LIFE BEFORE ALIYA
Avin Gangte was born in 1961 in Imphal, capital of the Indian
state of Manipur, the third of seven siblings.
His father, Gamliel (born
Jampee Kaimang), was a state government representative, a position that allowed
the family a comfortable, if hardly luxurious, lifestyle, but deprived it of a
father for days at a time. Gangte’s father – who would later serve as president
of the northeast Indian community in Israel – spent much of the week traveling
among remote villages in the service of the Manipur government, returning home
only on weekends.
“Most of the people in our area were Christians,
courtesy of the British,” Gangte says in the impeccable English that is another
legacy of the Raj, “but in the late ’50s and early ’60s, people started looking
into their roots. They started asking questions like ‘Why do we have so many
customs that closely resemble Judaism?’” Gangte was 15 or 16 when his family
began discovering its own Jewishness.
“My mother was the driving force in
our family regarding our faith,” he recalls. “She was never satisfied until she
came to Judaism and said, ‘Here I’ve found my real roots, the real answers.’
Then she stopped searching.”
The Gangtes and other families in Manipur
and neighboring Mizoram would soon begin calling themselves Bnei Menashe, after
the Israelite tribe, lost to history in the late First Temple period, from which
they claim descent.
The Bnei Menashe say their folklore contains
references to a legendary ancestor named “Manmasi,” that their songs describe
the Exodus from Egypt and longing for Zion, and that on encountering British
missionaries they were already familiar with certain events in the Hebrew Bible.
“We claim we are descendants of Menashe because of our customs, culture,
traditions and folklore, which are so similar to Judaism,” Gangte
As the community coalesced around its newfound faith, Gangte’s
father – already in a leadership role by virtue of his government post – was
elected its leader.
His status meant the family was among the first Bnei
Menashe to set foot on Israeli soil, with the assistance of Rabbi Eliyahu
Avichail – a tireless seeker of the lost tribes who was convinced of the Bnei
Menashe’s Jewishness and who raised funds to facilitate their
But it would be 10 years before the Chief Rabbinate
recognized the community as Jews, and most Bnei Menashe – the Gangtes included –
initially arrived on tourist visas.
In April 1995, Avin Gangte,
now married to Hagit (they were next-door neighbors in Imphal) and the father of
two children, landed in Israel.
“It was like coming home,” he says, “but
still totally different from what we were used to. It was all sand, and the heat
was something we had never experienced before.”
The family’s first stop
was the Gush Katif settlements of the Gaza Strip.
“They took us to a
hothouse – the first time in my life I had been inside one. It was 50 or 52
degrees,” Gangte says. “We had to work in a cabbage field. At the end of the
day, I used to fall on top of the vegetables and just lie there. After a week I
said, ‘If I can help it, b’ezrat Hashem, I won’t go inside of one of those
Baruch Hashem, since that day I haven’t gone inside a
hothouse,” he says, grinning.
Gangte holds two degrees from Manipur
University, including a master’s in history. Had he stayed in India, he says, he
might have become a history teacher. In Israel, his lack of Hebrew – and of
residency status – meant his immediate concern was paying the bills.
came here as a family man, and not as an oleh hadash
[new immigrant] but as a
tourist,” he says. “First priority was making ends meet.”
hothouse he switched to gardening, a profession and passion he pursues to this
As a newcomer to Gush Katif, Gangte says he was never made to feel
like an outsider.
“Relationships with the local people were very caring,”
he says. “They were very welcoming and friendly, and accepted us as long-lost
brothers coming home.”
The family lived in Neveh Dekalim
for 10 years, until the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.
started to settle down in a real home,” he recalls, his voice trailing off. “It
was more or less all of a sudden. We had heard about the disengagement but we
refused to believe it. We thought it wouldn’t really happen.”
same year also brought encouraging news to the Bnei Menashe. Ten years after the
Gangtes’ arrival in Israel, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognized the Bnei
Menashe as remnants of the lost Israelites. The extended family – most of whom
were by then in Israel – completed a giur lehumra
, a conversion process
conducted as a “precautionary” measure to eliminate any uncertainty over a
Since the disengagement, Gangte’s family – now
numbering seven souls – has lived in Nitzan, a religiously observant community
of 3,000 on the southern coast that has absorbed hundreds of former Gush Katif
residents, about 15 percent of them from Bnei Menashe. The family lives in a
“caravilla,” a prefabricated mobile home subsidized by the government, until
they find the time and energy to move to a permanent home in the
“Sometimes the kids compare life in Gush Katif to here,” he
says of his five children, ages seven to 19. “In Gush Katif, there were almost
no worries. We were content, in a world of our own.”
that most residents of Nitzan’s caravilla neighborhood are former Gush Katif
residents has made for a softer landing.
“We could have gone to Kiryat
Arba, Ofra, Beit Shemesh,” Gangte says, listing other communities with large
Bnei Menashe populations, “but that would mean leaving the community, and we
weren’t prepared for that.”
In addition to his gardening work in and
around Nitzan, Gangte was elected two years ago as cantor and gabbai
community’s “new” synagogue – the one serving Gaza evacuees.
he looks forward to building a permanent home in Nitzan, but is taking it one
step at a time.
“There are bureaucracies, costs, permits – first you have
to get settled into your caravilla, then get your job and livelihood back,” he
says. “These things take time. Five years is nothing – we’re still not
Having been displaced twice in his life, Gangte has no
intention of uprooting himself again. “I wouldn’t be any other place in the
world,” he says. “This is home.”