India's 'lost tribe of Israel' awaits a second exodus

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The Independent Online

All together, they dip their middle fingers into plastic cups of grape juice, calling out in Hebrew the names of the 10 plagues they believe their God sent to curse the ancient Egyptians. Plastic Israeli flags and photographs of Jerusalem adorn the chipboard walls.

All together, they dip their middle fingers into plastic cups of grape juice, calling out in Hebrew the names of the 10 plagues they believe their God sent to curse the ancient Egyptians. Plastic Israeli flags and photographs of Jerusalem adorn the chipboard walls.

Saturday's feast could have been a celebration of Passover anywhere in the Jewish world, but this is no ordinary celebration and these are no ordinary Jews.

In India's remote hill states of Mizoram and Manipur, thousands of people who believe they belong to one of the 10 "lost tribes" of Israel are celebrating what they hope is their last Passover here before ending a 2,700-year exodus.

Three weeks ago, reports came from Israel that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar had accepted the B'nei Menashe as one of the fabled lost tribes, and would send a team of rabbis to formally convert them and bring them back to Israel.

"All our dreams have come true," said Liyon Fanai, who embraced Judaism two years ago. Just as the Passover marks the Jews' departure from Egypt for Israel, so he hopes this year will mark his departure for the Promised Land.

On Thursday, a call from Israel said a place had been put aside for him, his wife, Leora, and his 12-year-old son, Sampson, in a Golan Heights settlement. "It is our mitzvah, our duty to go," he said after blessing and breaking the bread at a sabbath gathering in his home in the state capital, Aizwal. "Internally, I feel I am an Israeli, not an Indian."

It is hard to imagine a more unlikely story. A tribe exiled from Israel by the Assyrians about 720BC finds its way, via Afghanistan and China, to this thin slice of India sandwiched between Bangla-desh and Burma. On the way, they forget their language, their history and most of their traditions. Their genes are so mixed up they look like their Mongol neighbours, their memories so faded they speak a Tibeto-Burmese language and eat pork. Almost all that remains is a name, Manasseh, Menasia or Manmase, an ancestor whose spirit they invoke to ward off evil.

In 1950, a holy man from a remote village in Mizoram said the Holy Spirit had appeared to him in a vision, to explain that the "children of Manasseh" were in fact the children of Menashe, a son of Joseph, and it was time to come home. Gradually his ideas took hold among a population that had been converted to Christianity decades before.

Today, there are 800 Menashe in Israel, most in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and 7,000 more in Mizoram and Manipur hoping for their chance to join them. The answer to an intriguing biblical mystery, or a case of mass delusion?

Zaithanchhungi, a Christian woman who hasresearched and defended the Menashe's claims, said that before Christian missionaries came from Wales and England in the late 19th century, the Mizo, Kuki and Chin peoples worshipped one Almighty God, albeit challenged by more than a dozen other spirits. She says some of the practices involving animal sacrifice resembled ancient Hebrew traditions, and an ancient song among one tribe talked of "crossing the Red Sea", with enemies in chariots at their heels. Mizo woven shawls are not unlike Jewish prayer shawls. In place of circumcision is a cleansing ceremony eight days after a child is born, involving burning of incense. However little genetic evidence has been found to support the claims.

A spokesman for Israel's chief rabbinate said a decision on allowing mass conversions outside Israel would be taken after Passover ends on Sunday.

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