Carving Out Hanukkah in Mizoram
(November 26) If placed on a table, you would have to stand on a ladder to light it. If put on the floor, you might have to bend a bit. It’s Isaiah Bawithang’s latest hanukiyyah or Hanukkah menorah, and although it was made in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, one of India’s remotest states, it could hold its own in any exhibit of modern Judaica.
“I‘ve been involved with woodworking all my life,” Isaiah, a member of Aizawl’s Khovevei Zion synagogue, told our correspondent. “I’ve never taken a single class or lesson in it, but it was a hobby since childhood. My father noticed my love of carpentry early on, and while he himself didn’t know much about it, he bought me all the tools and materials that I needed. By the time I was in my early twenties, I was a serious carpenter.”
Isaiah was born in 1959 in Vankal, a small village in the Champhai district of central Mizoram. When he was still a boy, his family moved to the larger, nearby town of Kawlkulh, where he still maintains a residence alongside a second home in Aizawl. For many years he ran a cattle farm there, an occupation he gave up after formally adopting Judaism in 2014. “Raising cattle calls for long-term investment,” he says. “You have to plan years ahead. Since we’ve begun living Jewishly, all our thoughts are of moving to Israel. It’s only there that we can perform all the commandments of Judaism in a proper and thorough manner. You can’t operate a farm while waiting to leave it on a moment’s notice. We haven’t even kept up our house in Kawlkulh, which is in a dilapidated state. There’s no point in sinking money into it with Aliyah always on the horizon.”
Like all B’nei Menashe of his generation, Isaiah, whose given Mizo name is Lalthanga, came to Judaism via Christianity. For many years he was active in various branches of The Church of God, a Messianic denomination that emphasizes Christianity’s Jewish roots. It was under the influence of his three children, the twins Samuel and Ruth, born in 1990, and Esther, who followed eight years later, that he decided to conclude the journey to Judaism that his Christianity had begun. “I’ve always had a strong religious bent,” he says. “Riches and wealth never meant anything to me. I might even have become a clergyman were it not that, growing up in a rural pocket of Mizoram, I had no access to education and never went beyond third grade. But I was active as a lay leader in the church and even served as chairman of the Champhai division of The Church of God Seventh Day. When I finally opted for Judaism, my fellow Christians couldn’t believe it and refused to accept my resignation even after I returned my chairman’s seal!”
Making Jewish ritual objects is not something Isaiah does just for his own satisfaction. “Such items have to be brought from Israel and we B’nei Menashe in Mizoram can’t easily acquire them,” he says.
“Shavei Israel, the organization that pretends to be responsible for us, doesn’t provide them and our community loses out on the opportunity to fulfill the commandments that depend on them. I’m using my skills for it, too. I don’t make only hanukiyyot. I also carve mezuzahs, which are otherwise too expensive for most people to .buy. It’s true that they don’t meet halakhic requirements, because we don’t have an authorized Torah scribe to write their verses, but it’s better than nothing. We try to follow the commandments as much as possible. We know that Mizoram isn’t the ideal place to practice Judaism. That’s why our hearts are always in Israel.”
Isaiah Bawithang is one of the few B’nei Menashe in Mizoram who has been willing to speak out against Shavei Israel openly. In Manipur, the anti-Shavei forces are much stronger. “But now that the injustices and corruption of Shavei Israel are coming to light,” he declares, “things are beginning to change here, too. I call on every one of us who has a voice to speak out, so that our Aliyah can be conducted in a free and fair manner. We can’t afford to wait for it any longer, as Shavei Israel has made us do. Most of us here in Mizoram have trouble finding work due to anti-B’nei Menashe discrimination and we’re constantly meeting with ridicule and contempt from the Christian public. Aliyah is an urgent matter for us.”
And Isaiah’s latest creation? It’s indeed meant to stand on the floor. “There’s a group of us B’nei Menashe here in Aizawl who are close neighbors,” he relates. “Or at least we’re close in local terms – we all live within two kilometers of each other, measured up and down hills. Although we’ll be lighting Hanukkah candles in our own homes, we’ll also be meeting every evening to light them together. For that we need a big Hanukkiya that we can all stand around. It will add to the festive spirit.”