top of page

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

(September 24) When LiAmi Lawrence traveled to Tiberias on September 14th to give 25 of the city’s B’nei Menashe families vouchers for 200 shekels, it was just another day for him. As co-founder and director of an NGO named KeepOlim, helping new immigrants to Israel is his full-time job. And full means full. Not infrequently, he told our Newsletter this week, he puts in 14 hours or more a day at it.

“KeepOlim” may strike one as no less an unusual name for an organization than “LiAmi Lawrence” is for a person. “When I founded the organization after coming to live in Israel in 2014,” the American-born-and-raised Lawrence explained, “I wanted to give it the English name of ‘The Keep Olim in Israel Movement.’ But when I went to the amutot [NGOs] registration office, I was told that at least half the words in an amuta’s name had to be Hebrew ones. A woman in the office who wanted to help suggested that I shorten the name to ‘Keep Olim.’ After all, she said, olim is the Hebrew word for immigrants, so that would bring us to the fifty percent mark. I accepted her suggestion and made KeepOlim one word.”

And “LiAmi Lawrence,” the first half of which translates as “My-people-is-mine?” How did that come to be?

“That was after an earlier stay in Israel in the early 1990s,” was the answer. “I lived in Tel Aviv for several years and ran a successful nightclub there, but in the end I went back to America and moved to Los Angeles. Lawrence was my given name, but I wanted to be an actor, and when I registered with the Screen Actors Guild in 1994, I thought LiAmi Lawrence would make a good film name. Since I didn’t want two names, one for films and one for my private life, I decided to use LiAmi for both.”

But we are getting ahead of – or more precisely, behind – our story. Two weeks ago, KeepOlim acquired 24,000 shekels worth of vouchers, 120 of them altogether, for the purchase of food and other items. “Our plan,” Liami says, “was to distribute them among lone soldiers from the ex-Soviet Union who have no families here.” However, when this became known to Jessica Thangjom, a KeepOlim Board Member who is married to Degel Menashe’s projects manager Yitzhak Thangjom, she suggested to LiAmi that some of the vouchers be given to recent B’nei Menashe immigrants.

“I thought of Tiberias,” Jessica told us, “because there’s a group of olim there from Manipur who arrived in 2018, with the latest batch of B’nei Menashe to come to Israel.” She contacted Aharon Chongloi, a B’nei Menashe communal leader in the town. “I told Jessica,” Chongloi related to our Newsletter over the telephone, “that the 2018 group was being looked after by Shavei Israel, which brought them to Tiberias. But there was an older group of B’nei Menashe olim in the city, dating to 2015, that Shavei was no longer taking responsibility for. Nobody was. It numbered 37 families and it, too, was in economically difficult circumstances

because of the corona pandemic. We decided to give the vouchers to it.”

The problem was that KeepOlim had only 25 vouchers left. “We had to make difficult choices,” Chongloi says. “All 37 families were deserving. But some were worse off than others – some had more children, or had wage earners who had lost their jobs – and we picked the 25 neediest. The other families were understanding. We told them ‘Next time!’ and we hope that there will be one.”

LiAmi (tall figure at the right of back row) and the 25 families.

There may well be. It’s the kind of thing KeepOlim does. The organization was founded in 2014, when LiAmi Lawrence tried settling in Israel for a second time. In Los Angeles, after a checkered career that included bit parts in Hollywood movies, modeling, working as a personal coach and trainer, and serving as director of media for the city’s Israeli consulate, he was interviewed one day for a new job. “One of the questions the interviewer asked me,” LiAmi said, “was ‘Where do you want to be five years from now?’ I thought: ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to be here. I’d rather be on a beach in Israel.’ Soon afterwards, I made Aliyah again.”

The possibility of moving back to Israel had always been at the back of LiAmi’s mind. Born in Oklahoma, he spent his childhood first in New York City and then in New Jersey and Massachusetts. “I didn’t have much of a formal Jewish education,” he says, “but I did have a bar- mitzvah. My real Jewish education was being beaten up in the high school that I went to for being practically the only Jew. There was even a teacher who refused to let me sit in his class because he said I didn’t believe in Jesus.” At Rider College in New Jersey, from which LiAmi received his B.A., he was president of the local Hillel chapter, which, he says, had the reputation of being under his leadership “the coolest club on campus.” His organizational abilities were apparent even then.

But when LiAmi returned to Israel in 2014, now close to 50, his abilities couldn’t land him a job. “Nobody would hire me,” he recalls. “Soon I was broke. I didn’t have money for food. I would have starved if not for kind neighbors who brought me meals. I didn’t have money to pay the rent. I told my landlord I was going back to America. He said, “No you’re not! This is your home and you’re staying!” Instead of evicting me, he gave me a pass on the rent.” If others could do this for him, LiAmi thought, he could do this for others.

It wasn’t just LiAmi. “I met lots of olim who were in the same situation,” he says. “Some were more desperate than I was. Some had no jobs, some had no friends and no support group, some couldn’t manage to learn Hebrew. I watched them leave the country and go back to where they had come from, one by one. No one was helping them. They had no one to turn to. One day I posted a Facebook blog expressing my anger and frustration at the situation. To my amazement, it received 3,000 responses in three days. Three weeks later, there were 8,500. I had an Israeli friend, Tsvika Graiver, a young lawyer. He said, ‘Let’s start an amuta.’ If no one else was helping, we would.”

LiAmi and Tzvika Graiver welcome arriving B’nei Menashe at Ben-Gurion Airport in 2018

That’s what KeepOlim tries to do. Although it operates on a small budget that comes from private contributions, it offers new immigrants a wide range of services, such as free contract reviews for olim buying apartments or entering into other agreements, free or low-cost psychological counseling and therapy, job hunting, and so on, all provided by volunteers who are often professionals in their fields. LiAmi believes that were it not for KeepOlim, many new immigrants would have left Israel long ago.

“Let’s face it,” he says. “No one wants to admit it, but the Aliyah dropout rate is appalling. Although I don’t have exact statistics, and the official figures are much lower, my own estimate is that over fifty percent of the Americans who make Aliyah go back in the end to America and fifty percent of the French to France. A third of the Russians and Ukrainians leave, too. They just can’t manage to make it here. Some literally depart in the middle of the night because they’re embarrassed or ashamed to be leaving and their hearts are broken at have given up a lifelong dream.”

It’s not, LiAmi says, that other countries are easy for immigrants, either. “But other countries,” he goes on, “don’t recruit immigrants. They don’t make them promises and fail to keep them. Olim to Israel are told all the time, ‘Come! Don’t worry! You’ll have work, you’ll have affordable housing, you’ll have everything you need,’ only to find it isn’t true. They feel cheated and doubly disappointed, I don’t try to convince any of them to stay in Israel. But if someone tells me that they want to stay, I do everything I can to help. Tell me you’re leaving for lack of a job, I’ll try to find you a job. Tell me it’s for emotional reasons, I’ll find you counseling. Tell me you’re hungry, I’ll find you food. We’re fighting this battle in the trenches.”

The B’nei Menashe, LiAmi observes, are in a different category, partly because their strong religious faith buoys them up and partly because, coming from a poor and relatively underdeveloped region of the world, they do not have the expectations that Western immigrants do. Nor have they have a Western economy to return to. Almost none have voluntarily left Israel to date.

And yet, LiAmi says, B’nei Menashe who have computers and smartphones know about KeepOlim and many have turned to it over the years. “They may not leave the country but they’re not being prepared to succeed in it, either,” he observes. “They come, and they go through conversion courses and convert, and they’re given Hebrew lessons – so far, so good. But no one is preparing them for the job market in Israel. No one is teaching them a trade or line of work to enable them to get ahead. And they could get ahead. I’ve talked with many of them. They’re smart people. They just need the training they’re not getting. They need to be helped not less but more than other olim.”

(September 16) Even in a time of partial lockdown, food is food and Rosh Hashanah is Rosh Hashanah. What will Israel’s B’nei Menashe be eating on it?

Our correspondent Jessica Simte posed this question in the days before the holiday to five housewives from Manipur and Mizoram. All told her that they intended to serve festive meals based on traditional Kuki and Mizo cooking. Although common Israeli foods are standard fare in the B’nei Menashe kitchen in Israel, from chicken schnitzel to French fries and from cold cuts to pasta, a holiday meal calls for the dishes that resonate most. These are the ones learned and passed down from mothers and grandmothers. Most make use of typical Kuki-Mizo ingredients: vegetables grown at home or foraged for in nature, lots of hot chilies, and a bed of rice to pour everything over. Meat, once used sparingly because of its expense, is now often included, too.

Sarah Touthang in her kitchen

In one of the most popular of these dishes, known in Manipur as mepoh and in Mizoram as buhchhiar, the rice is mixed into the food as it cooks. Sarah Touthang, who lives in the town of Ofra in Samaria, plans to serve mepoh on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “The holiday wouldn’t be complete without it,” she told our Newsletter. “It’s not something I would make every day, because it takes time and attention – you can’t just stick it in the oven with a timer.”

In the old days, mehpoh was made with smoked beef that had been hung above the cooking hearth of village homes. Sarah browns the meat in her oven to get a similar effect before covering it with boiling water and stirring in pre-soaked rice, vegetables, and seasoning. “The trick,” she says, “is to keep stirring the pot with a wooden ladle until the mixture has the consistency of a porridge. If you turn your back on it for too long, it can solidify – or worse yet, burn.” One of the vegetables she plans to add to her mehpoh is jonglha, a bitter-tasting tree bean widely eaten in southeast Asia. “I just happen to have some stashed away,” she told Simte. “And oh, yes, I almost forgot: I also have some changkha for a side dish. I plan to fry some and boil the rest. You know how fond we are of bitter things.”

Jonglha hanging in a market
Shira Haokip at her cutting board

Changkhai is a bitter gourd, generally found in Israel only in B’nei Menashe kitchen gardens, although it and jonglha can sometimes be obtained in southeast Asian specialty stores that cater mostly to Thai workers. Such a garden is kept by Shira Haokip of Kiryat Arba. As an accompaniment to her changlong bongsa, a beef and banana-stem dish that Shira plans to make for the main course, her Rosh Hashanah dinner will include a side dish of homegrown sapmalcha or habanero chilies and aithanglou, the strong-smelling-and-tasting leaves of the chameleon plant. Because her four Israeli-born children, she says, are not fond of such dishes, there will be some fried chicken and shawarma for them. “I’ll also be making some Moroccan-style fish for the first night of the holiday,’ she told our Newsletter. “It falls on a Friday night, and fish is a must for our family at Shabbat dinners.”

Shira’s changlong

Shira will also be serving a singju, a meza-like Manipuri salad, with the changlong.. When our Newsletter spoke to her, she hadn’t yet decided what would go into it, but she sent us a photograph of "what that might be".

A Manipuri singju. In the center are chopped black sesame seeds. Proceeding counter-clockwise from the chickpeas are chopped green chilis, sliced onion, chameleon leaves, cabbage, a condiment of spicy, ground dried peas called mangal, and strips of dried fish.

Rosalyn Hmar and her daughter.

Rosalyn Hmar of Nof ha-Galil was debating what to serve, too, hesitating betwen two versions of baih, a traditional Mizo stew. One, she says, is a banana-stem baih, the other a bitter gourd baih; the ingredients for both would come from B’nei Menashe friends. She is also thinking of making a traditional bal or taro root dish. Due to the lockdown, she, her husband, and their small daughter will be eating alone on the holiday’s first night and it’s a lot of work to prepare such food for just three people. “Still,” Rosalyn says, “special occasions call for special food, and Rosh Hashana is as special as it gets.”

From left to right: Rosalyn’s banana stem baih, her bitter gourd baih, and her taro dish.

Esther Colney

Traditional Kuki-Mizo cooking is thrifty and tries to make use of every part of a plant or animal, and Esther Colney, who lives in Bet-El, will be using a different part of the colocasia plant in her stir-fried colocasia-stem dish. Although stir-frying is not a traditional Kuki-Mizo way of cooking, she sometimes likes to cook with it. This is also what she plans to do with the bitter eggplant – another vegetable unknown outside of Asia – that she will be serving on Rosh Hashanah, too

Esther’s stir-fried colocasia stem.
Esther’s stir-fried bitter eggplant

Joujam Manlun of Ma’alot is looking forward to something that, as she says, “I’ve been wanting to make for a long time.” Although on ordinary weekdays, she told our Newsletter, she never has time for anything but easy-to-prepare supermarket foods, this Rosh Hashana she plans to make sasung or cow stomach. “Most people,’ says Joujam,” wouldn’t touch such a thing, but for us it’s a delicacy. I’ve had to put in a special order to my butcher for it. I’ll fry it with onion, garlic, ginger, spices, and a generous amount of our native hot chili. I’m already drooling at the thought of it.”

Joujam will be cooking this Rosh Hashanah for seven: her mother-in-law, her husband, his two younger brothers, herself, and her two small children. For those less fond of sasung than she is, there will be standard Indian dishes like beef curry or tandoori chicken. She is also thinking of a spicy fish curry with a hot chili condiment.

Joujam Manlun’s Sasung.

“In the good times before Corona,” Joujam recalls, “we had very big family gatherings every Rosh Hashana. It was always so enjoyable. In Israel everyone is busy, we all live far from each other, and holidays like this are our only chance to be together. This time, we won’t be able to do it the way we would like. But we’ll try to have a good time anyway, and I’m sure we will.”

We’ll all say “Amen” to that.

Sarah Touthang’s Mepoh Recipe

Ingredients: beef, rice, a handful of string bean leaves, 2 or 3 sections of bamboo shoot, soda bi-carbonate, green chillies, ginger, basil, luisa, salt to taste.

Take a kilo of beef, preferably with bones, and cut it into 2-inch cubes. Wash them thoroughly and brown them in the oven at 200 degrees centigrade for about an hour-and-a half. When this is done, turn off the oven and let the meat stay in it.

Measure out two cups of sticky rice. (In Israel, this is generally calrose rice, which is perfect for Asian cooking.) Soak the rice in water for about 10 minutes. Put a large skillet on the stove and add the browned beef with all its juices. Take some hot water and rinse the pan in which the meat was browned, scraping its leavings into the liquid and pouring it into the skillet. with the beef. It is important to do this because that’s where much of the flavor is concentrated. Cover the meat with water until it is half-an-inch below the surface and bring to a boil over a high flame. As the water begins to boil, gradually add the soaked rice and stir until it softens. While the rice is being cooked, take a handful of string bean leaves and 2 to 3 bamboo shoots, cutting them to the desired size. Add chopped green chillies (this is optional), salt to taste, and a pinch of bi-carbonate of soda. This is a substitute for changal, a cooking soda made from the ashes of a firewood stove, that was traditionally added to help give the mepoh its consistency.

Keep stirring and cooking over a low flame for another 15 to 20 minutes. Take a piece of whole ginger about the size of your thumb and cut it into thin strips, crush 6 or 7 basil leaves (more if you like), and sprinkle them over the mepoh while stirring all the while. Another 10 to 15 minutes and it’s ready!


bottom of page