10 April 2008

Bnai Menashe: Jewish roots

The Bnei Menashe of India are discussed in this Haaretz article

In the 1940s, Dr. Hofalam Miluy Lantang was a young Indian doctor treating the Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribe that lives in north-eastern India. In his travels among the tribe's villages, he heard songs and saw traditions that sparked his curiosity and he decided to document them, without realizing their significance.

Only in 1999, more than 50 years later, in a meeting with Hillel Halkin, a writer and Israeli journalist researching the connection between the tribe's members and the Jewish people, did he discover that the traditions he recorded do indeed link the tribe to the Jews. These are the same traditions that prompted some tribe members to define themselves as Bnei Menashe, some 800 of whom have already immigrated to Israel, while thousands more are waiting to follow their example.

Lantang, now 88, was interviewed during his visit to Israel last week. He was afraid the customs would disappear so he began recording them. He says the customs have all disappeared and that his documentation is the only proof.

Customs include:

Repetition of words Manamasi (Menashe) in many of the tribe's songs, especially describing their travel across Asia. The group's "Song of the Sea" is a description reminiscent of the Exodus:

"When there was a king, the Red Sea dried up/in the afternoon we were guided by a cloud and at night by fire/during the day we fought many enemies/but those enemies were swallowed up by the Red Sea/and for those same people there is water that came forth from the rock."

Their Festival of Rice Bread resembles Passover. All year the tribe ate bread from rice with yeast. Once a year (May-June) during a three-day holiday, they ate rice bread without yeast.

In relation to circumcision, the Kuki tribe do not follow this tradition. However, an infant born without a foreskin is referred to as having "a sex organ of the old style," a reference to the fact that this tradition was followed in the past.

Hillel Halkin, author of "Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel," describes the Bnei Menashe's journeys, and Lantang's role. Although some researchers say the tribe learned similar Jewish customs from Christian missionaries or from the New Testament, Halkin says Lantang's work showed the traditions existed long before as he recorded songs transmitted through the generations long before the missionaries arrived.

Some 800 of the Bnei Menashe have already immigrated to Israel. Some reports indicate another 7,000 wish to immigrate as well.

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