B’nei Menashe Oral History Book Soon to Appear
(September 24) The Gefen Publishing House of Jerusalem has announced the forthcoming appearance of Lives of the Children of Manasia, a book of oral history interviews with elders of the B’nei Menashe community living in Israel. Gefen, a leading publisher of English books on subjects of Jewish interest, plans to release the book in 2022.
The twelve interviews in the book, held in the years 2017-2020, were conducted by Yitzhak Thangjom and edited by Hillel Halkin, who also contributes a lengthy introduction and historical afterword. The project was financed with the aid of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico and its president Sabra Minkus, a long-time B’nei Menashe supporter.
“Hillel and I,” Thangjom told our Newsletter, “kept in touch ever since traveling twice together to Mizoram and Manipur in 1999-2000 to conduct research for Hillel’s book Across the Sabbath River, with which I helped him as a translator and aide. Our oral history project grew out of our awareness that there was an older generation of B’nei Menashe with a history, stories, and a trove of personal and cultural memories that were not being passed on to the young and stood to be forgotten. A whole world was about to be lost. Although we had no illusions about how much of it we could preserve, we wanted to get as much of it on record as we could. Once the New Mexico Jewish Federation gave us its backing, we set to work.”
Thangjom spent nearly three years crisscrossing Israel and taping interviews in their native languages of Mizo and Kuki with dozens of B’nei Menashe, the youngest of them close to sixty, the oldest in his nineties. Each of the interviews lasted many hours and in some cases involved several sessions. Thangjom then translated these into a verbatim English and passed the transcripts to Halkin, who chose those that seemed to him most interesting and edited them for publication. They are, in the order in which they appear in the book, with Miriam Gangte, Elitsur Haokip, T. Aviel Hangshing, Gideon Rei, Ruth Binyamin, Kap Joseph, Sha’ul Llanghal, Mangsat Kipgen, Dvora Israel, Yosi Hualngo, Shlomo Gangte, and Isaac Thangjom.
“Editing an oral history interview isn’t like editing an ordinary manuscript,” Halkin told our Newsletter. “Even when the interviewer tries getting someone to talk sequentially about his or her life, the subject inevitably wanders, jumps back and forth in time, and goes associatively from one memory to the next. The result can be gripping but also confusing to a reader, and it’s the editor’s job to introduce a measure of cohesiveness and continuity into the confusion. You have to do a a lot of rearranging and reordering while at the same time remaining true to what the interviewee has said and how he or she has said it.”
The interviews in Lives of the Children of Manasia, Halkin says, are fascinating. “Each of the life stories told in them shares much with the others and is at the same time totally unique. Some of the men and women interviewed grew up in small jungle villages, others in towns. Some were raised in the old pre-Christian Kuki-Mizo religion, some in families Christianized by British missionaries. Some had much formal education, others had little or none. Some belonged to the founding generation of the B’nei Menashe movement and talk about its early years; others joined it at a later stage. Yet in one way in another, all found their way to Judaism arduously and with great effort, and the book relates the paths they took to it.”
This makes Lives of the Children of Manasia, Halkin says, of great historical value. “Any future scholar wanting to know about the genesis of the B’nei Menashe,” he observes, “will find this an indispensable volume. There are many myths about the B’nei Menashe, ranging from the claim that they are the direct descendants of an exiled biblical tribe that preserved its Israelite identity throughout the ages to the argument that they represent a purely twentieth-century phenomenon typical of post-colonial societies that seek to reinvent themselves after losing their traditional culture. The truth is far more complicated than either of these simplistic views. Although many mysteries still remain about the possible ancient roots of the B’nei Menashe’s Judaism, our interviewees’ accounts provide a firm basis for further research, which has not existed until now.”
Gefen’s publisher, Ilan Greenfield, put things more succinctly. “I think this is an important book,” he told us. “I’m honored to publish it.”