The ancient Israelites (as English translations of the Bible call the Yisraelim, or descendants of Jacob aka Israel), were organized into 12 tribes. Ten were named after sons of Jacob, and two after his grandsons, the children of Joseph: Ephraim and Menashe. Levi did not have a tribe named for him, since the Levites performed priestly functions and were spread among the whole people.
When the Israelites by popular demand opted to be ruled by a monarch, the kingdom encompassed all 12 tribes. Shortly after the death of King Solomon around 930 BCE, the 10 tribes in the north rebelled against the heavy taxes imposed by his son, Rehoboam, and broke away to declare itself the Kingdom of Israel. The southern Kingdom of Judah was made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
In approximately 721 BCE, the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom. In the immortal words of Lord Byron:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
They swept all before them, enslaved the entire population, and over a period of 20 years relocated them around the region and beyond. The exiles are sometimes referred to as “The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.”
In a remote area of northeast India lived a Tibeto-Burmese ethnic group called the Kuki-Mizo. In his highly informative introduction to Lives of the Children of Manasia, Hillel Halkin provides the background to the intriguing story of the Kuki-Mizo’s journey to Judaism.
Living for centuries in the rain forests of the Himalayan foothills, life for these people was regulated by village priests who were the custodians of an ancestral religion. With British colonial rule, all this changed. Missionaries successfully introduced the people to Christianity, and by the start of the 21st century, the old religion had almost entirely disappeared in practice, and was retained only as a fading folk memory.
But there was a surprising twist in the tale. As knowledge of the Bible spread, especially the Old Testament that was translated into the local languages before the New, “real or imagined resemblances,” as Halkin puts it, “between biblical episodes and remembered elements of the old Kuki-Mizo religion began to be noticed.” According to the old religion, their legendary ancestor was Manasia or Manmasi. It was in the 1940s that the idea first surfaced that Manasia/Manmasi was actually Menashe, the son of Joseph, and that the Kuki-Mizo were in fact one of the lost tribes and descendants of ancient Israel. Over the second half of the 20th century this conviction began circulating widely. Active Judaization followed, fostered by groups that became rival supporters of the idea: Rabbi Avishail and his organization Amishav, and Shavei Israel led by an American immigrant to Israel, Michael Freund.
Today, half the Kuki-Mizo people live in India and half in Israel, specifically permitted to immigrate under legislation passed in 2012. Once here they convert in accordance with Orthodox practice. About 4,500 strong, the Israeli Kuki-Mizo are known as B’nei Menashe – the sons of Menashe.
How did this extraordinary situation come about?
Lives of the Children of Manasia contains 12 comprehensive oral history interviews with elderly members of the B’nei Menashe community in Israel. Conducted in the Mizo and Kuki languages by Isaac Thangjom, the interviews were translated by him into English and edited by Hillel Halkin. Many of the men and women interviewed were among the founders of the Judaizing movement in the early 1970s that led to the formation of the B’nei Menashe community, and the official recognition of its claimed origins.
In his extensive afterword, Halkin pulls out of the 12 testimonies a series of references to ancient traditions, beliefs, songs and chants recollected from before the Christian conversion, which preceded the Judaization of these people. These references bear striking parallels to episodes in the Old Testament. For example, one chant recited on the death of a clan member and also at the naming ceremony of a newborn child, started “These are my ancestors,” and listed recognizable versions of Menashe, Machir, Gil’ad and Ulam in order.
Then there are references to the traditional Red Sea Song, remembered by one of the interviewees from his childhood in the 1970s:
The mighty Red Sea was dried up.
He led us with cloud in the day, at night by fire.
The deep sea swallowed our enemies like dead beasts.
Halkin believes the reference to Red Sea in the first line was probably a late tampering, since the Hebrew clearly refers to yam-suf (the sea of reeds). “Red Sea” appeared in an incorrect Greek translation of Exodus in about 250 BCE.
Halkin also deals with “The Day of Eating Bread Without Yeast,” recalled by three interviewees who described a pre-Christian holiday that featured eating unleavened bread.
In Lives of the Children of Manasia, we learn the intriguing story of the birth of B’nei Menashe through the actual words and personal recollections of some members of the ancient Kuki-Mizo people, now converted to Orthodox Judaism and living in Israel. It makes for an absorbing and thought-provoking read. ■
Lives of the Children of Manasia: Oral History interviews with the B’nei Menashe CommunityHillel Halkin and Isaac ThangjomGefen, 2022 | 376 pages; $24.95