Churachandapur, a dusty, smoky and dark town, is much smaller and quieter than Imphal, the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, but it has a jewel in its crown - a colorful monthly magazine called Cholla. The magazine is bilingual - English and Hindi, and features stories and informative articles about life in Manipur and the region, news about the Kuki tribe, international news, sports, entertainment and a personals section called "Heart to Heart" (with a logo of Cupid's arrow through a heart). It also features stories and news about the Bnei Menashe communities in Manipur, especially when someone is given permission to make aliya. And it's all run single-handedly by a Bnei Menashe Judaism-practicing Kuki named Benny Khongsai.
Khongsai left Christianity and started practicing Judaism in 1991 when he was 30. Since the late '90s he's been waiting to make aliya, but he's had no luck, mainly because until recently he hasn't had any family members that have already settled in Israel. Khongsai is the Cholla's publisher, editor-in-chief, news editor, opinions editor, its only writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer. He also edits the letters to the editor section, his favorite. His longtime assistant editor just made aliya, so he's a little short-handed right now.
The magazine, just smaller than A4 size, has 26 pages and no advertising, so he has to work really hard to fill the pages. Since there are no ads, the magazine makes its money through subscription sales (a one-year subscription costs 180 rupees, about $4). The September issue had as its cover story the Indian government's cease-fire agreement with local insurgents after months of terror attacks and reprisals. The cover story for the December issue is a little lighter: the launch of the first round of the Kuki Idol 2008 competition, based on the American Idol model. Out of 560 applicants, 320 members of the Kuki (read: Bnei Menashe) have been selected to take part in the televised competition. Khongsai is getting the inside scoop for his magazine because he's also a judge in the competition. Kuki Idol 2008 is going to feature quite prominently in Cholla in the coming months.
But Khongsai's talents don't stop at single-handedly putting together a magazine. He's also a videographer and films weddings, celebrations and other functions, and he edits the videos on his home system. He's also a silkworm-growing consultant to the government's Sericulture Ministry, and a singer who has already cut a disk. Talk about talent. He's a husband and father of one teenage boy and two little girls.
He tries to keep a Jewish lifestyle as much as possible, even turning down work on Saturdays, but keeping the mitzvot is no easy task out in a small town in the remote northeast Indian state of Manipur. He's accepted Judaism as his faith, and if he is really devout, and lucky, he might just get picked to make aliya, convert and become an Israeli citizen.
If and when he makes aliya, he'll leave all of his possessions here, in his rented home. The Bnei Menashe, unlike immigrants who come under the Law of Return, are not given the right to bring all of their belongings in a container, tax free. The Bnei Menashe arrive on tourist visas. They then undergo a conversion process, after which they become citizens. The conversion process can last anywhere between six months and more than two years, depending on how well the convert has learned Jewish customs and laws. That's a long time to keep on paying rent for homes back in India, or storage rent for belongings for these people, who don't have that kind of money. So they'll leave everything they own in India and come to Israel like the very first immigrants after the Holocaust did, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few personal possessions.
Khongsai says he's never considered living anywhere else but Israel. He knows more about Israel than most Bnei Menashe I've met, but it still is very little. Because he has a niece in Israel now (she married an Israeli), he knows that Efrat (where Israel Weiss the photographer in our group is from) is on the way to Kiryat Arba, where there is a Bnei Menashe community. He knows that Efrat is also a very "long settlement."
I ask Khongsai what the Israeli organization Shavei Israel has promised him. "That they will get us to Israel," he answers. Khongsai says Shavei Israel, run by Michael Freund, has told them that the reason the government of Israel is delaying their aliya is because of a few members of the Knesset who are opposed because they say the Bnei Menashe are not Jewish. Former interior minister Avraham Poraz was one of these Knesset members, Khongsai says. Because of this opposition the Knesset cannot pass a law to speed up Bnei Menashe aliya, he says.
Freund, when contacted recently, said he was waiting for the government, hopefully the next government, to approve a mass aliya of the remaining 7,232 Bnei Menashe. This government's current interior minister, Meir Sheetrit, has not approved one Bnei Menashe for aliya, and Freund hopes that a new government with perhaps a more amenable interior minister, and a revamped Religious Affairs Ministry, may change things.
Khongsai says he's heard of the name Meir Sheetrit, but is not aware of his stance on the issue. Last year, Sheetrit told Jerusalem Post reporters Ruth Eglash and Dan Izenberg that if it were up to him, he would close the door not only on the Bnei Menashe, but the entire issue of those claiming to be descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. They're not Jewish, Sheetrit said. From my conversations with Sheetrit's advisers before I came on this trip, I did not get the impression that the minister's position has changed.
Still, Khongsai, like many of the Bnei Menashe here, are hopeful the Israeli government will let them in soon. They have no real clue about what's going on in the corridors of the Knesset, the Interior Ministry, the Chief Rabbinate, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and even the Jewish Agency and Shavei Israel. All these groups are pulling in one direction or another, and I'm not sure a resolution is going to be found in the very near future.
Israel and I go back to visit Khongsai again after the Sabbath so that Weiss can take photographs. We speak some more and Khongsai shows us around his lovely home. I notice that it's dark, and that all the lights are out, even the little ones on the electrical appliances, so there must be a blackout. As we leave him, Khongsai, the extremely busy editor, says he has a lot of free time tonight because he has no electricity.
Walking back to the Beit Shalom a few blocks from Khongsai's house, we hear a choir singing sweet hymns from a big church nearby. The choir must be quite a large one, as the voices from inside fill the night sky above what is now a very quiet Churachandapur. As I look up at the stars, I think to myself: I haven't seen this many stars since driving through the Karoo desert in South Africa, and then I think, if Khongsai makes aliya, who will take over Cholla?
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