A Private Declaration of Independence
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Exactly a year ago, on Israel’s Independence Day, we posted a song in its honor written and sung in his native language of Kuki by Gershom Mate, who arrived in Israel from Manipur in 2014. Readers who would like to hear it again this year will find it as this link.
But besides celebrating Israel’s independence in song, Gershom has declared his own independence by being the first B’nei Menashe immigrant in Israel to open a successful business, a photography studio in Acre, the seaside city in northern Israel in which he lives with his wife and child. And now, going a step further but in the same entrepreneurial spirit, Gershom has added a recording studio as well.
“I’ve been interested in both the visual arts and technology since I was a child,” Mate told our Newsletter this week. “I’ve always loved photography and singing, and joining the two together has been a dream of mine. When I at first came to Israel, I drifted from one low-paying job to another. None gave me any satisfaction, and so I decided to take a course in photography. Already back in India, I had had the idea of setting up a photography-and-sound studio. But when I discussed doing this with my B’nei Menashe friends in Israel, some of whom had been here longer than me, only a few were encouraging. Most were skeptical that I could manage to start such a business, much less make it succeed. Some even talked potential investors out of backing me when I asked them for recommendations!
“I realized,” Mate continues, “that whatever I did, I would have to do on my own. I couldn't depend on anyone but myself. So, I saved up money while working in an electronics plant and opened a photo studio in Acre, which I called Akhim Menashe, [Menashe Brothers] in 2016. I knew very well that it was a risk, but I was determined to go ahead. Some people in the B’nei Menashe community laughed at me. They said, ‘Let's see how long he lasts.’ There was envy. Until then, no one in our community had had the courage to open their own business, and some people wanted me to fail in order to justify their fear of doing so.
“In the end, I was lucky. I rented a small shop and soon I had many customers, both locals and B’nei Menashe. Everything thrived until Covid19 came along. At that point, business dropped drastically. The shop was shut most of the time. I even thought of shutting it down permanently. But I refused to give up, and instead I moved to another location, a cheaper and even smaller one, renamed it Studio AMS for Akhim Menashe Studio, and somehow managed to stay afloat. Now, with the whole country getting vaccinated and life slowly returning to normal, things are picking up again.
“I had always wanted to have a sound studio, if for no other reason than my love of music. But the shop I was renting had no room for such a thing. And so in late December of last year, when the lease on our apartment was almost up, I went house-hunting. After looking at a few apartments, I came across one that had four bedrooms. The rent wasn’t cheap but I bargained it down until it wasn’t much higher than our old apartment’s, and then I rushed to sign a contract before the owner could change his mind.
“By the first week of January we had settled into our new place. Next, to realize my dream of many years, I chose one of the bedrooms, which was about 9 or 10 square meters, for my sound studio. It wasn’t a big space, to put it mildly, but it was enough. I asked several small contractors to give me estimates for making the necessary renovations, and since their proposals were high, I decided to do everything myself. I bought all the materials I needed -- glass, plaster, acoustic paneling, etc. – and every day, after finishing work in my photo shop, I put in two hours working on my dream.
“It took me almost two-and-a- half months to complete everything. A week before Passover, it was finally ready. I didn’t have to worry about the equipment because I'd bought it over the years, knowing the day for it would come. I already had a synthesizer, a sound mixer, microphones, and other things. The only new item I bought was an electric guitar. I now had an adequately equipped studio that I could upgrade from time to time when I had the money for it. My first customer walked through the door on the second day of Passover. It was a B’nei Menashe who had written some songs and wanted to record them.
“We’re a community that loves songs and singing. I hope to promote up-and-coming B’nei Menashe artists and contribute my bit to our culture. Besides the pop songs that will account for the bulk of the recordings in my studio, I’d like to explore traditional song and music, perhaps using old Kuki instruments like the gosem [a Kuki bagpipe] while fusing them with modern ones. I’ll see how it develops. The possibilities are endless.”
How does Gershom find time to run two different shops all by himself?
“By working long hours,” he answers. “I’m in my photography shop all day until 5 or 6 in the evening, and then in my sound studio until midnight.”
When, then, does he see his wife and child?
Gershom laughs. “When I can.”
It’s not easy to be independent or to try to live a dream, but it’s deeply gratifying. The people of Israel know this.
So does Gershom Mate..