Daniel Kipgen 88 248.
(photo credit: Jerrin K. Zumberg)
When Daniel Kipgen was 15, he and his family began practicing Judaism in the remote hills of India's northeastern Manipur state. Among the rice fields, they attended the newly sprouting synagogues and converted amid a wave of local leadership and international influence that claimed Kipgen and his community were Bnei Menashe, descendents of one of the lost tribes of Israel.
Kipgen, now 32, finds himself celebrating Shabbat dinners (Indian style) in a small Kiryat Arba apartment with his pregnant wife and a toddler who speaks Hebrew as well as she speaks Kuki, a dialect native to parts of Manipur and its neighboring regions. As Bnei Menashe, Kipgen and his family are among the hundreds of Indians in the past decade who have fulfilled the dream of living in Israel.
Kipgen traces his family's roots back to biblical Israel. "So they say," he adds. The story goes that his family was exiled from the Holy Land by the Assyrians in the mid-700s BCE, jump-starting a long journey across the Middle East and Central Asia, through Afghanistan, then to working on the Great Wall of China on through Burma and eventually settling in Manipur, which Kipgen's family has called home for generations. He says they lived primarily as Christians in recent centuries since British-imposed religious policy converted many of the local people to Christianity. But after the British left, Kipgen's parents and others found themselves seeking out Jewish roots, and claiming lineage to the Jewish people as the lost Bnei Menashe tribe.
The dream of making aliya materialized among the new followers of Judaism across Manipur, and eight years ago, Kipgen, his parents and two sisters arrived here with few belongings and a West Bank address to call home. One brother was already living in Gush Katif, while four more siblings had stayed behind in Manipur, where they remain today with hopes of coming here. Their family of 10, Kipgen says, "is nothing compared to families back in Manipur."
Kipgen went through a conversion process in India that wasn't that "serious," he says, but began the steps he would later take to become "Jewish" once arriving here. Amishav, an international organization that hunts for the lost tribes of Israel with a particular focus on the Bnei Menashe, arranged and paid for the family's flights.
"There just wasn't much there," Kipgen says of their home in India, "so I had very little to prepare."
Kipgen lived in Shavei Shomron with his parents and studied in an ulpan as he completed a six-month conversion course at the nearby Otniel Yeshiva, as his efforts to convert in India were not enough to satisfy Israel's religious authorities.
"It didn't bother me to have to do the conversion course. After all, it helped with the language," he says.
The ulpan was also supposed to be six months, but ended up lasting only four months since the teacher got pregnant, he says. But a half year after his arrival, Kipgen was rewarded with meeting his future wife. They married three years later in 2005. But not before Kipgen joined the Golani Brigade in 2004 at 28.
Although he has no complaints about the experience, Kipgen was the lone immigrant in his unit and a mature man among the fresh-faced draftees. He says working in agriculture, particularly in rice fields, before arriving made his experience with Golani relatively easy.
"It wasn't hard at all," he says. "We did a lot of work with our legs back in India."
THOUGHTS ON ALIYA
Kipgen says many people think the Bnei Menashe come here for economic reasons, but that this is a false assumption.
"Where we are from in India, we didn't have problems. We come here for religious reasons and because we wanted to."
Upon arrival Kipgen was slightly disappointed to see that Israelis were not as welcoming as he had anticipated.
"Everyone expects that the people here will love us and welcome us with hugs, but in my opinion it was much less than that. However from talking to others, it seems it's like this for everyone."
The hardest part about making aliya, Kipgen says, was the language. He was fully immersed from the beginning - in yeshiva and then the army - but it was hard to find people to speak with, he explains.
"In the army, the other soldiers didn't want to talk to me, because all I did was ask 'What's that? What do you mean?' I understood nothing."
He says he also understands English, but does not speak very well considering he has little opportunity to use it.
Kipgen's growing family lives in a three-room, first-floor apartment in Kiryat Arba near his and his wife's parents.
"It's the best for us, because it's the cheapest place we can live," he says, unfazed by the violence in nearby Hebron.
He says he has no interest in politics, despite his settler status, but stressed he was firmly opposed to any violence toward IDF soldiers.
Since finishing the army, Kipgen has worked for the security department of an electric company in the West Bank, traversing the region to protect the settlements. He is also enrolled in a graphic design course in Jerusalem with the hopes of entering the field. Having skipped from harvesting rice to a hi-tech society, Kipgen says he's "not so good with computers," but is trying to understand.
"The future depends on... what I have the ability to do," he says.
With little to say about money or hardship, Kipgen shrugs his shoulders and resorts to familiar Israeli vernacular. "What can I say, little by little we'll get by."
With a navy blue kippa clipped onto his dark hair, the soft-eyed and shy Kipgen holds back from venturing into questions of identity, settling with the term masorti (traditional) to describe his religious beliefs and practices.
His family sticks to Indian food (except for a shwarma here and there, Kipgen admits) and to friends that share their language and traditions.