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Midrash Comes To Manipur

(January 13) The parshat ha-shavu’a, the weekly Torah portion read on Shabbat in the synagogue, has always been a part of his life, says Ohaliav Haokip, director of Manipur’s new Eliyahu Avichayil Hebrew School. This past week, in an effort to make it a part of his students’ lives too, Ohaliav issued the third in a planned series of brochures that he calls The Parashah Corner and hopes eventually to expand to all of the weekly Torah readings.

Ohaliav’s most recent brochure is for last Shabbat’s reading of Bo, the chapter of Exodus that tells of the last three of the Ten Plagues inflicted on the Egyptians and of the Children of Israel’s preparations to set out from their house of bondage for a new life of freedom. Like its two predecessors, it includes the text of the week’s chapter, translated into the Kuki language of Manipur spoken by the region’s B’nei Menashe, plus translated commentary taken from the Midrash, the classical corpus of rabbinic exegesis going back to the early centuries of the Common Era. To this is added illustrative material culled from the Internet.

An illustration for the Torah reading of Bo.

“The Bible was already translated into Kuki fifty years ago.” Ohaliav told our Newsletter. “There’s no need to redo that. I grew up with Bible stories, because they’re ones that every B’nei Menashe mother tells her children. But as I grew older, I became aware that there were writings of the rabbis about these stories that our parents and teachers didn’t know. I discovered that that there was another, rabbinical dimension to the Bible known as Midrash, and more I learned about it, the more I wanted to learn even more.”

A good example of Midrash occurs at the start of Ohaliav’s brochure on Bo. The portion begins with Exodus 10:1, with the words, “And God said to Moses, ‘Come [bo] to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him.”” Why, the rabbis asked, is Moses told to “come” to Pharaoh’s palace when it would have been more logical to tell him to “go” to it? The answer they give, The Parashah Corner informs its readers, is that in a world in which God’s glory is everywhere, coming and going are the same.

Or, in the language of The Parashah Corner:

When he first began investigating the world of Midrash as a teenager, Ohaliav, who is today 34, had no other sources than the Internet. “I found things there that I could never have imagined,” he relates. “But I dreamed of something better. Our synagogue library had mostly prayer books and Bibles in English and in Kuki translations. One day, though, while rummaging on a shelf, I came across a five-volume collection called The Midrash Says, one volume for each of the five books of Moses. Or rather, for four of the five, because the volume on Bamidbar or Numbers was missing. I was so thrilled to have the other four, though, that I didn’t mind.”

Ohaliav would have liked to continue his Jewish studies in Israel. “My older brother Avishai,” he relates “left for Israel in 2008 and I hoped to soon be able to join him. And in fact, I was invited by Shavei Israel to an Aliyah interview that took place in 2015 and passed with flying colors. The expectation of soon being in Israel was constantly before me. It felt exciting to be alive in those days.”

Ohaliav’s dream, however, was shattered when, not long afterwards, he was struck from Shavei Israel’s Aliyah list for marrying a woman who, though a member of the B’nei Menashe community, had not sat for an Aliyah interview herself. Today, they live in Churachandpur with a daughter, but “that's a whole other story,” Ohaliav says. “I’ll just say that I went through some very difficult times. Apart from my family, the greatest solace I found was in books about Judaism that I was able to get hold of from friends and relatives. One of the most helpful of these was a two-volume edition of The Weekly Midrash, a collection of Midrashim organized around the weekly Torah readings that was sent to me by Degel Menashe.”

An English version of Tzena Urena, a late medieval volume originally written in Yiddish for women who did not know Hebrew, The Weekly Midrash inspired Ohaliav to launch a Torah portion Internet blog. “Until then,” he explains, “all we in Manipur had available about the weekly readings was some very skimpy material we were getting in B’nei Menashe newsletters from Israel, and so I had the ideas of putting out a blog of my own. That was about two years ago. A lot of people enjoyed it and told me so. Before long, I was making it a weekly feature, and when Degel Menashe asked me to be the director of its new Eliyahu Avichayil School, it was natural to think of integrating it in the lessons I gave there.”

Ohaliav’s involvement with Degel Menashe began in the early summer of 2020, when the first bad wave of the Covid epidemic hit Manipur and Degel Menashe launched a food relief campaign, the first of several, for the B’nei Menashe community. “I volunteered to take part in the operation and soon found myself in charge of it,” says Ohaliav. The campaign was vehemently opposed by Shavei Israel, which until then had been the sole organization operating among northeast India’s B’nei Menashe, and as a result, when the food relief activists successfully revived the defunct B’nei Menashe Council as an independent B’nei Menashe body that would be a counterweight to Shavei, Ohaliav agreed to run in elections for the position of general secretary and won. Not long after that, when the BMC, together with Degel Menashe, decided to open a Hebrew school in Churachandpur, he accepted its offer to act as the school’s director.

“We began our school last May,” Ohaliav relates, “but had to shut it down soon after because of Covid lockdowns. It was only in October that we were able to reopen. But I was able to use that time to rethink our curriculum, and one aspect of this was producing The Parashah Corner.

Ohaliav Haokip teaching a Bible class.

“The lessons I give at the school,” he says, “form the basis of The Parashah Corner. In the first half of each week, I teach the coming Shabbat’s Torah portion with midrashim. In the second half of the week, as the Sabbath draws close, I collect what I’ve taught in a brochure.” Ohaliav runs off copies of The Parashah Corner on a home printer for use in the classes he teaches and shares it on the Internet for the general B’nei Menashe public.

The Torah, said the ancient rabbis, was given in seventy languages – the number of different tongues, so they imagined, that existed in the world. Although the Kuki language of Manipur was not one of these tongues that they were aware of, they would no doubt be as pleased as they would be astounded to know that their thoughts are being read in it today every week in The Parashah Corner.

Hebrew class at Beit Shalom, Vengnom.


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