Can You Find Yourself (Or Anyone You Know) In These Photos?
An unusual series of photographs, taken of the B’nei Menashe community of Churachandpur in 1985, has been given to our Website by Judith Raymond, an Indian-born Israeli. Its story is best told by herself. Indeed, this is what she did in a letter sent a four years ago to Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel. Since she received no reply from him, she decided to turn to our Website. Here are excerpts from her original letter:
Dear Mr. Freund,
I live in Arad, Israel, but I was born and grew up in Mumbai – Bombay, as it was called then. My family was affiliated with the Rodef Shalom Synagogue, where I first encountered a few members of the B’nei Menashe community. They told us about their roots and their wanting to be in touch with the Indian Jewish Community. My family occasionally hosted some of them overnight, since coming with little money from North-East India, it was hard for them to find inexpensive accommodation. In time, more B’nei Menashe came to Mumbai. They attended services at the various Synagogues in the City, and, later on, several of their youth studied at the Vocational Training Centre of ORT in Mumbai and lived in hostels provided for ORT students.
I myself had left India in 1970, having received a scholarship to continue my social work studies at Yeshiva University in New York. I returned to India after graduation and worked there for a while and then made Aliya to Israel in 1975. However, due to budget cuts in the ministry of health, education, and welfare, I was often unemployed, and I emigrated to Australia and then to Hong Kong, where I found work with UNHCR, a UN agency dealing with asylum seekers. Later, I also worked as a tour leader in Vietnam, Cambodia, and India
with an Australian tour operator. In 2008, I returned to Israel for good.
In 1985, in Hong Kong, I met Rabbi Eliyahu Avichayil of Jerusalem while attending as usual Shabbat Services at the Ohel Leah Synagogue. He was on a fund-raising tour for his organization Amishav, and I happened to mention to him that my sister Susan and I were planning a trip to India very soon.
On hearing this, Rabbi Avichayil explained that he had just, a few weeks earlier, traveled to Calcutta (now Kolkotta) in the hope of journeying to Manipur and Mizoram so as to meet the B’nei Menashe Community. However, due to political problems with China at the time [the Chinese had supported separatist movements in the region seeking independence], almost all of North-East India was considered a “Security Area” in which foreigners were not allowed. Although able to meet with members of the B’nei Menashe Community in Calcutta, Rabbi Avichayil was barred like all foreigners from entering their home states. Would my sister and I, he now asked, be willing to make the trip there to meet the Community?
We told him that we would have been happy to do so, but that since we had surrendered our Indian citizenship on making Aliyah to Israel, we were now considered “foreigners” ourselves. Refusing to take that for an answer, he convinced us that, since we looked perfectly Indian, we would have no problem, and put us in touch with a Mr. Thangjom [Yehoshua Thanjom, the father of Degel Menashe’s project director Yitzhak Thangjom], a member of the B’nei Menashe Community, whom we subsequently met at the Judah Haim Synagogue in New Delhi. At first, Mr. Thangjom, being the holder of a high government post, was understandably reluctant for us to travel to an area we were legally not supposed to be in. In the end, however, he relented, and told us that if we wished, he and his wife would help us.
And so we set out on a long journey to Manipur, via Nagaland. We met the Thangjoms in their hometown of Imphal, Manipur’s capital, and they put us up us for the night. A senior official of the Indian ministry of tourism was visiting Imphal at the time and a cultural program had been prepared in his honor, which Mr. Thangjom invited us to attend.
The next morning, having arranged for this minister to do some sight-seeing, Mr. Thangjom had us join his party of VIPs. A car and driver were put at our disposal for the day. Susan and I accompanied the official everywhere. We were instructed by Mr. Thangjom not to reveal that we had any connections with Israel and to be dressed in Indian attire, and so we masqueraded as teachers from a school in Western India who were looking at possibilities for school tours in the North East. There were many comic moments in the course of this adventure, but I won't go into them.
From Imphal we continued to Churachandpur. We reached it on Erev Shabbat. Word had spread about the arrival of "two representatives of Rabbi Avichayil" from Israel and everyone gathered to greet us at the house of a Mr. Isaac. It was a very spiritual and unforgettable evening. The next day we attended Shabbat morning services at Beit Shalom, housed in a very modest thatched hut. It was wonderful meeting the Community. We took pictures and recorded some of their traditional music, which was mostly about their longing for Zion.
Although we also had plans to travel to Aizawl in Mizoram, difficulties prevented us from making the trip. When I returned to Israel, I traveled to Jerusalem to meet Rabbi Avichayil. I gave him copies of the photos of the Community that we took, as well as the music we recorded.
I am writing this to you, as I thought you might be interested in a little bit of B’nei Menashe history. Also, I wanted you to have the photos for your Archives.
We are delighted to be able to post Judith Raymond’s photographs on our Website. Not all are of equally good quality. Some were taken in poor light. Still, not a few of our readers may be able to identify themselves or others whom they know. To enlarge them, you only need click on them.
Everyone in these photographs was 35 years younger when they were taken than they are today. Those who were children have now reached or are approaching middle age and have families of their own. Those who were young adults are older ones. Some of those who were elderly are no longer with us.
Can you find yourselves in these photographs? Can you find anyone whom you recognize? If you can, we would love to hear from you, to know whom you have identified, and to be told of your memories, including any you may have of Judith Raymond’s visit. You can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are the photographs: