An Indian Jewish identity

An Indian Jewish identity

Local professor reflects on his trip to the Bnei Menashe

Meylekh Viswanath at the Bara Imambara mosque in Lucknow, India, last year.

If there are two defining characteristics of my identity, it’s the fact that I am Indian and that I am Jewish.

For the last several years, in an effort to better understand my Indianness and my Jewishness, I have spent a fair part of each summer traveling in India and spending time with Indian Jews in Kerala, in and around Bombay, in Calcutta, in Israel, and elsewhere.

In the summer of 2012, I decided to travel to India to explore a part of India that’s a mystery to most Indians, and at the same time to visit a people who claim Jewish antecedents. The Bnei Menashe, a group of about 7,000 souls in the northeast Indian state of Mizoram, claim to be Jews who came to India via China. They actually are part of a larger group of people called Mizo, who number more than one million.

About 60 years ago, one of the Mizo leaders received a vision that he interpreted as a directive to bring his people back to their ancient religion. An organization called Amishav took up their case and worked to convert the group to Orthodox Judaism. More recently, another group, Shavei Israel, has worked to prepare the Bnei Menashe for conversion and emigration to Israel.

About 1,700 Bnei Menashe made aliyah over the decade, but further emigration had been held up for various reasons. In November 2012, the Israeli government finally gave permission for the rest of the community to make aliyah.

Since then, small groups of Bnei Menashe have made their way to Israel; late last year, Israel’s interior ministry allowed 889 Mizos from Mizoram and another Indian state, Manipur, to undertake the journey back to Zion.

The northeastern part of India is unlike any of the country’s other regions. The people belong to tribes that are very different from the rest of India physically, culturally, and in the languages that they speak.

I flew out from Calcutta to a place called Agartala, the capital of the state of Tripura. After spending some time with a friend in a small town a four hour’s drive from Tripura, I started off for Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, where a group of Bnei Menashe lives. The first part of my journey was a 10-hour bus ride to Shillong in the state of Meghalaya. Then I took another bus from Shillong on a Thursday evening, at about 6. I was headed to Aizawl.

This was the beginning of many exciting experiences.

At about midnight we arrived at the border of Mizoram state. I then discovered that because of the political instability in that part of India I needed a special pass to enter Mizoram. I didn’t have one. I worried about being sent back after traveling all this way, and, moreover, being stuck for Shabbat.

Fortunately, nobody actually checked for permits, and after an agonizing 10 minutes at the checkpoint we were allowed to leave. But at about 11 in the morning, when we were still about three hours from Aizawl, the bus came to a complete halt. We found ourselves at the back of a long line of buses and trucks. Apparently there had been a landslide, which would have to be cleared before we could proceed. It wouldn’t be until Saturday morning that we would reach Aizawl.

Fortunately, one of my fellow travelers found a taxi that would take us to Aizawl by an alternate route. I got there at about 3 p.m., in time for Shabbat.

One of my contacts in Aizawl, a Mizo Presbyterian woman by the name of Zaii, welcomed me at my hotel and showed me how to get to the Bnei Menashe community center, a seven-story building perched on a hillside on a winding street. About 40 or 50 men and an equal number of women had gathered for Shabbat prayers.

The mishna in Berakhot 4:4 cautions us that our prayers should not be said as a matter of rote. Praying together with this large community of almost-Jews, I could feel the outpouring of heartfelt supplication around me. Especially after several days of a physically grueling journey through dusty roads in bone-racking vehicles, I found it rather moving. The community was very welcoming toward me, and the chazzan, Meir, who was effectively the rabbi, asked me to give a d’var Torah. I thought I would be able to speak in Hindi or English; I have used both languages in Jewish communities elsewhere in India. In Mizoram, however, hardly anybody spoke Hindi. After an initial attempt in Hebrew and an unsuccessful translation, I switched to English; the English translator was more comfortable with my language.

After the service, Meir invited me to make kiddush with his family. Since there was no kosher wine, he offered me some bread that his wife had made, using only flour and water and salt, in an oven used for nothing else. I used this very tasty bread to make kiddush.

The morning service was as interesting as the evening service. A high point was the reading of the Torah. A sefer Torah was brought out and laid on a table, but the actual reading was done from a printed Bible. The quality of the reading was pretty good, though not following the traditional system of cantillation.

I was asked to speak once again. On Friday night I had spoken about the Torah portion, but this time I decided to talk to the congregation on a more personal level about the similarities in our backgrounds; while many Ashkenazi Jews had visited Aizawl before, this may have been the first time that they were meeting an Indian Jew. Of course, I had no idea how much they understood what I was saying, but I felt pretty passionate as an Indian Jew speaking to a group of Indians who were about to become Jews.

After the service, the Torah reader, Harel, invited me for kiddush. While I was not able to eat anything at his house, I did get to meet his family, as well as another young Mizo man, Elyashiv. Meir and Harel both were married and had children, but Elyashiv was not married yet. He had been brought up Christian, but after reading the Old and New Testaments, he had decided that Judaism made much more sense. Elyashiv spoke quite good English and some Hebrew, as well.

While I was in Aizawl, two women from Shavei Israel arrived to conduct some classes on Judaism and Hebrew language for the community. Their trip was in preparation for the voyage a group of Bnei Menashe was planning to take to Israel next summer, to undergo formal conversion.

I wondered what would happen to this very close-knit community once they moved to Israel. The younger Bnei Menashe will speak better Hebrew, they will be more sophisticated, they will have better jobs, they will earn more money. What will this do to the traditional Bnei Menashe society? In Mizoram, everybody is religious, Christians as well as Jews; everybody belongs to a church or synagogue. What will happen in Israel when a third possibility opens up – of being neither Christian nor Jewish, of being secular, of not believing in God?

Should the Bnei Menashe community work these issues out before they reach Israel? Should they try to learn from other communities like the Ethiopian Jews or the Bnei Israel, or even the other smaller communities of already emigrated Bnei Menashe?

These are not easy questions. Meanwhile, as I got ready for my return flight back to Calcutta, I was happy that I had come to visit this far-flung part of my country and this exotic group of Jews-to-be. I felt that I was a more complete Indian and a more complete Jew for meeting these people, who were so different from me and who nevertheless had so much in common with me.

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