Hanukkah Celebrated in Manipur, Mizoram, With Help of More Degel Menashe Food Aid
(December 2) As Hanukkah was celebrated this week, Degel Menashe’s fifth round of emergency food relief to the Covid-stricken B’nei Menashe communities of northeast India was in full swing. Some eight tons of rice and hundreds of bottles of cooking oil were distributed to nearly 300 families in the two states of Mizoram and Manipur, bringing to 70 tons the total amount of rice made available since the relief campaign began in the spring of 2020. The money for this latest round was generously donated by the American Jewish NGO Scattered Among the Nations, whose chairman Bryan Schwartz has been a consistent B’nei Menashe supporter.
In Manipur, as in the past, this week’s aid operation was conducted by the B'nei Menashe Council, which used Churachandpur’s Beit Shalom synagogue, the largest of all B’nei Menashe houses of worship, as its main distribution center. One-hundred-and-eighty families from Churachandpur and nearby villages came to the synagogue, where communal candle lighting ceremonies were also held, to collect their allotments of roughly 50 kilos of rice and one bottle of oil per household. Another 70 families were supplied from depots in Imphal, Kangpokpi, and Sajal.
Although constituting a sizable percentage of the B’nei Menashe population of Manipur, the number of food recipients was lower than in previous rounds. The reason for the decline, our Newsletter was told by BMC advisor Nechemiah Lhouvum, is that more families succumbed this time to pressure from Shavei Israel, which again let it be known that acceptance of Degel Menashe-sponsored assistance may jeopardize chances for Aliyah. Because 2021, Lhouvum said, saw a resumption of Shavei-Israel controlled B’nei Menashe Aliyah after several years of abeyance, and there has been talk of its continuing in 2022, families have grown more reluctant to be helped by Degel Menashe, even though they are financially hard-pressed. Yet many stood firm. “The epidemic has put us through a difficult two years,” Lhouvum said. “Even though Shavei has managed to frighten many who could have benefitted from the aid, there are many others who have taken it and are happy that they did.”
In Mizoram, where Shavei’s dominance is greater than in Manipur, rumors of a new Aliyah contingent that will leave for Israel next summer has had even more of an effect. “Several families," says Asaf Renthlei, director of the state’s B”nei Menashe Emergency Relief Committee, “dropped out after reporting having been threatened by the Shavei functionaries, while others were dissuaded by friends.”
This happened, he observed, even though the B’nei Menashe community in Mizoram is suffering badly. The state is currently one of the worst-hit by Covid in India despite its having been among the strictest in imposing anti-Covid lockdowns.
One explanation of this seeming paradox, Renthlei observes, is that the isolation caused by the lockdowns led to a decrease in asymptomatic infections and to the immunity provided by them, which is now taking its toll. Although no Covid-related deaths among Mizoram’s estimated 1,000 B’nei Menashe have been reported, some 50 have tested Covid –positive and five have been hospitalized. Moreover, since most B’nei Menashe are day laborers, the economic slowdown caused by the epidemic’s surge had made it difficult for them to find work, a situation that is particularly dire in the capital of Aizawl, where the cost of living is higher and most of Mizoram’s B’nei Menashe live. “It's difficult to say exactly,” Renthlei says, “but I would guess that at least half and perhaps as much as two-thirds of the state’s B’nei Menashe are in bad economic trouble.”
All in all, 125 individuals from 32 households, approximately 12 percent of Mizoram’s B’nei Menashe population, braved Shavei’s threats and took the proffered aid. About one-third were from Aizawl, with the rest from the towns of Pukpui, Kawlkuhl, and Tuirial, where Shavei’s grip is weaker. Allocations were on a per individual basis, with each person receiving eight kilograms of rice. As opposed to Manipur, the distribution took place by a system of vouchers, which could be exchanged at grocery stores for food.
In addition to the food aid, Renthlei and his Relief Committee colleagues organized modest communal Hanukkah meals in Aizawl, Pukpui, and Kawlkulh. Those attending them lit candles, sang Hanukkah songs and ate chhangban.
Chhangban, Renthlei explained, is a traditional Mizo winter delicacy that has become a B’nei Menashe Hanukkah dish. It is made from sticky rice flour that is soaked in water overnight and then pounded into a dough that, at one time wrapped in banana leaves and boiled, is now more commonly deep-fried. Eaten with “jaggery,” an Indian sugar cane-and-date syrup, it’s a meal in itself, says Renthlei, whose description makes it sound very much like a B’nei Menashe latke. In Manipur it is known as changman, and Beit Shalom is planning to stage the eighth and last candle lighting of the holiday with a changman festivity.
Chhangban takes time and effort to prepare and is prepared only by a few in Israel, most of whose B’nei Menashe prefer to buy their Hanukkah treats, such as the traditional Israeli sufganniya or jelly doughnut, in supermarkets. (Not that making genuine, homemade sufganiyyot isn’t time-consuming, too!) Nor, apart from a gathering in Tiberias, were there B’nei Menashe communal meals this Hanukkah in Israel. The community’s main holiday event was a doubles badminton tournament held in Ofra, a town in Samaria north of Jerusalem.
Badminton is a major sport in India, and the players came from virtually all of the 14 Israeli townships with B’nei Menashe populations. The winners were the hometown players Gadi Hangshing and Oz Menashe, who beat their fellow finalists, the brothers Binyamin and Ya’akov Ralte of Nof ha-Galil.