On the way back from work, I would often ditch the shortcut through an almost 90 degrees steep staircase. Instead, I would take the longer route cutting through a crowded bazaar filled with greasy repair shops alongside colourful thrift stores, and small Korean-style cafes.
It is inadvisable to take a stroll in the city of Aizawl, especially in the evening. The fiercest love affair between the deep-coloured sky and the fading sun can quickly swallow you up.
On these strolls, I would often pass by a rather unremarkable multi-storeyed building in the old neighbourhoods of Aizawl. It was not until I noticed the unique symbols on the dilapidated building, that my attention was piqued.
Later, my landlord, an ever-smiling, good-natured reverend at the local Presbyterian Church, impressed by my observation, told me a Biblical story and its direct link to one of the largest exoduses, that’s taking place in Mizoram.
According to Judeo-Christian texts, ancient Israel was divided into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Judah, with 10 Jewish tribes, and the southern kingdom of Israel, with the remaining two tribes.
In approximately 721 BC, the kingdom of Judah was conquered by Assyrian empire. The northern tribes were separated from the southern ones and pushed into exile. These are also known as the “ten lost tribes of Israel”.
It is said that one of the lost tribes called “Menashe”, wandered through central Asia, and the far east for centuries, and eventually settled in the northeastern villages of Manipur and Mizoram.
I realised how stories across times and ages live all around us, subtly, like air… Unnoticed, until they raise a storm. I thought about the Menashe—the lost tribe and their story, was it ever lost with them?
The next Saturday, I decided to visit the synagogue, a Jewish house of worship, I have been ignorantly passing by. It was the day of Shabbat: a holiday to celebrate the creation of life and offer respite to oneself.
A Mizo friend who accompanied me had a long tradition in their family of practicing both Judaism and Christianity. “Shabbat Shalom,” a gentle voice greeted me. Unaware of the appropriate response, I nodded my head with an awkward smile.
The gentleman proceeded to talk to me in fluent Hebrew. “I think he mistook you for a Jewish man,” whispered my friend.
Even though I could understand neither Hebrew nor Mizo, Rabbi Ezra Chhakchhuak welcomed me to the service and offered me a “kippah“, a small head covering that Jewish men wear during the prayers.
Rabbi Chhakchhuak was visiting from Jerusalem. Like him, thousands of Mizos, over the years, have found a home in Israel.
“When the Welsh missionaries came to the north-east in the early 20th century, they found several similarities between the indigenous customs and that of orthodox Judaism,” said Lalthansangi*, a Mizo friend who has been a close observer of the situation.
The first formal contact between Mizoram and Israel was made in the 1980s when a senior Rabbi, Eliyahu Avichail visited the region. Avichail founded “Amishav”, an organisation dedicated to locating descendants of lost tribes of Israel.
It was him who gave the tribe the title of “Bnei Menashe”, meaning the children of Menashe. Earlier, Amishav and later, another Israeli organization called “Shavei Israel” have been facilitating “aliyah” i.e., the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the promised land of Israel.
I was intrigued and baffled at the same time. When I talked to one of my colleagues at work about this, he directed me towards a DNA study done by Central Forensic Institute, Kolkata, in 2005.
Senior research fellow, Bhaswar Maity, remarked in the study, “While the masculine side of the tribes bears no links to Israel, the feminine side suggests a genetic profile with Middle Eastern people.”
I think he means that while the female genetic profile bears a resemblance to people from the Middle East, the male genetic profile didn’t suggest the same.
He further adds: “It is scientifically impossible to have the same genetic sequence in two populations living so far apart if they did not originate from a common stock who historically inhabited a common space.”
While the study hasn’t been peer-reviewed and found to be inconclusive by a number of geneticists and social scientists, such claims have further bolstered the movement.
During the first-ever Indian President’s visit to Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister of the country publicly acknowledged Mizoram’s Bnei Menashe, saying:
“There is among us a living bridge; the wonderful Bnei Menashe, whose members have and are making Aliyah from India to Israel. And, with their love for Israel and their great humility, and through impressive efforts, they are absorbed into Israeli society. But, they also create that living bridge between our two peoples.”
Even though Bnei Menashe are formally accepted and recognized by Israel under their Law of Return, they are still a stigmatised minority among a predominantly Christian population of Mizoram.
“The community faces stigma and discrimination in the state. A large number of families converting to orthodox Judaism also come from economically weaker strata, so one may assume that they are basically economic migrants,” explained Lalthansangi.
This year, a total of 160 Jews from Mizoram and Manipur have left India permanently for Israel, and more are under process. My friend, who accompanied me to the synagogue in Mizoram almost half a decade ago, is learning Hebrew these days. “Are you sure you want to do this? What do you not have here?” I asked.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with what one possesses as much as it is to do with one’s conviction in their identity,” he said over the phone.
If the Covid-19 situation stabilizes, my friend will soon make his aliyah to the promised land of Israel.
*Name changed to protect identity.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.