Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sevet Menashe community in Mizoram

Stars of David on the sign of the synagogue of Sevet Menashe in Mizoram. Photo and original text from the documentary film "Legends of the Lost Tribes" ( courtesy of Aran Patinkin, my good friend, who directed the film."The Mizo Tribe [also known as the Shin-long Tribe] lives in the mountains between India and Burma, a million and a half tribes-people who believe they are the Lost Tribe of Manasseh and worship its God…
The Mizo people have their own version of the legend of the wandering Jew. After the Exile, they say, the tribe of Manasseh settled in Persia. They were later banished to Afghanistan, Tibet and China. When the Chinese tried to enslave them, they fled to mountain caves.
03:04:00 At some point in the haze of time, our heroes migrated to the Mizoram region, where they live to this day, still longing to complete their own Exodus…
Today, most members of the Mizo tribe see themselves as Christians, yet there are many Hebrew symbols in their original tribal religion. The leader of each village is a priest and his name is always Aaron.
Their religion includes a practice long removed from the Jewish ritual world--animal sacrifices. Their altar resembles that of the Hebrew Temple, yet there is one major difference: the tribes-people primarily sacrifice pigs...
Several hundred townspeople converted to Judaism under the guidance of Rabbi Avihail of Israel. Unlike the rest of the tribe, whose Hebraism is mingled with Christian and other influences, the converted group is a genuine Jewish community…
Members of the Jewish community recreated the Sabbath rituals during the week because filming would violate the holy day of rest. They long for contact with the outside Jewish world to obtain guidance in observing the Torah laws…
The Mizo tried to establish contact with the State of Israel from the moment they heard of its creation. One day in the early 1950s, someone read a newspaper article reporting that Ben Gurion’s speech “shook the Knesset to the core.” They thought that the Parliament building actually trembled, and wrote a concerned letter to the Israeli Consul. This was their first contact with the Jewish State…
Like a distant memory, the tribe nurtured its legend. The final seal of approval was provided by Rabbi Avihail, who did not rule out the possibility that the Mizo could belong to the tribe of Manasseh. The tribes-people seized on his statement as rabbinic validation of their belief…
Just before Passover, thirty members of the community moved to Israel, their age-old dream fulfilled at last. The new immigrants are welcomed by relatives already living in Israel. (Caravan Neighborhood for New Immigrants)
A legend that began in a ramshackle hut at one end of the world leads us to an immigrant’s caravan in southern Israel.


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A Star of David on a wall of a house in the Chebrole village of the Beit Yaakov community
Photo and original text from the film "Legends of the Lost Tribes" courtesy of my dear friend Aran Patinkin who directed this film
"Legend tells us that the exiled Tribes of Israel wandered, weeping bitterly, from Assyria and Persia, through the mountains of Afghanistan, until they came to the enchanted valley of Kashmir. To this day, many of the residents of this valley call themselves Bene Israel--the “Children of Israel.” They kept the heritage of their ancestors until they were compelled to convert to Islam.
In Chebrole village, near the city of Madras, lives a small community that claims its ancestors migrated from Kashmir. This is the story of the community called Beit Yaakov, the House of Jacob.
Zadok Yaakobi is the rabbi of the synagogue. His brother, Shmuel, sets the prayers to music
Shmuel tells us that during the great famine of 1872, most of the Hebrew community converted to Christianity. The missionaries fed their own flock well, persuading many hungry people to convert.
Before his death, Shmuel’s grandfather gathered his children and told them their true origin, the Tribe of Ephraim. When they found this out, the family and other members of the community decided to seek their way back to their Jewish brethren. They made themselves a synagogue and called it Beit Yaakov…
The remaining members of the sect, today numbering about half a million, stayed Christian, but their customs, ranging from dress codes to meat handling, burial and marriage rituals, bear signs of their Jewish origin.
To the Hindus, the entire sect is considered untouchable.
In India, everyone belongs to a caste that determines social status and occupation from birth to death.
At the lowest level of this system are the untouchables, with whom all contact is forbidden.
The Beit Yaakov claim that their classification as untouchables originates in a misunderstanding, possibly because of their Jewish custom of eating meat, a grave sin in the Hindu faith.
Community members attempted to establish contact with Jewish communities in Israel and throughout the world, but were bitterly disappointed. Even the Jews kept their distance.
A few years ago, a sensational article appeared in an Israeli newspaper. The writer irresponsibly attributed Hebrew origins to all the untouchables in India, claiming that there are 300 million potential Jews who want to come to Israel. In reality, there are at most 150 families… Since that article was published, members of the community have not been issued entry visas to Israel. Shmuel finds it difficult even to obtain a tourist visa so he can visit his son who is studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Another group belonging to the Beit Yaakov community lives in nearby Ungol illage.
The biblical Queen Esther, of humble origin, plays a key role in the Beit Yaakov heritage. According to tradition, she became a star in heaven that watches over the community.

Bene Israel Community of India

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A Star of David on the sign at the entrance to Mavgav, the oldest cemetery of about 2000 years of the Bene-Israel community in India


Photo and original text from the film "Legends of the Lost Tribes" courtesy of my good friend Aran Patinkin who directed the film


                   Somewhere in the ocean of time, dozens of generations ago, perhaps hundreds, or perhaps never, seven men and seven women managed to survive a mighty storm upon the earthly seas.  These survivors, says the ancient tale, are the ancestors of the Bene Israel community of India.  Some claim that they were refugees who fled the Galilee to escape the evil decrees of King Antiochus.  Others say they were sailors from the Tribe of Zebulun, in the service of King Solomon, who sought ivory, peacocks, monkeys and other exotic delights

                   The so-called realists contend that the Bene Israel are Jews who escaped Arabia or Persia as Islam's star began to rise.  Why is this version more realistic?  God only knows When the storm died down, the survivors beheld the Konkan Coast, a fertile and hospitable land.  They buried their dead at a site near the village of Nawgaon that later became the community's cemetery. Here, they erected a monument recounting community history The Bene Israel were isolated from the rest of the Jewish world.  They did not have synagogues or sacred writings.  The only Hebrew prayer they remembered was Shema Israel, Hear, O Israel,” that they recite with great devotion, and the only biblical precepts they observed were circumcision and the Sabbath...

                   In the eighteenth century, a Jewish merchant, David Rehavi, met the Bene Israel by chance.  At first, he was not at all certain that they were indeed Jews, so he tested them, offering their women several kinds of fish to prepare.  When he saw that they chose only the kosher varieties, he was convinced of the authenticity of their faith and decided to bring them into mainstream Judaism.

                    The synagogues built in Bene Israel villages during the nineteenth century soon became vibrant centers of community life.

                   Now that most of the community has moved to Israel, the synagogues are virtually abandoned".