Manipur State, India

The Longest Road to Judaism 

Elitsur Haokip was among the first of the Kuki tribesmen in the northeastern Indian province of Manipur to begin exploring his Jewish roots almost 25 years ago. Today, 63 year-old Elitsur remains a leader of the Benei Menashe, or "Children of Menashe," who claim descent from the Biblical Menashe, eldest son of Joseph. The Jewish practitioners among this professed Lost Tribe of Israel number over 5,000. They regularly attend twenty makeshift, mud and bamboo synagogues in the hills on both sides of the India-Myanmar border, more than 2,000 miles from the nearest substantial Jewish community, in Bombay, India. 

Tribal warfare, border conflicts and a flourishing drug trade ravage this corridor, so the Indian government severely restricts foreign visits. Only a dozen western Jews have ever visited the Benei Menashe.

Wise Elitsur teaches about the peace he has found in Judaism, even while surrounded by violence. "If you pray three times a day," he explains, smiling and stroking his long, sparse, gray-black beard and thin moustache, "your life will be very happy. If by chance you miss one day, at that time your life will not be happy. It is correct because I myself practice this. I pray three times a day, Shacharit, Mincha, and Ma'ariv," naming the Jewish morning, afternoon and evening services. 

Most of the Judaism-practicing Benei Menashe, like Elitsur, were first attracted to the religion by the perceived connection to the Biblical Menashe. They trace the roots of today's Kuki, Chin and Mizo tribes to Menashe, whose descendants were expelled from Israel more than 2500 years ago. The Benei Menashe believe that their ancestors trekked from ancient Israel to Afghanistan, into China, through Tibet and Southeast Asia to Myanmar and northeastern India, where they are today's Kuki, Chin and Mizo. 

Across the generations, the Benei Menashe maintained obsolete sacrificial rituals referenced in the Torah and, above all, a deep reverence for their patriarch, Menashe -- called "Manmassi" in the local dialect. Elitsur provides an example: "When someone dies, we list all his ancestors, beginning, "Manmassi Hi-tu, Geled (Gilead) Hi-Tu, Ulam Hi-Tu. Hi-tu means 'grandfather.' Like 'Abraham Hi-tu, Isaac Hi-tu and Jacob Hi-tu. The Bible tells that Geled and Ulam are Menashe's descendants. We only received the Old Testament in 1979, but we always said these ancestors' names." 

A vision of making Aliyah (emigrating to Israel) unites the Benei Menashe like nothing else. For some, the dream is already coming true. Since 1992, more than 700 members of the tribe have reached Israel. Since all 5,000-plus Jewish-practicing Benei Menashe cannot immediately go to Israel, the Benei Menashe leadership in India want to build a permanent Jewish educational center in Manipur, to be sure that only genuine and deserving people will be selected for Aliyah.

The serene Elitsur meditates on the Benei Menashe's love of Israel. "We don't know where Jerusalem is," he concludes, "but when we sing of Zion, our tears come out. We are surely Menashe's tribe. We are surely Israel's tribe."

Bryan Schwartz and Sandy Carter visited the Benei Menashe in 2000 and will tell their story with vivid accounts and photographs in their upcoming book with Jay Sand, Scattered Among the Nations.

Find out how you can join the Scattered Among the Nations campaign to help the Benei Menashe attain their community goals.


Shlomo Gangte laughs with his son, Jeffy. Shlomo, who today runs Shalom Printing, dreams of studying Judaism in Israel or the United States. Shlomo says he would return to Manipur, establishing a Jewish school (Yeshiva) so his son Jeffy and other Benei Menashe youths will have the opportunity to learn more than anyone in Manipur can teach them today. “When I look at the Benei Menashe people,” he reflects in perfect English, “they really want to obey Torah, but do not know how. When we want to learn, we go to someone’s house and learn one from another. How long can we do that, if we don’t have an institution that can train us?”

Shlomo Gangte laughs with his son, Jeffy. Shlomo, who today runs Shalom Printing, dreams of studying Judaism in Israel or the United States. Shlomo says he would return to Manipur, establishing a Jewish school (Yeshiva) so his son Jeffy and other Benei Menashe youths will have the opportunity to learn more than anyone in Manipur can teach them today. “When I look at the Benei Menashe people,” he reflects in perfect English, “they really want to obey Torah, but do not know how. When we want to learn, we go to someone’s house and learn one from another. How long can we do that, if we don’t have an institution that can train us?”

Khandam Nodiel Ngaihte, a member of the Beith Hallel congregation, wears a typical shawl of her home Churachandpur region. She often spends long hours at the loom knitting traditional tribal shawls and, lately, Jewish prayer shawls (tallisim) and skullcaps (kippot). Benei Menashe women began producing their distinctive tallisim and kippot because their husbands could not afford to buy them. Their natural talents soon made these handcrafted Jewish prayer articles among the world's finest. Today, the Benei Menashe hope to support themselves against the dire Manipur economy through production and sales of Jewish items to fellow Jews around the world.

Khandam Nodiel Ngaihte, a member of the Beith Hallel congregation, wears a typical shawl of her home Churachandpur region. She often spends long hours at the loom knitting traditional tribal shawls and, lately, Jewish prayer shawls (tallisim) and skullcaps (kippot). Benei Menashe women began producing their distinctive tallisim and kippot because their husbands could not afford to buy them. Their natural talents soon made these handcrafted Jewish prayer articles among the world's finest. Today, the Benei Menashe hope to support themselves against the dire Manipur economy through production and sales of Jewish items to fellow Jews around the world.

 
A visit to Imphal’s Benei Menashe community would be incomplete without a ride in the Shalomobile auto-rickshaw taxi. Joseph Ngamkhoneh Haokip, who most frequently chauffeurs the typical Indian taxi, is trying to start a side-business selling Amway. Unless one owns a shop or taxi, or can buy a government position, there are no jobs in Manipur.

A visit to Imphal’s Benei Menashe community would be incomplete without a ride in the Shalomobile auto-rickshaw taxi. Joseph Ngamkhoneh Haokip, who most frequently chauffeurs the typical Indian taxi, is trying to start a side-business selling Amway. Unless one owns a shop or taxi, or can buy a government position, there are no jobs in Manipur.

Hundreds listen attentively to speech after speech praising G-d for finally allowing outside Jewish visitors to come to Churachandpur, two hours south of Imphal. Churachandpur embraced Judaism 25 years ago and still boasts the Benei Menashe’s flagship community, with several synagogues housing 1500 members. Yet, even Israeli Rabbi Eliayahu Avichail, the community’s father figure, was five times denied access to Churachandpur.

Hundreds listen attentively to speech after speech praising G-d for finally allowing outside Jewish visitors to come to Churachandpur, two hours south of Imphal. Churachandpur embraced Judaism 25 years ago and still boasts the Benei Menashe’s flagship community, with several synagogues housing 1500 members. Yet, even Israeli Rabbi Eliayahu Avichail, the community’s father figure, was five times denied access to Churachandpur.

Rachamim Hanshing, in traditional Benei Menashe shawl, prays over the staple food, rice, at a crowded dinner for Jewish family and friends. In his spare time, Rachamim, a metalworker, handicrafts mezuzot (small boxes containing prayers, attached in doorways and gates of Jewish homes). Rachamim’s father was a great tiger and elephant hunter in the hills around Imphal, the capital of Manipur, in northeastern India. Today, Rachamim says, “We are waiting for the land of Menasseh in Israel." 

Rachamim Hanshing, in traditional Benei Menashe shawl, prays over the staple food, rice, at a crowded dinner for Jewish family and friends. In his spare time, Rachamim, a metalworker, handicrafts mezuzot (small boxes containing prayers, attached in doorways and gates of Jewish homes). Rachamim’s father was a great tiger and elephant hunter in the hills around Imphal, the capital of Manipur, in northeastern India. Today, Rachamim says, “We are waiting for the land of Menasseh in Israel."