Echoes of Egypt in India

The Bnei Menashe community's Pessah traditions ensure their memories of Egypt remain vivid.

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April 1, 2007 12:43
Echoes of Egypt in India

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It is a bright and sunny day in the northern Galilee town of Karmiel, though a slight chill still hangs obstinately in the air, as winter refuses to give way too readily to spring. Quietly, but with a hardy sense of purpose, Mendel Kingbol takes his seat in a classroom in the local absorption center run by the Jewish Agency. He has just returned from morning prayers at the neighborhood synagogue, and it is now time to immerse himself in the rhythms and cadences of modern Hebrew.

  • Read the complete Pessah 5767 Supplement For the next several hours, together with dozens of other recent immigrants from the Bnei Menashe community of India, which claims descent from a lost tribe of Israel, Kingbol will seek to polish his Hebrew language skills and learn the mores of life here in Israel. Demonstrating a remarkable level of order and discipline, the group fills the sizeable, though somewhat dilapidated space with a sound that is music to any teacher's ears - the hum of learning, of advancement, and of progress. Even outside the classroom, the students eagerly begin to pepper their sentences with Hebrew words and phrases, a sure sign that they have not only begun to absorb the information, but to incorporate it. With the approach of Pessah, his first in the Promised Land, 81-year-old Kingbol is looking forward at last to celebrating an Israeli Seder. As one of the elder members of the Bnei Menashe, Kingbol still recalls, with a mixture of fondness and nostalgia, the way in which his ancestors celebrated the festival over the centuries in the farthest reaches of northeastern India. The 7,000-strong Bnei Menashe community resides primarily in the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. Their tradition, passed down through the generations, is that they are descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Manasseh, which was exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian empire in 723 BCE. Throughout their wandering in the Diaspora, the Bnei Menashe observed the Sabbath, practiced circumcision on the eighth day, kept the laws of Kashrut and meticulously upheld the rules of family purity. They even established cities of refuge, where people who had killed inadvertently could flee, just as the Torah prescribes. A century ago, when British missionaries first arrived in India's northeast, they were astonished to find that the local tribesmen worshiped one god, were familiar with many of the stories of the Bible, and were practicing a form of biblical Judaism. Before long, the missionaries succeeded in converting most of Mizoram's population. Yet many of them, Christians and other tribesmen alike, proudly continued to preserve the tradition that they are descended from the ancient Israelites. Some, however, did not convert, and continued to adhere to the ways of their ancestors. Indeed, in recent decades, the Bnei Menashe have built dozens of synagogues across India's northeast, and three times a day they turn fervently in prayer, with their eyes raised toward Zion, to which they collectively long to return. Over the past decade, thanks largely to Shavei Israel, the organization that I chair, some 1,200 Bnei Menashe have moved to Israel, where they have undergone formal conversion to Judaism in order to remove any doubts regarding their personal status. IN MARCH 2005, after I approached Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and asked him to study the community and its origins, the Chief Rabbi decided to formally recognize the Bnei Menashe as "descendants of the Jewish people," and agreed to facilitate their return. In September 2005, Rabbi Amar dispatched a rabbinical court to India, which converted 218 Bnei Menashe in Mizoram back to Judaism, including Kingbol and several members of his family. Kingbol has seen a lot over the years, from cherished moments of satisfaction to painful episodes that he prefers to leave behind. But few were as sweet, or as memorable, he says, as when he boarded an El Al flight in Bombay last November together with dozens of other Bnei Menashe, and fulfilled his life-long dream of moving to Israel. Now, comfortably ensconced in Karmiel, Kingbol is adjusting well to his new surroundings. Asked about the upcoming Pessah holiday, he proceeds to recount the remarkable manner in which the festival, known in the Mizo language as Chapchar Khut, was commemorated. "Chapchar Khut is a tradition, an ancient ritual that I have always believed is strongly connected with Pessah," Kingbol says. The holiday was typically celebrated for seven days during the spring, in the month of March, and at its center was a ceremony that resonated with remarkably Jewish overtones. "The Bnei Menashe in Mizoram live in mountainous villages, so to grow crops we needed to make a clearing," he remembers. "This period of clearing, which was done immediately before Chapchar Khut, was regarded as a new year for us," he says, much in the way that the Torah enumerates the Hebrew months starting with Nisan, when Pessah falls. Along with clearing a field for agricultural purposes, the Bnei Menashe would also fashion a new road as part of the traditional observance of the holiday. This, it appears, was intended to symbolize the long journey out of Egypt that lay ahead of their ancestors at the beginning of their deliverance from bondage. "Since this was considered the start of a new year, a blessing for the entire community was recited, with the village priest taking four or five people with him to the outermost edge of the settlement where, while beating the bushes, he would chant: "Behold, bushes of above and below! Make way, for the sons of Menashe are coming!" On the first night of the festival, Kingbol relates, the villagers would all gather at the hut of the local chief, where they would sing and dance until the early hours of the morning. The celebration started precisely at midnight, Kingbol says, because that is when all the first-born of Egypt were slain in the tenth plague, as recounted in the Bible. "The next morning, on the threshold of the village, everyone had to eat a quick and hurried meal," he says. "They did this because our ancestors, when they left Egypt, did not have time to bake their bread." "The villagers would feed each other very quickly," according to Kingbol. "This was known as 'chhawng hnawt' - I don't know exactly what this phrase means, but it signifies something that had to be done hastily, because our ancestors were under pressure to leave after Pharaoh's command to depart Egypt," he says. The meal, which was placed on top of a huge boulder, consisted of eggs and meat that had been specially roasted, just as the Israelites had prepared the ancient Pessah sacrifice. People would move slowly and dance toward the spot where they would feed each other, Kingbol says. "I still remember the song they used to sing: 'I am on my way, on my way, with calmness do I follow the winding road.'" While Kingbol's recollection of Chapchar Khut revolves around the social and communal aspects of the holiday, another Bnei Menashe elder named Yossi provides an additional perspective on how the Bnei Menashe celebrated its ritual components. Two members of Yossi's family served as village priests, and he was proud to offer a detailed description of the ceremonies they performed in honor of the festival. On the first night of the holiday, after sundown, the village priest would don special white garments in preparation for carrying out the sacrificial rite. These included, according to Yossi, one that had strings dangling from its four corners, recalling the talit with arba kanfot (the four-cornered ritual prayer shawl) worn by Jews. "The priest would take an animal and slaughter it, and then collect the blood in a special pouch," Yossi says. He would then dip a branch or leaf into the blood, and smear it on the doorways of people's homes, just as the Israelites had done before leaving Egypt. The priest then had to carefully separate the meat from the bones of the carcass, for if even one bone were to break, it would invalidate the animal for use in the ceremony. For anyone familiar with the Torah's description of the Paschal sacrifice, this requirement will sound more than a little familiar (see Exodus 12:46). Having successfully completed this task, the priest would place the animal on an altar and offer it up to God, in the process reciting a series of ancient Bnei Menashe chants and prayers. Perhaps the most extraordinary of them is known among the Bnei Menashe as "Miriam's song." "We had to cross the Red Sea," it began. "Our enemies were coming after us with chariots but the sea swallowed them all as if they were meat. We are led by the cloud during the day and by fire at night. Take those birds for the food, and drink water coming out from the rock." The echoes of the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt and its aftermath are unmistakable. It sounds like a Bnei Menashe version of the Haggada as it narrates the story of how their ancestors - the Bnei Menashe's ancestors - left Egypt together with our own. YONATAN TOUTHANG, originally from the village of Churachandpur in Manipur, recalls how, as a child, everyone participated in the extensive cleaning that took place prior to the onset of the festival each spring. Touthang, aged 71, made aliya in 1998, and lives in Kiryat Arba together with his wife and seven children, one of whom is currently serving in the IDF. "Traditionally, the Bnei Menashe community lived in organized villages," he says, with the villages being governed and administered by a Council, the head of which served as the Village Chief. "After the Council finalized the date and time of the holiday, which is at the beginning of the year (i.e. in March or April), the village spokesman would announce to the public that the feast would be held on such-and-such a date, and no one was allowed to be absent from the cleaning of the village, the street and the paths leading to and from it," Touthang says. "The village and even the water tanks had to be cleaned very well, and each household was responsible for cleaning their own house, in addition to the village," he remembers. If someone absented himself from the cleaning process, Touthang notes, they were assessed a heavy fine. His description of the sacrificial rite parallels that of the others. "After the communal sacrifice was completed by the priest at the entrance to the village, each household would then have to bring a sacrifice as well. Subsequently, everyone would gather at the home of the village chief, where they would feast and rejoice throughout the week, while the village priest would tell everyone the story of the Exodus from Egyptian bondage and the crossing of the Red Sea." It is clear that for Kingbol and his fellow Bnei Menashe, the celebration of Pessah has always been linked to the deliverance of their forefathers. But having made aliya just four months ago, and returning to the land of his ancestors after more than 27 centuries of exile, the holiday this year takes on a whole new meaning for Kingbol and his family. While three of Kingbol's seven children now live in Israel together with him, the other four, all of whom are married, remain stuck in Mizoram, anxiously waiting for the Israeli government to allow them to come. So even as he speaks excitedly about the holiday and its personal symbolism for him, a hint of sadness nonetheless slips into his voice, for Kingbol knows that it may be some time before he is able to see them all again. But then, somewhat suddenly, the words come to him, simmering to the surface from somewhere deep within. "I am on my way, on my way," his ancestors would chant as they prepared to eat the Chapchar Khut festival sacrifice. "With calmness do I follow the winding road," they would confidently declare, even though a long and uncertain journey lay ahead. The writer served as deputy communications director in the Prime Minister's Office under former premier Binyamin Netanyahu. He is the founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based group that facilitates the return of the Bnei Menashe and other "lost Jews" to the Jewish people.

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