The Children of Manmasi are Underway: Recording the Oral History of the B’nei Menashe

By Sabra Minkus

Imagine growing up in a very small village in the middle of rice paddies, dense lush green jungles filled with exotic flowers, brilliantly colored birds, insects of every kind, snakes, monkeys, tigers and a multitude of other amazing creatures.

“The village had only 13 houses that were far apart and there was jungle between them where tigers roamed and animals were hunted. I was very afraid of them. When my brother and I went to fetch water in the nearby stream, we would see tigers and other animals moving about.”

Your parents would leave you with the other children to go and work in the rice paddies. You and your brothers and sisters would prepare the evening meal. “We cooked rice, corn and other things. The gravy for the rice was easy to make. We could find all the ingredients in our garden or growing near the house. Our mother told us each day what to cook.”

Your parents grew cotton in addition to the rice paddies and vegetable gardens.

“My mother made clothing from the yarn (spun from the cotton). Most of the time, I wore a bottong, a kind of sleeveless shift, that she made. When we were young, we hardly had any clothes, and went about half-naked.”

The children in your family and village had to be very creative in spending days alone.

“The boys played at wrestling, throwing spears. We swung from ropes to see who could swing the farthest. We had a game in which we held hands in a circle around a child in the middle who had to break free. The child would keep crouching down and jumping up looking for a way out.”

After filming the documentary, This Song is Old, we followed the quest of the B’nei Menashe in their dream to go from the far northeastern part of India, Manipur and Mizoram, to Israel. Over the years, I have kept in contact with them and with the help of Hillel Halkin and others, we began to look for a way to continue telling their amazing story.

We decided to undertake an oral history project with some of the B’nai Menashe who made Aliya to Israel – their dream realized. Thus far, over 30 interviews have been conducted, and you just read a few excerpts from one of them.

I would like to share a bit more of some of the interviews and hope that they will give you some insight as to the amazing journey they have made over centuries.

First, a little more background. The B’nai Menashe are believed to be descendants of Manasseh, the eldest son of Joseph. They were expelled from their lands on both sides of the Jordan river by the Assyrians around 721BCE. After many centuries, they ended up in the far northeastern corner of India, where they have resided since the 1500s. During their sojourn in India, they assimilated with local tribes, the Kuki, Chin and Mizo. For 2,300 years they maintained some traditions and festivals that are close to those celebrated by Jewish communities.

One of the festivals is Kut, and it is still practiced today. It takes place in March or April and lasts for three days.

Author with B’nei Menashe dancers in Israel, photo courtesy of Sabra Minkus
Author with B’nei Menashe dancers in Israel, photo courtesy of Sabra Minkus

“The whole village went to a hill outside it and a siel (water buffalo) was sacrificed to Pathen (God). The village priest was in charge of this. On this day, too, every family went to the jungle to fetch materials for a new doibum (a bamboo box containing ritual objects) for the coming year.

“The doibum was hung from the roof of the family’s house by a rope-like jungle vine. That evening, we soaked rice and pounded it into a fine flour. We added water to the flour to make dough, wrapped the dough in banana leaves, and boiled it. The boiled bread was called Changlhah.

“If we made rice flour bread at any other time of the year, we used yeast, but on Changlhah Suh Ni (the Day of Eating Bread without Yeast), yeast was forbidden. When the siel, without blemish, was sacrificed, the priest would say a blessing telling the siel that they would honor him and make his sacrifice easy by using the sharp side of the knife, instead of the dull side.”

Christian missionaries came into the area following World War II. They began telling stories of the New Testament to the people, but it didn’t feel right. Several years went by, and they received copies of the Old Testament written in their own Tibeto-Burman language. “The Old Testament seemed whole to me. The New Testament was simply based on the words of the Old Testament’s prophets.”

A quote from another interview: “Once we had an earthquake. The whole house was shaking, I was very afraid. I heard my mother shout: ‘We are well, we are well, the children of Manmasi are well.’ During storms, people would shout: “Hear, O Hear! The children of Manmasi are underway.’”

Another person interviewed said: “My mother picked and examined each vegetable before cooking it. She wouldn’t eat fish without scales. She wouldn’t eat four-legged animals. Even when it was cooked in the house, she wouldn’t touch it.”

In April 2005, the Israeli Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar formally accepted the B’nei Menashe as descendants of one of the lost tribes after years of reviewing their claims and conducting other research. Amar’s decision allows the B’nai Menashe to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. They were required to undergo formal conversion to be accepted as Jews.

In closing, one of our project members spoke of the long journey of the B’nei Menashe to return to Israel. “To me, the most remarkable thing about the older B’nei Menashe is the distance they have come in their lives, from illiterate villages in the middle of the jungle in which the old shamanistic rites were still practiced, to being observant Jews in Israel.

“And yet, they themselves seem to take this almost for granted, as if it were entirely natural. … But more important is their faith in Judaism itself, which in every case grew out of a Christian

faith they were dissatisfied with. I’ve never encountered or read about another people in today’s world so obsessed with the question of religious truth.”

The oral history project will become a book. Together with the film, they will provide a historical record for the B’nei Menashe and also for the history of Judaism. Approximately 4,800 members of the community have made Aliya, while another 5,000 still remain in India.

If you are interested in supporting this oral history project, please send in a donation to Chazak, in care of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, 5520 Wyoming Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *