Levana Chongloi: From Small-Town Manipur to Hi-Tech Tel Aviv
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
This is the second of a series on young B’nei Menashe who have gotten ahead in life in life in Israel.
(June 1) When Levana Chongloi says over the telephone from her Tel Aviv apartment, “I’m an integration engineer with Splitit. I help merchants onto a platform and decide with them what payment gateway to use,” she seems not to doubt that you‘ll understand what she does for a living. She’s nice about it, though. When you tell her that it’s a bit over your head, she patiently tries again. She’s explained it to Google, she’s explained in to Samsung, she’s explained it to other customers of Splitit, and she doesn’t mind explaining it to you.
That’s a long way from Kangpokpi, the town in northern Manipur with a population of less than 10,000 in whose B’nei Menashe community Levana grew up. It’s not such a short way from Ma’alot, either, the town in the northern Galilee in which, then 23 years old, she was settled with her parents after arriving in Israel with a group of B’nei Menashe immigrants in 2014.
At first, Levana says, she felt overwhelmed by Ma’alot. “Everything was so big and fast,” she recalls. “In Manipur everyone owned their own house, they didn’t live in apartments. The pace was much slower. No one was in a rush. In Israel, everyone seemed to be on the move. Everyone was trying to get somewhere.”
Levana wanted to get somewhere too, so after less than two years in Ma’a lot, she left it for the Tel Aviv area. “When I left,” she relates, “Ma’alot’s B’nei Menashe disapproved of me. We’re a very conservative community. Single young women don’t just get up and move to the big city by themselves.”
We asked what made her do it.
“I suppose part of Israel had already gotten into me,” she answered. “I wanted to have a life and career of my own, and that wasn’t something I could do in Ma’alot. Luckily, my parents were supportive. And I had a B’nei Menashe friend, Rivka Manlun, who felt the same way. We both left for the Tel Aviv area together. Housing in Tel Aviv itself was more than I could afford, so I began by renting a place in the suburbs, in Kiryat Ono.”
Levana didn’t just have an independent spirit. She also had two B.A. degrees from Manipur, one in computer science and one in anthropology. “Actually, I was more interested in anthropology,” she says. “At the time, I thought there might be some way of combining them both, though don’t ask me how. But I soon realized that without a Ph.D. and a good knowledge of Hebrew, there wasn’t much I could do with anthropology. There were lots of computer jobs in hi-tech.”
Levana’s Hebrew, she admits, still isn’t as good as her excellent English, the language in which she studied in Manipur and spoke to us. English also helped her to find her first job, which she landed by answering an online ad for a company called Soft Solutions that did an international business in commercial computer applications. From there she went on to Splitit, an Israeli start-up specializing in credit and debit card payment systems that has also branched out globally. “I work together with a R& D team and a sales team,“ Levana explained. “One of them develops the product, one of them sells it, and I teach the customer how to use it. We have clients all over the world –Japan, England, Singapore, everywhere. Mostly I work with them by email, although if there’s a special problem, we have Zoom sessions. That can mean irregular hours, but I try on the whole to stop by 8 p.m., so that I can have the evenings for myself.”
Working alongside Israelis has been an educational experience for her. “They can be very direct and even aggressive,” she says. “They don’t beat around the bush. They’re always trying to move on, to look for the next thing. That’s difficult to get used to for an Asian like myself, who comes from a very different kind culture. I’ve learned a lot from the Israeli way of doing things – especially, that when you want something, you have to go out and make it happen, because it’s not going just to come to you. In the world I was brought up in, you weren’t supposed to have your own opinions or ambitions. What mattered was the group. You were expected to conform to it. Israel had taught me to think for myself. Asians are more conformist, but also more attentive to each other, more concerned with what those around them are feeling and thinking.”
Levana’s own friends are mixed: she has an Israeli circle and an Asian circle, both drawn mostly from the hi-tech world. Is she a different person in each? “Not really,” she says. “I’m the same me. But that me has become Israelified. I’ve learned to assert myself. I’ve tried to incorporate the good side of being Israeli without the bad side, which can result in rudeness and insensitivity.”
Although Levana says she has never experienced racism in the work place, she has more than once encountered it in the Israeli street. “It’s been harmless but annoying,” she says. “I might be walking down the street, for example, and a car will pull up and someone will stick their head out the window and ask me, ‘How much do you charge for housecleaning?’ People think every Asian does some kind of menial work. I try not to take it personally. My Israeli friends are often curious about my background, but I feel totally accepted by them.”
Not many B’nei Menashe have integrated into Israeli life as quickly and successfully as Levana has. Does she still, we asked, feel part of the B’nei Menashe community?
“Absolutely,” she says. “Our culture and tradition are part of me. It’s important to me to preserve them. I have an Israeli boyfriend, a non-B’nei Menashe, but if we marry and have children, I’ll speak our Kuki language to them. That’s partly because I’ll want them to be able to communicate with their grandparents, my father and mother, whose Hebrew will always be limited. But it will also be for the sake of their own selves. I’ll want them to be Israeli but I’ll want them to be B’nei Menashe, too. There has be a balance in which you keep trying to go beyond yourself but keep coming back to yourself. Who you are will never go away.”