Menashe in Myanmar

Three journeys to the Kuki-Chin-Mizo people on the Indochinese border convinced Hillel Halkin that they are descendants of the Children of Israel Some of the elders of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo people, who live on the border between India and Myanmar (Burma), still remember that some time during the 20th century, before they became totally Christian, they marked “the memory of ritual circumcision.” They testified to this with their signatures; some of them gave fingerprints as their signature. At the ceremony, according to their testimony, the priest would pass a knife over the sexual organ of male babies a few days old and say, “it used to be that our ancestors cut here.”

In another place, translator and journalist Hillel Halkin encountered a holiday very similar to Passover, “a three-day holiday, on the first day of which they make bread from rice flour — and this is a group that during the rest of the year eats no bread at all. They prepare the bread without yeast and without baking; they just wrap the flour in banana leaves and boil them in water. During the entire three days it is forbidden to eat rice, and only at the end of the third day they hold a festive meal for the whole village. The priest blesses the people and the bread, and only then is it permitted to eat rice — which is also reminiscent of the prohibition on eating leavened products (the Jews and the Kuki are the only peoples in the world that observe a holiday of eating unleavened bread) and of the ceremony, held on Passover in the Temple, of waiving the Omer (a measure of produce).”

…in 1954 two inhabitants of a small village in northern Mizoram suddenly appeared and related visions they had had.

These are just two of the pieces of evidence that convinced Halkin that the Kuki-Chin-Mizo are indeed descendents of the Children of Israel. According to their own traditions, the identification is even more precise: They consider themselves to be descendants of the tribe of Menashe. Evidence and claims about the connection between the Kuki and the early Jewish people are not new. Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail has been in contact with them for more than 20 years, and he is active in bringing them closer to Judaism as it is today. His activities, however, are mostly perceived as having a messianic context.

Halkin, however, is a Western secular rationalist, a native of New York and a nephew of Shimon Halkin, a scholar of Hebrew literature. He immigrated to Israel in 1970 and gained fame for his book Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic (Jewish Publication Society, 1977, out of print), in which he tried to clarify to his friends who remained behind in the United States the motivations for his immigration and his devotion to Israel. Meanwhile, Halkin became a prolific and respected translator of Israel’s best writers (Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Meir Shalev, Shulamit Hareven and even S.Y. Agnon and Haim Brenner) and a journalist. He also served as a correspondent for the weekly Forward in Israel. Now he devotes himself to writing articles and essays for leading American journals, among them Commentary and The New Republic.

In a recent book, Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), Halkin describes the discovery of the “children of Menashe” (as those members of the Kuki who have decided to return to Judaism call themselves) and tells how he became convinced of the veracity of their story. He also writes of his prior journey in search of “the 10 lost tribes.” This is an echo of the legend that the 10 tribes who were exiled by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E. — from which time they lost touch with the rest of the Jewish people — are to be found beyond the Sambatyon River, which is a torrential, rushing river all the days of the week, apart from the Sabbath.

A god called Y’wa

Halkin’s love affair with the story of the 10 tribes goes back to his childhood. “I grew up in Manhattan, in a largely Irish neighborhood, and the Irish kids always made trouble for us,” he says. “We would run away from them, or else we would fight with them and lose. Once, one of my friends told me that there was an enchanted place called Brooklyn, where Jewish kids beat up gentiles. I decided that at the first opportunity I would run away there. Therefore, when at the age of 12 or 13 I encountered the legend of the 10 tribes, I already knew what a lost tribe was. Altogether, as a romantic soul, I found this legend very attractive.”

Several years ago, Halkin had an offer from an American publisher to write a book about anything he liked. At the time he was reading about Avichail’s activities in search of the 10 tribes and he decided to combine his childhood longings and the book he had been asked to write. He contacted Avichail. “We agreed that if I could find funding, we would go on a journey together in search of the tribes. And then I had an offer from The New Yorker to write a long article about such a trip. [In the end, the article was not published - Y.S.] So in the summer of 1998 we set out on our journey.

Originally, they had not planned the trip to the India-Myanmar border, but rather to the province of Szechwan in northwestern China, home of the Chiang tribe, which according to British missionary Thomas Torrance, who proselytized there at the beginning of the 20th century, had its origins in the early Hebrews. Halkin was not convinced by the evidence about the Chiang. “Torrance spoke about Semitic facial features, a belief in one God, houses similar to Middle Eastern construction, sacrifices similar to those mentioned in the Bible and a god called Y’wa, reminiscent of the biblical God. Some of the things he described do exist in reality, and for Avichail this was enough to convince him that these were descendants of the Hebrews. However, in my opinion what we saw there could definitely be interpreted otherwise. We did not encounter the God Y’wa there, or Semitic physiognomies. They really do live in villages that look more like the Arab style than the Chinese, but this is not proof of Hebrew origins, and sacrifices are also something common throughout the world, especially in eastern Asia.”

When you go into their synagogue and close your eyes it is certainly possible to feel as though you are in a synagogue in Jerusalem or New York.

The trip in China did not satisfy Avichail’s and Halkin’s hunger, one reason being that the journey was undertaken in difficult circumstances. “Visiting those villages is prohibited by Chinese law — apparently out of awareness of the fact that their culture is different, and they are afraid that they will be aroused to rebellion [perhaps like the Tibetan precedent - Y.S.] And in general, conducting research without a permit is itself forbidden in China, so that the whole time we lived in fear and flight from the law-enforcement authorities.”

Because of the truncated trip to China, the two decided to use the time for additional visits: to the Karen tribe in Thailand and to the Kuki people on the India-Myanmar border. The Karens, too, are a people that was extensively converted to Christianity back in the 19th century, and even then it was linked to early Hebrew roots. “They have stories about early traditions that are very reminiscent of Bible stories: the Tower of Babel, a God called Y’wa, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden that is connected to a primal serpent. All this does not prove a Hebrew origin, but it nevertheless sounded more serious than the Chiang story, and was definitely worth looking into deeply.”

And then the two came to Mizoram, one of the Indian republican states, which is located on the eastern border of India with Myanmar, the home of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo people. The three names derive from the fact that these people live in three different areas: They are the dominant population in the state of Mizoram; they are also a considerable part of the population of the Indian state of Manipur (also on the border with Myanmar); and they form a significant percentage of the population of the Chin region of Burma (where Halkin could not go because the Myanmar authorities have prohibited entry into the region).

One obvious difference between the testimonies of the Kuki and other groups Avichail spoke to is that while the Chiang and the Karen were linked only by external factors to the 10 tribes, among the Kuki this was an internal tradition. During the first half of the 20th century they underwent an intensive process of conversion to Christianity by missionaries from the West, which led them largely to forget “the old religion,” as they call it. However, in 1954 two inhabitants of a small village in northern Mizoram suddenly appeared and related visions they had had. In the visions, they were told that they were from the children of Israel, and their origin was in the tribe of Menashe.

“According to local Christian custom, people who have visions have to come to the elders of the community, and it is they who must confirm their authenticity. In this case, the elders not only authenticated the vision, but also recalled that even before their Christian period there were Israelite elements in their religion. Several months later there was a split in the village, and some of the people began to live according to the Old Testament: to observe the Sabbath, offer sacrifices and so on. Each group shunned the other, though there were no physical hostilities between them.

“Gradually, this belief spread throughout Mizoram and Manipur, though they lived not as Jews but as Judaizing Christians and adopted certain Jewish practices. By the 1970s there was already a group of children of Menashe in Manipur that had made contact with Jews in Calcutta. They decided to dissociate themselves entirely from belief in Jesus and to live as Jews. They sent letters to various elements in Israel, and among others they reached Rabbi Avichail. In the 1980s he met with them for the first time; initially, because of the difficulty of access to those states, they met in Calcutta, and at the end of the 1980s he finally came to visit them where they lived and became their spiritual teacher. He brought them the Judaism of our day for the first time. Today, there are about 5,000 people living full Jewish lives, even though they have not undergone ritual conversion. [Conversion is undergone only by those who come to Israel, in Israel - Y.S.] When you go into their synagogue and close your eyes it is certainly possible to feel as though you are in a synagogue in Jerusalem or New York.

Children of Manmasi

During the visit to Mizoram, Avichail and Halkin began to get more and more evidence of the historical connection between the members of the group and the Jewish people. Halkin sensed that this time it was serious, and decided to go back there again, this time on his own. To date, he has made two additional trips, and the accumulation of evidence he heard during the three trips convinced him of the veracity of their story.

Thus, for example, on the very first trip he heard about a number of special prayers in which they call themselves “the children of Manmasi” — i.e., Menashe. Halkin noticed that the very name itself does not follow the rules of the Kuki’s everyday language, “and also those prayers were recited in special circumstances, such as lunar eclipses or dangerous situations.” They also mention the “old God” Ya. But despite it all, Halkin continued to suspect that these things could be attributed to influences instilled in them by the Christian missionaries, “who were familiar with the Old Testament and perhaps caused them to believe that they were descendants of the ancient Hebrews.”

During his subsequent visits Halkin met two people who offered testimony that was even more convincing. One was Yosi Hualngo from Mizoram, who spoke of prayers that had been known in the “old religion” (before Christianity), among them names and concepts that were clearly reminiscent of Judaism — for example, the names of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the words “His cloud that dwells on Mount Moriah” and “His cloud that dwells on Mount Sinai.”

“The prayers are the most authentic source, as folktales and customs can be suspected of being influenced by later traditions, but it is harder to be suspicious of prayers, as they are sacred and it is forbidden to alter them, especially as the priests of the old religion, who were responsible for the prayers, in any case were in conflict with the missionaries and it is not reasonable that they of all people would be influenced in their prayers by the missionaries.”

At one point, Hualngo brought Halkin a “will” that was dictated by his uncle (who did not know how to read and write) back in 1948, when he was mortally ill and thought he was about to die. In the will the uncle, who was a priest of the “old religion,” made his family swear that they would not abandon their religion and not convert to Christianity, “and there he mentions all the names known from the Bible; the names of the patriarchs and many others. The date of the writing of the will is very significant, as the belief among the members of the group that they are children of Menashe began to spread only in 1954 — that is, it wasn’t influenced by that story. I took the document to a police investigator in Jerusalem and asked him to check its authenticity. He came to the conclusion that he could not determine with certainty that the document had indeed been written in 1948, but there were also no signs of forgery: the type of paper was known at that period and there are no signs of artificial aging. He also compared the handwriting of Yosi and the friend who came with him to the handwriting in the document, and came to the conclusion that they were different, that is, that they hadn’t forged the document.”

…they were cut off from the Jewish people back in the 8th century B.C.E., it’s clear that the traditions that exist among them had existed in the hearts of the people even before that period.

In Manipur, Halkin met Dr. Mi Lui Khuplam, an elderly member of the Kuki people who had studied primitive medicine back in the 1930s and for many years worked as a licensed doctor. At the same time, as someone who from childhood loved his people’s folk tales, he decided to devote himself to collecting those traditions and in fact was the only person to have done so in a systematic way.

“He too collected mainly prayers, in which the names of the patriarchs are repeated, as well as the expression in which they call themselves children of Manmasi. Among other things, the word sela appears repeatedly — a word that also appears in the Psalms and is a mystery to Bible scholars to this day. As in the Bible, with them too this word also appears at the end of a prayer or at the transition to a new segment.”

“Khuplam explained that for them, the meaning of the word is an instruction to the priest to recite the segment again, and this could also suit the biblical meaning. After all, originally the Psalms were sung and it is possible that there too this is an instruction to repeat the segment.”

From the combination of testimonies he heard — including testimony concerning the names of the stations in the people’s wanderings — Halkin constructed a picture of its history: “There is a prayer that mentions among the places the name Ulam and also the name Geled. Both are mentioned in the Book of Chronicles in the area of the tribe of Menashe in Transjordan. Geled recalls the word Gilad, which is also across the Jordan. If so, this tribe was exiled by the Assyrians as far back as the days of Tilgath-Pilneser (732 B.C.E.), when the Transjordanian tribes were exiled, and not during the main exile under Shalmaneser (720 B.C.E.), when the tribes were exiled from Samaria. Apparently they first went to Assyria, and then wandered during the course of history throughout Asia. From the testimonies I heard I understood that in fact only a small part of the current Kuki people are originally related to the tribe of Menashe. Apparently, descendants of Menashe came to the area of Manipur at some stage in history, and when the Kuki invaded there, at the end of the 15th century, they were assimilated into them, as the Kuki invaders were more numerous. And really, the further you get from a certain area of Manipur, the historical traditions linked to Menashe grow weaker.”

Halkin does not think that active steps should be taken to convert the members of the group to Judaism: “After all, they don’t have any real connection to the Judaism of today,” he says. “I would also be careful about saving souls, because in this there is a tangle of political and cultural questions. In my opinion, they should be left to act on their own and we should see whether they themselves make the effort to come closer to Judaism. I do think, though, that if they are interested, like the 5,000 who are already interested, they should be accepted with open arms. I would make it possible for rabbis to be sent there to convert those who are interested there already, without encouraging them to convert. This should definitely be an Orthodox conversion, because the strictness of Orthodox conversion allows for the filtering of people who really want to live as Jews.”

Even though he does not recommend embarking on conversion efforts, Halkin has come to several practical conclusions: “First of all, a very admiring recognition of the strength of the Jewish faith — that with all the historical reversals, and even after the missionary efforts of the last century, this group still preserves traditions that clearly link it to ancient Jewish history. Secondly, their story is very significant for Bible research. After all, we are accustomed to hearing claims that the stories in the Bible did not happen at the times attributed to them and they are just a much later revision of history, which took place before the destruction of the First Temple. Because they were cut off from the Jewish people back in the 8th century B.C.E., it’s clear that the traditions that exist among them had existed in the hearts of the people even before that period.”

To add another element to the Jewish connection of the Kuki, Halkin is helping with plans to carry out genetic testing. This is slated to be performed in the near future by a group headed by Prof. Karl Skorecki of the Technion, who for several years now has specialized in research into Jewish genetics. The team will compare genetic findings from the Kuki with those of the Jews and thus attempt to examine common genetic roots. However, Halkin stresses in advance that “even if a genetic match is not found, this would not refute my belief in this connection. The textual findings are simply too strong.”

A thousand immigrants a year

About seven years ago, Rabbi Avichail began to bring members of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo to Israel as new immigrants; he prefers to call them the Shin-Lung. He came to an agreement with the Interior Ministry whereby he would bring at most 100 people to Israel each year from among those who returned to Judaism with him back in India. In Israel they complete their study of Judaism at the Nahalat Zvi Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and then they undergo full Orthodox conversion. Several hundred members of the group are already living in Israel, most of them in Jewish settlements in the territories in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, especially in Neveh Dekalim in Gush Katif (the Gaza Strip).

The main establishment foe of the “children of Menashe” is not the rabbinate, as might perhaps have been expected, nor the Interior Ministry. It is the Foreign Ministry, which is afraid that Rabbi Avichail’s activities will anger the Indian authorities and damage relations between the two countries. According to Avichail, Foreign Ministry opposition has already meant that for several years now he has not been able to bring even 100 people, “even though my activities don’t bother the Indians themselves, because these people are known as people who in any case are living as Jews, and there is no fear that I am a missionary.”

Despite the opposition, Avichail has recently been planning to step up his activities in this matter. He says he has reached an agreement with the people at the Chief Rabbinate whereby dayanim (religious court judges) will be sent to convert the “children of Menashe” who are living in India as Jews. He says that this will allow for an increase of the number of immigrants to 1,000 a year. At the moment, what he is mostly lacking is funding and people who are qualified to teach Judaism at a level sufficient for Orthodox conversion.

Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein’s Jewish Friendship Fund, which raises money from American Christians for immigration and welfare activities in Israel, has already expressed willingness to contribute to the project; Avichail is checking into the Christian context of the fund. He is not afraid that a sudden relaxation of the possibilities for immigration will lead to conversion of many people who perhaps would not have thought of this initially: “I will not encourage them to do this, but if they come of their own accord, even for marginal reasons, of course we have to accept them. Nevertheless, these are people who originally belonged to the Jewish people.”