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B’nei Menashe Count Their Blessings At Passover

(March 25) Emerging relatively unscathed from what they hope is the fading of the year- long Corona pandemic, the B’nei Menashe of Israel and India will be celebrating Passover this year in a cautiously optimistic mood.

“With Covid19 behind us, the Pesach celebration will be much livelier this time,” says Ohaliav Haokip, General Secretary of Manipur’s B’nei Menache Council and a resident of Churachandpur, home to northeast India’s largest B’nei Menashe community. “Just a year ago, the Indian government had imposed a lockdown and we seemed to be facing an imminent disaster. In the end, due partly to the food relief we received from Degel Menashe, we averted a serious crisis. In fact, there has not been a single case of Corona in our community since the pandemic started, let alone any deaths.”

Aviva Kipgen

Aviva Kipgen of the northern Manipur town of Kangpokpi relates that there, too, “We’ve been lucky to have been untouched by the pandemic. Unlike last year, when fear of Corona put a total halt to all our gatherings, our synagogue has been holding regular services for months and will be active during Pesach. During the days following the Seder night, we’ll get together there every night after evening prayers to hold a study session and perhaps even a communal meal.”

The figures bear Haokip and Kipgen out. In Manipur, and even more so in Mizoram, the two northeast Indian states with sizable B’nei Menashe populations, Corona morbidity rates have been extremely low. In Israel, too, where they have been significantly higher, there have been no deaths from the disease in the B’nei Menashe community. All who fell ill have recovered, like 31-year-old Rivka Chong Guite of Sderot, who told our Newsletter, “This last year has been a very difficult one. I myself caught the virus and had to spend time in isolation. But I feel blessed that we were all able to get through these trying times and survived them. It’s such a relief to spend festivals together with friends and family again.”

Nadav Lhouvum

Most B’nei Menashe will be celebrating the Seder at home. “There are some communities in Manipur,” says Ohaliav Haokip, “which plan to hold communal Seders this year, but most of us will alone with our immediate families.” This is the case in Israel as well. “We will be having the Seder at home, as we have always done in the seven years that we have been in Israel,” says 37-year-old Nadav Lhouvum of Safed. “That’s also what we’ll do for the rest of the holiday. We’ll attend synagogue services each day and go home for all our meals.”

One difference between Passover in Israel and India is that the B’nei Menashe of India, lacking access to store-bought Passover products, make their own matza. Although, not yet being formally converted to Judaism, they are under no halakhic obligation to obey all the rules, and bakery ovens are unavailable, they do their best. Like others, the Kipgens bake their matsa in pans placed on clay charcoal burners. “The regulations of matsa-baking state that, to make sure that no leavening takes place, no more than 18 minutes may elapse from the moment the flour is moistened until it is put on the fire,” Kipgen says, “and I use a timer on my mobile phone to make sure that we stick to that. Anything that takes longer is thrown away.”

A traditional mepoh

In Israel, white the B’nei Menashe buy their matsa in packaged boxes like other Israelis, they continue to cook many of their traditional foods for the Seder, mixing them with the Israeli dishes they have learned to make. Rivka Chong Guite is planning a meal that will, she says, “feature a B’nei Menashe mepoh – that’s a meat and rice stew spiced with ginger and garlic – alongside a lamb curry and a crushed hot chilli dish. Without the chilli, no B’nei Menashe meal would be complete.”

If a shadow looms over this year’s Passover, it has been cast, as in pre- Corona times, by the distance between India and Israel that leaves many B’nei Menashe separated from and longing for their loved ones. “My closest family members,” says Nadav Lhouvum, “my mother, brother, two sisters, and nephew, are still in Churachandpur, waiting for the day they can come to Israel. I know the wait may be a long one. But we’ll never give up our hopes of celebrating Passover together, all of us in one place, once again a single, complete family.”



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