Degel Menashe’s Director Interviewed for Indian Magazine
In an interview with Israeli journalist Lev Aran, Degel Menashe’s managing director Yitzhak Thangjom talks about himself and about Degel Menashe. Here is an excerpt from his remarks as they appeared in the Indian quarterly margAsia, with whose permission they are reprinted.
Question: 𝗜𝘁𝗮𝗺𝗮𝗿 𝗕𝗲𝗻 𝗔𝘃𝗶 [the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a seminal figure in the modern Hebrew revival] 𝗶𝘀 𝗰𝗼𝗻𝘀𝗶𝗱𝗲𝗿𝗲𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗲 “𝗳𝗶𝗿𝘀𝘁 𝗛𝗲𝗯𝗿𝗲𝘄 𝗰𝗵𝗶𝗹𝗱 “ 𝗶𝗻 𝗜𝘀𝗿𝗮𝗲𝗹𝗶 𝗰𝘂𝗹𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲 𝗯𝗲𝗰𝗮𝘂𝘀𝗲 𝗵𝗲 was 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗳𝗶𝗿𝘀𝘁 𝘁𝗼 𝗯𝗲 𝗿𝗮𝗶𝘀𝗲𝗱 𝘀𝗽𝗲𝗮𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗺𝗼𝗱𝗲𝗿𝗻 𝗛𝗲𝗯𝗿𝗲𝘄. 𝗟𝗲𝗴𝗲𝗻𝗱 𝗵𝗮𝘀 𝗶𝘁 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗳𝗶𝗿𝘀𝘁 𝗝𝗲𝘄𝗶𝘀𝗵 𝗯𝗼𝘆 𝗶𝗻 𝗻𝗼𝗿𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗮𝘀𝘁 𝗜𝗻𝗱𝗶𝗮. I𝘀 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝘁𝗿𝘂𝗲?
Answer: While I can’t say I was the very first, I certainly belonged to the first generation that grew up with Judaism in the remote region of the Indian northeast in which we lived. Judaism had just been “discovered” then. It was in the early 1970s that people like my parents came to realize that there were Jews elsewhere in the world who lived by the words of the Bible. My father and mother had heard about this by 1975. As soon as they did, my mother, much like Moses’s wife Tsipora in the Bible, immediately had my father and myself circumcised. It was done at a hospital by a doctor who was a friend of my father, who himself served in the elite federal civil service of the Indian government.
The first embryonic Judaic community in northeast India was established in Churachandpur, a town south of Imphal, the capital of Manipur in which we lived. We often had visitors from Churachandpur who brought us news of developments there. There was a general spiritual thirst in those days that my parents shared in.
𝗛𝗼𝘄 𝗱𝗼𝗲𝘀 𝗮 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝘁𝘆 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗱𝗼𝗲𝘀 𝗻𝗼𝘁 𝗸𝗻𝗼𝘄 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗝𝗲𝘄𝗶𝘀𝗵 𝗽𝗲𝗼𝗽𝗹𝗲 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗶𝘀 in a remote region of 𝗜𝗻𝗱𝗶𝗮 𝗯𝗲𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗲 𝗮 𝗝𝗲𝘄𝗶𝘀𝗵 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝘁𝘆?
The B’nei Menashe are part of a larger ethnic group called the Kuki-Chin-Mizo. Although these three peoples are closely related, they belong to three different three political entities: two in the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, where they are called Mizos and Kukis respectively, and the third in Burma or Myanmar, where they are known as Chin. The area came under the dominion of the growing British Empire in the late 1800s. Christian missionaries soon followed, armed with the Bible and Western education. They had much success and the whole area was quickly Christianized with the exception of the princely state of Manipur, which was ruled by a Hindu king who objected to Christian proselytizing
However, after a failed insurrection against British rule by the Kukis of Manipur in 1917-19, the missionaries could no longer be held back. A Western education was a very attractive incentive that offered many avenues for employment. My grandfather, for example, ran away from home to go to a missionary school, where he was told that he had to become a Christian in order to study. He went on to graduate, attended medical school, and became the first doctor from the Kuki community and from the area. He served the British Indian government with distinction and received the highest civilian award in British India, the Kaiser-i-Hind medal, for his service during World War II.
As Christianity and literacy made inroads, the Bible was translated, read, studied and scrutinized. In the Kuki community, there was a great desire to worship the One True God. Christianity disappointed many people because they felt it was not faithful to the Bible, especially to the “Old Testament.”
In the mid-1950s, an ecstatic Christian named Challa declared the Kuku-Chin-Mizo people to be the Children of Israel. In one of his visions, he saw a bridge that stretched from a town in Mizoram to Jerusalem. There was such a longing for Zion that a group led by him actually set out on foot to reach Israel. It didn’t get very far, though, because it was arrested by the police soon after crossing the Mizoram-Manipur border into Assam. But by now, word had spread that there was a people called the Jews that lived by the Bible, and this led a man from Manipur called T. Daniel to travel to Calcutta, and then to Bombay, where he learned the basics of Judaism from local Jews. He picked up a smattering of Hebrew and came back to found the first congregation that sought to live, in however rudimentary a fashion, by the rules of rabbinic Judaism. This happened in 1974. My family joined the Judaism movement the following year, in 1975.
𝗧𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗲 𝗶𝘀 𝗰𝗼𝗻𝘁𝗿𝗼𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘀𝘆 𝗮𝘀 𝘁𝗼 𝘄𝗵𝗲𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗕’𝗻𝗲𝗶 𝗠𝗲𝗻𝗮𝘀𝗵𝗲 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝘁𝘆 is 𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗹𝗹𝘆 𝗱𝗲𝘀𝗰𝗲𝗻𝗱ed, as it claims, from 𝘁𝗵𝗲 “𝗹𝗼𝘀𝘁 𝘁𝗿𝗶𝗯𝗲” 𝗼𝗳 𝗠𝗲𝗻𝗮𝘀𝗵𝗲. 𝗪𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗶𝘀 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝗼𝗽𝗶𝗻𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗼𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘀𝘂𝗯𝗷𝗲𝗰𝘁? Did your own 𝗳𝗮𝗺𝗶𝗹𝘆 have 𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗱𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻s 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 might 𝘀𝗵𝗲𝗱 𝗹𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 𝗼𝗻 𝘁𝗵e 𝗶𝘀𝘀𝘂𝗲?
Controversy will always be there. What really matters, I believe, is faith. By the time I was growing up, most of the old traditions had been lost or done away with. The missionaries were very successful in getting us to discard our past. It took only a generation. Still, there were still quite a few old people with memories that remained intact. With the help of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico in the United States, I and Hillel Halkin, a good friend and noted author who published a book on the subject in 2002, have since 2017 been conducting an Oral History Project consisting of interviews with elderly B’nei Menashe. We’ve collected their testimonies and recollections of the old ways and old days in a book that will be published this summer under the title Lives of the Children of Manasia.
The two of you 𝗱𝗲𝗰𝗶𝗱𝗲𝗱 𝘁𝗼 𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗺 𝗮 𝗻𝗲𝘄 𝗡𝗚𝗢 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝘁𝘆. 𝗪𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗹𝗲𝗱 𝘁𝗼 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝘀 𝗱𝗲𝗰𝗶𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻? 𝗪𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗽𝗿𝗼𝗯𝗹𝗲𝗺𝘀 did you hope 𝘁𝗼 𝘀𝗼𝗹𝘃𝗲?
Degel Menashe, which was founded in 2019, grew out of our Oral History Project. One of its aims was to educate B’nei Menashe about their own culture and history and to help to preserve these. At the same time, we wanted to aid the younger generation’s integration in Israeli society and in the Israeli job market.
This is a market that isn’t accessible to most of us. Take my wife Jessica and myself, for example. We came to Israel in 2008 with a three-year-old daughter. Jessica’s last job in India had been as a chief financial assistant with the international NGO Doctors Without Borders, while I was a university graduate working for a consulting company called Network Services. We lived in Kiryat Arba for the first six months after coming to Israel, couldn’t find jobs to fit our qualifications, and ended up cleaning houses to survive. In our desperation we moved to Afula, in the north, but even there the best I could do was a minimum-wage job at a plastic and paper factory, and Jessica was unemployed. It was only after we moved again, this time to the Tel Aviva area, that I was able to find better work and that Jessica landed a job with a hi-tech company. Our daughter, who will soon be entering the army, has done well at school and plans eventually to continue her studies at a university. Her friends are largely native-born Israelis. I suppose we could be considered an example of the integration I was talking about.
But this integration musn’t come at the price of losing B’nei Menashe identity. I’ve seen how many of our youngsters are in such a hurry to Israelify that they lose their way. Degel Menashe wants to implant in them a sense of pride in who they are. It wants to help them to understand who they are. I think this is crucial for gaining the kind confidence that is a necessary ingredient for success in Israel. Without it, our community can’t have the effective leadership that it currently lacks.
By now there 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗺𝗲𝗺𝗯𝗲𝗿𝘀 𝗼𝗳 the small B’nei Menashe 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝘁𝘆 𝘄𝗵𝗼 𝗵𝗮𝘃𝗲 𝗯𝗲𝗲𝗻 𝗹𝗶𝘃𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗶𝗻 𝗜𝘀𝗿𝗮𝗲𝗹 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘁𝘄𝗼 𝗱𝗲𝗰𝗮𝗱𝗲𝘀. 𝗔𝘀 𝗮 𝗽𝗿𝗼𝗺𝗶𝗻𝗲𝗻𝘁 figure in the 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝘁𝘆, 𝗱𝗼 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗸 the 𝗕𝗻𝗲𝗶 𝗠𝗲𝗻𝗮𝘀𝗵𝗲’𝘀 𝗮𝗯𝘀𝗼𝗿𝗽𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 has been a success?
It’s been both a success and a failure. It’s been a success because so far there have been no cases of people returning to India. It’s been a failure because the community has not integrated well into Israeli society and its workforce. We don’t have a leadership. That’s the raison d’être for Degel Menashe’s existence. We hope to make a difference.