B’nei Menashe Flock To Synagogue Inauguration
(June 23) The village of Phalbung nestles in the hills of Kangpokpi District, a three-hour drive into the mountains north of Churachandpur. It’s little more than a hamlet and is the home, with some 15 families and 60 members, of one of Manipur’s smallest B’nei Menashe congregations, one that was ignored by the others over the years. This was not only due to its remoteness. It was also the result of the B’nei Menashe of Phalbung having doggedly clung to the Ashkenazi prayer book long after Shavei Israel, in an assertion of power, decreed a boycott of all B’nei Menashe communities that did not observe the Sephardi rite. Ostracized by Shavei, whose domination of B’nei Menashe life went unchallenged until recently, the B’nei Menashe of Phalbung were all but forgotten.
And yet on June 19, when they celebrated the inauguration of a new synagogue whose construction was recently finished with the help of a grant from Degel Menashe, busload after busload of B’nei Menashe from elsewhere arrived to join the festivities. Still more came by car and public transportation. By the time the proceedings began at 11 a.m., close to 500 B’nei Menashe had massed in the village despite the rain that had fallen that morning and was expected to continue throughout the day.
Even quite a few Shavei Israel supporters, it was reported, turned out for the event, the official part of which was held inside a large tent in a field that the Phalbung community had erected. There was an opening prayer, welcoming speeches, and communal singing, followed by an address by B’nei Menashe Council chairman Lalam Hangshing ”Phalbung’s story is a remarkable one of resilience in the face of adversity,” Hangshing said. “Shavei Israel has been a parasite feeding off the miseries of its own people. It needs to be relieved of all further responsibility for the B’nei Menashe.”
Several more short talks were concluded with a resounding chorus of Ka Thange, Ka Thange, the B’nei Menashe anthem. The crowd then made its way to the synagogue, which had been largely built by the congregation’s own labor, for the traditional ceremony of affixing a mezuzah to the doorpost of the entrance. It being well past noon, the guests, or as many of them could fit into it, then entered the building for mincha, the afternoon service, which marked the end of the formal proceedings.
It was now time for the feast all looked forward to. Two cows were slaughtered and butchered adhering to the laws of kashrut, and the meat, having been salted to drain it of its blood, was cooked in huge pots hung over log fires and tended and stirred by a team of men and women. Half of it was cooked in the traditional Kuki style called mepoh, boiled with rice and fresh spices like ginger and garlic, while the other half was fried in oil and prepared as an Indian curry. Everyone was given a plate and took all they wanted.
The rain had providentially stopped, and for hours the guests ate, and helped themselves to more, and mixed and talked and met old friends. Then as the sun began to drop in the sky, they said their farewells and set out for home with, as one of the participants put it to our Newsletter, “warm feelings and a renewed sense of brotherhood.”
These were words that all present would have agreed with. There was at the event a palpable sense of joy and relief, and of a corner having been turned in the struggle of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe to get out from under the thumb of Shavei Israel’s domination and replace the internal strife it had instigated and thrived on with a recovered sense of common purpose. As Ya’akov Haokip, a member of the Phalbung congregation put it: “Today marks the beginning of a new chapter for us, one of inclusivity in which no one is left out any longer. It’s Phalbung’s reward for not having lost or abandoned its Jewish faith in all the years that it had to cope by itself. May the God of Israel bless us all!”
Asked whether she hadn’t felt uncomfortable with the Ashkenazi prayer of Phalbung, Ariella Haokip of Churichandpur’s Beit Shalom synagogue, which has followed the Sephardi rite for long years, replied: “Not at all. We all call out to the one true God who hears prayer. He makes no distinction between Ashkenazi and Sephardi.”
And Khana Dimngel, also of Beit Shalom, echoed the sentiment when she said: “This event should be the first of many like it. We need to bring B’nei Menashe community together again, the way it once was. The commandments of Judaism are also about fellowship and harmony. It’s high time we all stood together. After all, we’re all the children of Menashe.”