A Letter From Pukpui Part 2
Updated: Feb 18
(February 17) When four years ago, in 2018, Meirabi Kupchawng convinced six families numbering some 30 souls in the village of Pukpui to join her in adopting Judaism and leaving Christianity behind, there were other families that came close to throwing in their lot with her group only to back out at the last moment. This wasn’t, as far as I could tell, for religious reasons. The families that got cold feet were as convinced as those that went ahead that the Hebrew Bible was God’s ultimate word and should be obeyed. What deterred them was the fear of social opprobrium, not of heresy.
“I myself was willing to will to take a stand as a Jew,” I was told by Zarzoliana Chhakchhuak, the head of a family that changed its mind. “My wife, though, was afraid of what might happen to us in a village in which everyone was Christian. She felt she lacked the courage to face the contempt and derision that she might encounter, and I wasn’t ready to force her or my children to face more than they could endure. If we had thought that by some miracle we could make it to Israel soon, we would have had no problem with embracing Judaism openly. For better or for worse, though, this is a Christian country, and my family wasn’t prepared for years of being ostracized for being Jewish.”
Yet my own impression, formed during the week that I spent in Pukpui teaching its six families, was that such fears of rejection were exaggerated. These families seemed to get along well with their neighbors, who regularly popped in for conversations and cups of tea on their way to working their farmlands or foraging in the jungle, and who let their children play with the Judaizers’ and roam freely in their houses. There were no doubt some Christians who found the Jewish group odd or strange and quarreled with its members, but religion discussions were more often of a cordial nature. Such was the experience of Elazar Fanai, whose Christian neighbors still know him by his Mizo name of Lalhmangaihsanga.
“Right next door to us,” Elazar told me, “lives a Baptist evangelist with his family. He often visits me, and we have good talks about Judaism. He hasn’t once ridiculed or derided me for my choice of it. He’s curious about our prayers and customs, such as the Shema, the mezuzah on our door frames, and our observance of Shabbat, and though he’s a Christian through-and-through and isn’t about to forsake his belief in Jesus, he once said to me, “You know, it’s a shame that the Church has done away with so many holy teachings, because these things that Judaism observes are all in the Bible. It’s we Christians who have strayed from the road and need to regain it.’”
Together with Meirabi, Elazar was one of four Pukpui residents who decided in late 2018,shortly after the six families made up their minds to embrace Judaism, to travel to Mizoram’s capital of Aizawl and contact the B’nei Menashe community there. “Until then,” he relates, “all we knew about Judaism came from either the Bible or a few Mizo programs on YouTube, and we decided to send a delegation to Aizawl in order to learn more. Since we’re all working people who depend on our daily wages, it took us a while to save up enough for the bus tickets and hotel rooms in Aizawl. It was only in February 2020, at the beginning of the Covid epidemic, that we were able to set out.”
The four of them, two men and two women, arrived in Aizawl not knowing what to expect. “All we had,” Elazar says, “was the address of a Hebrew center that a friend of mine, a taxi driver, had managed to get hold of. We headed straight for it and were lucky enough to find some B’nei Menashe there. One of them, Gabriel Hrangchal, gave us a few pointers about Jewish practice that shocked us into realizing how little we knew. Others were less helpful; we had the feeling that we were being given the cold shoulder by them because they looked down on us as country bumpkins. Still, we made plans with Gabriel to return in a few weeks’ time to learn more and headed home in hopeful spirits. Meanwhile, though, the epidemic spread, there were severe travel restrictions, and we were confined to Pukpui for the rest of the year. And then in December, 2020 Gabriel Hrangchal and his family made Aliyah to Israel and we were left without him.”
For the moment, the six families make do religiously with what little they have. This includes a single Siddur in which the Hebrew prayers are transliterated into Latin characters and a Mizo translation of the Bible. The little congregation meets every Shabbat in one of the families’ homes. Sabbath prayers are read aloud by a prayer leader, even though the words are not understood, and someone else reads aloud the weekly Torah portion, followed by a communal meal. Some of the men and boys have kippot while others cover their heads with hats and hoods, but there are no tefillin or phylacteries and no tallitot or prayer shawls. One of the things that I did during my week in Pukpui was to show the men how to braid the tzitziyot, the ritual fringes attached to a tallit, so that these can be made at home. And helping to make up for the woeful inadequacy of what they have is the families’ closeness to each other. This carries over during the rest of the week in a strong sense of camaraderie, which sometimes includes listening together to Hebrew songs on YouTube and trying to sing them.
The week I was in Pukpui was the week of Tu b’Shvat, and besides giving Torah lessons and instruction in basic Jewish practice, I helped the Jewish families stage a ceremony that even many knowledgeably observant Jews know little about – a Tu b’Shvat “Seder.” This ritual, which seeks to turn a minor holiday traditionally celebrated with the eating of dried fruit from the Land of Israel into a day of mystical significance, goes back to the 17th-century kabbalists of Safed and the 18th-century Tu b’Shvat “Haggadah” Pri Etz Hadar; one of its customs, also modeled on the Passover Seder, is the drinking of four glasses of wine -- red, white, and mixed – to symbolize the four seasons of the year (some also say the fourfold world of Creation and the fourfold nature of the Soul) and the processes of growth and change that take place in them.
Though it might have seemed strange to be celebrating so esoteric a Jewish practice in the jungle-covered hills of southern Mizoram, it did not seem so to the participants, for whom nearly all of Jewish observance is also new, strange, and esoteric.
Pukpui’s tiny new Jewish community might itself be compared to a newly planted sapling, and whether it will strike deeper roots, or be absorbed by Mizoram’s B’nei Menashe community and transplanted in the years ahead to Israel, is impossible to say. One of the interesting things about the Pukpui community is that it first developed much as did the early B’nei Menashe communities in northeast India in the 1970s: entirely independently, in near-total isolation from the outside world, and sparked by a handful of spiritually driven individuals’ reading of the Bible and their resulting conviction that the faith of Israel has not been superseded, as Christianity always claimed.
Should the Pukpui experience be taken to suggest that Judaism in northeast India has the ability to renew itself after being deplenished by Aliyah and that it may have more of a long-term future than is generally thought? One hesitates to generalize about so local a phenomenon, which is not unrelated to the general mood of religious crisis and urgency that has accompanied the Covid pandemic in Mizoram in the last two years. Until now, the Jewish community in northeast India has been characterized by the feeling of being in a perpetual state of transit, biding its time in India while waiting to move to Israel. Pukpui’s new Judaizers speak of moving to Israel, too. Yet if there can be one Pukpui in the 21st century, there can perhaps be others, and the last word on Judaism in northeast India may not necessarily be written with the Aliyah of today’s B’nei Menashe.