Four thousand miles east of Sinai, in a remote area in northern India bordering Burma and Bangladesh, a group that calls themselves the B'nai Menashe believes they are descendants of the biblical tribe of Manasseh.
In "Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel" (Houghton Mifflin), Israeli author Hillel Halkin asserts that the connection is indeed true - "that part of one biblical tribe did retain its identity for nearly 3,000 years while wandering from the Middle East to the jungles of Southeast Asia."
Halkin, a journalist and translator, begins his explorations as a determined skeptic. But after three trips to the areas and extensive field research, he shifts to conviction.
Asked in the final days of his last visit about his certainty that the Kuki-Chin-Mizo people are the Lost Tribe of Manasseh, he says he is "107 percent certain."
In a telephone interview last week from his home in Zichron Yaakov, he says he's just as positive now.
"Either I was the victim of a colossal hoax or there really is a historic connection. I was willing to consider the hoax theory, willing to concede that I'm not that smart," Halkin said. "But if you look at the people and the material I've collected, and what their motives might have been, the likelihood of a coordinated hoax is zero."
The group numbers about 5,000 in two small Indian states, Manipur and Mizoram. About 600 of them now live in Israel and are fighting for recognition and immigration rights.
Rabbi Eliahu Avichail, who runs an organization called Amishav: My People Returneth, has searched the world for remnants of the Lost Tribes as well as possible descendants of Marranos who fled the Inquisition. He has been a key supporter of the B'nai Menashe, providing Jewish education on his visits to India, and aid in their official conversions and aliyah.
His new findings don't make these people "halachically Jewish in the remotest sense," Halkin says. "It may create a little more sympathy on the part of the rabbinate for giving them an opportunity to convert."
Halkin, 63, is the author of "Letters to an American Jewish Friend," a regular contributor to Commentary and The New Republic and the translator of works by many writers, including A.B. Yehoshua, S.Y. Agnon, Sholem Aleichem and Shulamith Hareven.
Halkin, who made his first Lost Tribes hunting trip to Asia in 1998 with Rabbi Avichail, was under contract to write a piece for The New Yorker. Although it never ran, his interest was piqued, and upon his return to Israel he wrote a book proposal that was sold.
The narrative is an engaging, intelligent and colorful travelogue, layered with history. As an explorer, Halkin is always curious, willing to follow all potential leads and detours, many of which prove serendipitous. He seems part Indiana Jones, part Margaret Mead, as he witnesses enactments of animal sacrifices, ancient chants and the retelling of stories passed down through generations. He tries to fit together the clues he gathers.
Halkin is also something of a detective and a street psychologist, trying to understand local traditions and navigate competing agendas.
The book title is inspired by a legend that says the Lost Tribes are across the Sambatyon River, which is known to flow for six days and rest on the seventh. Since travel is not permitted on the Sabbath, the Lost Tribes have remained beyond reach.
The notion of Lost Tribes goes back to the Bible. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians sent the 10 tribes of northern Israel into exile. In the chapter titled "A Short History of the Lost Tribes," Halkin explains the many theories about their fate and tells of generations of people who've searched for them.
As he describes the narrow streets of Aizawl, in Mizoram, the longing for Zion seems palpable. Stores are named Israel Appliances, Israel Bazaar, Israel Grocery. When Israeli commandos successfully raided Entebbe, celebrations were jubilant; when Rabin died, the air was filled with mourning. When Halkin visits a synagogue during mincha, he finds all the familiar murmurs and swaying, "as if they had been doing it all their lives."
The group wasn't so much discovered by outsiders; rather they discovered themselves. Although many were Christians, having been under the influence of British missionaries after 1900, they had an awareness of having an old religion and an ancient ancestor named Manasia.
In the 1950s, a village man had a vision: It was revealed to him that the Mizo people were the descendants of Israelites and should return to their ancient homeland. Some of the villagers adopted biblical customs while still living as Christians. In the 1970s a group of them asserted that they should live according to Israel's faith. Rabbi Avichail was the first knowledgeable Jew they encountered.
When Halkin returns on his own in the fall of 1999, he is accompanied by two translators who were born in the area and now live in Israel. Many local people are invested in convincing him of their links to Judaism. In Manipur, a retired senior government official, the father of one translator, asks, "Have you ever heard of an entire people feeling out of place where their ancestors were born?"
When asked why the Jewish connection is so important to these people, Halkin explains that they're "really a people with a terrible identity crisis." He continues, "They're a very proud people, and for reasons not clear to me, they have a great sense of superiority." They were a warrior people, but the arrival of Christianity turned them into a sedentary people. "Christianity wiped out their past, destroyed memories, artifacts, the old religion." He describes a collective sense of amnesia. He says that the idea of being a Lost Tribe of Israel appeals to them as a way of gaining back their lost identity. They are peaceful and gentle, yet they identify with the warrior-like people they read of in the Bible.
Halkin learns about aspects of the old religion like priestly sacrifices, an ancient chant about crossing the Red Sea, the practice of circumcision and the belief in one God. But he realizes that as evidence, these things don't necessarily hold up, since the tellers may have been influenced by their contemporary knowledge of the Bible.
As he's just about certain that the idea of the Lost Tribes link was invented, an exotically dressed physician named Dr. Khuplam drops in to see him. Their encounter results in one of several "Eureka" moments, turning Halkin's opinion around. Khuplam had spent much time traveling by foot to small villages, and in 1949 realized that he was more interested in people's stories than in medicine. He then began devoting his life to collecting folklore. Totally self-trained, he became the only ethnographer at work in this area.
The doctor shares with Halkin a text he compiled, "The Wonderful Genealogical Tales of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo." Halkin immediately sees many biblical parallels. Through his linguistic skills, his understanding of biblical Hebrew and the way words can be pronounced differently, he pieces together evidence that these stories and connections must predate the arrival of Christianity to the area. Other documents, including a will and the text to the song about the Red Sea, provide further important clues.
Halkin writes beautifully, whether describing the misty landscapes, the passions of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo peoples or the humorous moments of cultural displacement. Readers will find an appealing guide in him. Even those who remain skeptical can't help being struck by his conclusions.
This winter, Halkin will return to the area with a team of physicians from the Haifa Technion and the University of Arizona who will conduct genetic testing. Halkin says that even if they find one or two people with traces of Eastern Mediterranean origins, it would be "sensational and would tend to confirm my theory." But he has some trepidation, acknowledging that it may turn out that these people will seem no different than other Southeast Asians. That, he says, might be explained by the size and nature of the sample.
"In my opinion, the empirical evidence in my book is so strong that I would continue to believe, even if the DNA evidence were negative," he said.
Halkin is a native New Yorker who grew up on the Upper West Side and attended Ramaz, the Bronx High School of Science and Columbia. His father, Abraham Halkin, was a noted Judaic scholar and professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia. In 1970, Halkin made aliyah.
He explains that he's always been fascinated by the idea of lost tribes. As a young boy, he was aware of distinctions between the Jewish kids in his neighborhood west of Broadway and the much tougher Irish kids a few blocks away to the east. When a classmate first told him of a place called Borough Park, where "gangs of Jewish boys beat up Christians," he was thrilled. They were his first lost tribe.
Although he never made it to Borough Park, when he later came across legends of biblical Israelites who were warriors in remote corners of the world, there was something familiar.
He writes: "I had already dreamed of such distant brothers."
Halkin asserts in "Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel" tht the tribe of Manasseh can be found today in northern India.