. During that time, several of the B’nai Menashe came from Bombay to study in Israel, undergo formal conversion there and return to their home communities. One is now the spiritual leader of the B’nai Menashe in the entire region; another is the spiritual leader and teacher of Hebrew in the Churachandpur community. Others eventually followed to Israel after formal conversions in Bombay and Calcutta.
On Rabbi Avichai’s trip to the states of North East India, Manipur and Mizoram, where the B’nai Menashe are concentrated, he was greeted “with great honor and pomp,” he writes in one chapter of Karen Primack’s book. The government of Mizoram sent two cabinet members to welcome him after a seven-hour journey and provided him with a chauffeured car, food and lodgings during his stay.
Throughout his trip through Mizoram, the rabbi was escorted by a government-supplied bus adorned with a banner reading Am Yisrael Chai, “Long Live the People of Israel.” The bus was filled with “wonderful young people” of the B’nai Menashe who serenaded him with Israeli songs, he writes.
At the moment, however, it is something of a challenge to get a visa from the India Consulate for entrance into Mizoram and Manipur, at least until border conflicts with neighboring Burma have been resolved. It is a challenge Kulanu does not recommend at the moment.
Some travelers do get through, like the Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobowitz, who has made a documentary on the B’nai Menashe of the region.
It is much easier to visit pockets of the B’nai Menashe scattered throughout Israel. About 600 have undergone the six or seven months of study for conversion and have been absorbed into Israeli life.
Meanwhile, Kulanu has reached out as well to other obscure communities. In the countries of southern Africa, for example, there are more than 700,00 Lembas, a black-skinned people whose beliefs and practices are similar to those of Judaism — monotheism, a lunar calendar, circumcision rites, dietary laws, discouraging intermarriage, the priestly Kohanim genes in the Y chromosomes of Lemba males, the tradition of descent from the Jews of Yemen who first settled in Africa more than two millennia ago.
In the village of Sefi Wiawso, in western Ghana, a community of 70 Jewish families may be connected with the Yemenite migration. In Recife, Natal and Fortaleza are clusters of Marranos who remained in Brazil when other Jews fled the Portuguese Inquisition to find sanctuary in Nieuw Amsterdam, Barbados and Curacao.
There are the woefully poor Inca Jews of Trujillo, Peru, who take turns donning their homemade wooden tefillin. They are rejected by the Ashkenazim of Lima, themselves Holocaust survivors.
These and many other extraordinary communities provide examples of an enduring Judaism and they are hungry for recognition by world Jewry. Most need prayerbooks and religious articles; they need funds to build synagogues, schools and community centers. And they need money for medicines, food, clothing — the very necessities of existence.
Kulanu in many instances is their only bridge.