A Letter From Mizoram

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

(August12) This past Shabbat, shortly after Bethyah Vuite, a widowed member of Aizawl’s B’nei Menashe community, sat down for evening Kiddush with her only daughter, neighbors sounded an alarm that the upper floor of her house had caught fire. Although mother and daughter were able to keep the fire from spreading to the kitchen downstairs, it was too late to save any of their belongings or documents in the top-floor rooms and they watched in horror as the fire, apparently caused by a short circuit, consumed their earthly belongings.


Bethyah, a government employee, is a regular attendee of a synagogue in Aizawl. Like most people in Mizoram, she had no insurance. Most of the week following the fire was spent by her filing papers with the municipal authorities to record her loss. Once this task is completed, she will face the daunting prospect of getting all her personal documents reissued.


Besides their clothing and valuables, Bethyah and her daughter lost all their Jewish ritual objects and religious books.


Bethyah Vuite and her daughter.

Grieving her the most was the burned prayer book, the Siddur, that she had regularly prayed from. For the time being, she has been given an old, battered replacement prayer book that had lain unused in a friend’s house. “I know that the Siddur I’m holding is a Jewish prayer book,” she says, “but I can’t get myself to feel at home with it. The words just don’t seem the same.”


It’s not just in Bethyah’s imagination. Not all of the words are the same. The replacement prayer book given her is an Ashkenazi one dating from the early years when the Bnei Menashe first rediscovered their Jewish roots and adopted the Ashkenazi rite under the tutelage of Rabbi Eliyahu Avichayil, who came regularly from Israel in the 1980s and ‘90s to teach them the ways of rabbinic Judaism.


In the early 2000s, however, when Shavei Israel pushed Avichayil and his organization Amishav out and took control of the B’nei Menashe community, it sought to underline the change by introducing the Sefardi Siddur and its rite while strictly proscribing Ashkenazi practices. B’nei Menashe who defiantly clung to them were banned from Shavei-controlled synagogues and denied Aliyah, and as a result, most Bnei Menashe have come to think of the Sefardi liturgy as the only acceptable one for praying to God in. “Although I’m glad that I at least have an Ashkenazi Siddur now,” Bethyah says, “I won’t feel at peace until I obtain a Sefardi one. Some of my friends in Israel have promised to send me one, but given the current pandemic restrictions, I won’t be receiving it anytime soon.”


Yet all in all, she sounds a note of gratitude: “I’m thankful to God,” she tells her comforters, “that my daughter and I weren’t physically harmed.” And she is touched by the expressions of solidarity she has received. “I’m really embarrassed,” she says, “by how so many of my fellow B’nei Menashe, people I don’t even know, have reached out in support. Although I understand that this is an expression of ahavat chinam [unconditional love for one’s Jewish brethren], I can’t help but feel that I don’t deserve it all. May we always remain united by the same kind of love.”


Though the Aizawl community has shown its warmth and concern for Bethyah and her daughter, its economic condition right now is such that it cannot afford to give much more than moral support. [Editorial note: A collection for Batya and her daughter has been taken up by B’nei Menashe in Israel. Those wishing to contribute can do so by https://payboxapp.page.link/xtBAyzSL5Zxcrr4N7 ] Apart from the havoc wreaked on them by the long-term Covid lockdown restrictions that have been in force since shortly after Passover, Mizoram’s B’nei Menashe, along with other Mizos, have had to suffer the effects of the eruption of a long-simmering border dispute between Mizoram and its neighboring Indian state of Assam.


The dispute erupted in violence on July 26, when clashes near the northern Mizo town of Vairengte resulted in seven dead, six of them Assamese police, and 60 injured

The red and blue dots marks the disputed areas.

In retaliation, Assam, which serves as the primary lifeline for goods entering Mizoram, imposed an economic blockade that lasted for nearly two weeks and reduced the flow of daily essentials to a trickle. Fuel was strictly rationed, there were repeated electric blackouts, and the cost of basic products shot up. Earlier this week, the blockade was finally lifted, but the state is still under a lockdown.


The overall situation remains grim. Mizoram is a very close-knit and ethnically homogeneous society, and, when the pandemic broke out early last year, there was a flurry of philanthropic activity by grassroots organizations and charitable givers. Yet after a year of lockdowns and economic contraction, the givers have little left to give. Moreover, a budget shortfall has curtailed government welfare programs across the state.


In consequence, even middle class families have had to cut back drastically on their diets. Although the state government runs a monthly rationing program that allots a set amount of rice and pulses per family at a subsidized rate, these essentials are not free and are not affordable for everyone. This includes many B’nei Menashe, who are predominantly day laborers and are hard-pressed to pay such expenses as groceries, rent, school fees, and medicines. As it prepares for the High Holidays and the Jewish New Year, the community is beset by gloom.


One bright spot has been last month’s Degel Menashe food relief operation, which temporarily lifted the threat of hunger hanging over many families.


An Aizawl grocer prepares a Degel Menashe food package in July.

Although Shavei Israel has also promised aid, none has been forthcoming so far, and sentiment against Shavei, which has been growing in recent months because of numerous complaints regarding its allegedly unfair administration of B’nei Menashe Aliyah, has reached new heights. Many families that refused, under pressure from Shavei, to accept food from Degel Menashe in July have now changed their minds and are pinning their hopes on Degel Menashe’s offering to come to their aid once again