B’nei Menashe Join Indian Jewry At Malida Celebration
(January 20) When Ronia Lunkhel rose to address the audience at this year’s Malida celebration, she was the first representative of the B’nei Menashe to do so. Considering that Malida as an official celebration is only three years old, this may not seem like much. Yet it marked one more stage in the growing recognition of the B’nei Menashe as an integral part of Israel’s community of Jews from India.
Malida, originally the name of a rice-and-fruit dish served by Indian Jews on festive occasions, and consequently of such occasions themselves, has now joined other ethnic celebrations such as the Moroccan Maimouna and the Ethiopian Sigd as an annual day in the Israeli calendar, one coinciding with the holiday of Tu b’Shvat.
Largely the creation of two Israelis of Indian background, Ilana Shazor, a social worker from Hadera, and Elias Dandekar, a writer and historian from Binyamina, the annual Malida was celebrated this week in Jerusalem. The 200 guests who attended an evening of Indian food, dance, and music, and had a choice of lectures given in adjacent rooms, came from what have traditionally been considered India’s three distinct Jewries: the Bene Israel of the subcontinent’s west coast, the Cochin Jews of its southern tip, and the Baghdadi Jews of Bombay and Calcutta. To these has now been added as a fourth group: the B’nei Menashe of the northeastern states of Mizoram and Manipur. Still an unknown quantity to many Israelis, they were the subject of Ronia Lunkhel’s talk.
“Not many people in this country know of our history,” our Newsletter was told by Ronia, a 29-year-old student of traditional Chinese medicine who came to Israel as a one-year-old with her family, grew up in Kiryat Arba, and lives today in the Galilee. “I felt that it was both a privilege and an obligation to tell the Malida guests about us, about why we are here in the land of Israel, and about how our story has influenced me personally. Some of them weren’t easily convinced by my explanation of who we were and asked hard questions. Even though I had prepared for these, I didn’t know all the answers, which has made me determined to learn more. My hope is that we B’nei Menashe can learn to live in this country as full Israelis without losing our roots in ancient tribe of Israel.”
Some knowledge of the B’nei Menashe, says Isaac Ashkenazi, an Indian-born resident of Ra’anana who was one of the Malida guests, has long existed among at least some Indian Jews. As a child in a Baghdadi Jewish congregation in Calcutta, he recalls, “I remember sitting in our synagogue on a Jewish holiday when three or four families of B’nei Menashe walked in. My father, who was the synagogue’s sexton, welcomed them and gave them prayer books. It was a new experience for me to see people like them at Jewish prayer.”
But Ashkenazi, who would appear to be referring to a group of pre-B’nei Menashe Judaizers from Mizoram who visited Calcutta in search of a Jewish connection (the B’nei Menashe movement itself did not take shape until the mid-1970s), adds that at first Indian Jewry was wary of the B’nei Menashe and doubted their Jewishness, and that in Israel, too, it had little contact with them until the last decade, after they had been making Aliyah for twenty years. “The turning point,” he says, “was in 2010 when the Indian Jewish Heritage Center organized an event for the specific purpose of introducing the B’nei Menashe to the Indian community in Israel. But the B’nei Menashe have also become more interested in contacts with us over the years. The first generation of them in Israel was too involved in adjusting to a new world have room in its life for such a thing. It was the second generation that looked about and became aware that there were other Jews from India in Israel just as we were becoming aware of them.”
Concern about the B’nei Menashe’s Jewish bona fides has long since vanished among Indian Jews, according to Elias Dandekar.
“After all,” he says, “all of us Jews from India go far back in history. We may look different from one another and from other Jews in Israel, but the same blood flows in our veins.” And there are in addition, says Ilana Shazor, psychological and behavioral traits that other Jews from India have in common with the B’nei Menashe. “Although the differences between Cochin and Maharashtra [the home of most of the Bene Israel] are enormous,” she observes, “there’s a basic Indian spirit in both. There’s the same downplaying of the individual self. The B’nei Menashe have it also. Put two of them in a class of aggressive Israelis at school and you’ll at once see how Indian they are. We Bene Israel and Cochini Jews were like that, too, when we first came to Israel. We’ve lost a lot of it since then, and the B’nei Menashe remind us of how we were.”
As a fellow Indian Jew, Ilana says, she feels a special responsibility to the B’nei Menashe and a desire to help them in their adjustment to Israel.
“It’s embarrassing to see them being treated in the same way as immigrants like my parents were back in the 1950s,” she says. “All the red tape and uncaring bureaucracy are still there. I think of it as my duty to help them in their absorption process.” Elias Dandekar, who took part two months ago in a B’nei Menashe demonstration in front of the Ministry of Immigration’s offices in Tel Aviv, says of it, “We’re all from India and we have to march together.”
This was also the sentiment of yet another Malida guest, Avner Isaacs of Rosh ha-Ayin, who was two years old when his Bene Israel family immigrated to Israel from Mumbai. “For me, they’re not only Jews in every sense of the word,” he said, “they’re also my brothers and sisters as Indians. I think that all Indian Jewish organizations in Israel need to help them find solutions for their problems. I feel personally committed to this.”
So does Ilana Shazor, who also took part in the Tel Aviv demonstration. “When I heard that the B’nei Menashe were having problems with a private organization [Shavei Israel] into whose hands they had fallen,” she relates “I decided to give them my support. That’s why I saw to it that one of their young people was invited to speak at this year’s Malida celebration. It was important for Ronia to be heard. She explained things in the best possible way.”