The Torah Returns to Saikul
(November 17) With the help of Degel Menashe, the B’nei Menashe of Saikul, a village of 2,700 inhabitants nestled in a valley of the East Sadar Hills some 50 kilometers north of Manipur’s capital of Imphal, have a Torah scroll again. In fact, they have two of them. Not real parchment ones written by a certified scribe – such a Torah they never had to begin with. The Torah they had and lost was a printed paper facsimile, the kind that serves many northeast India B’nei Menashe communities that cannot remotely afford the tens of thousands of dollars that a hand-written parchment scroll costs. Yet such facsimiles are not cheap either, and that had by Saikul’s B’nei Menashe was no less valuable for being one. They kept it in an Ark in their synagogue from which they took it on Sabbaths and holidays to read the weekly and festival portions, and they danced and sang with it on Simhat Torah, the Day of the Rejoicing of the Law, just as Jews do with Torah scrolls everywhere. And then they lost it.
“We received our Torah on October 9, 2001,” Yochanan Thangboi Tuboi, the Saikul community’s head recalled in a telephone conversation this week with our Newsletter.
“That was the eve of Simhat Torah, and the scroll was a gift from Aviel Hangshing, a patron of many B’nei Menashe activities in those days.” (Hangshing, the father of current BMC chairman Lalam Hangshing, settled in Israel in 2014 and died last year in Kiryat Arba at the age of 96.) “It was truly a day of rejoicing for us.”
Saikul’s B’nei Menashe community was a middle-sized one. “”We were about 20 households,” Tuboi said, “numbering some hundred people, including children. We were a tight-knit group. Everyone helped everyone. We were always there for each other, regardless of what the need was.”
In 2015-16 Tuboi continued, things began to change. “A directive came from Shavei Israel,” he relates, “that small, outlying communities like ours had to uproot themselves and move to Churachandpur. That was where Shavei had its headquarters, and we were told that unless we lived there under Shavei’s supervision, we would never be eligible for Aliyah to Israel. There was no official written announcement. It was all conveyed by word of mouth.
“In those days, Shavei’s word was unchallengeable. The B’nei Menashe did what Shavei told them to do. Some of us obeyed now, too: Who didn’t want to live in Zion? To the best of my memory, three or four families left Saikul and moved to Churachandpur. But for most of us this was too hard, even if it came from Shavei. We all had property and livelihoods in Saikul: our homes, vegetable gardens, rice fields, and the like. Giving all that up for new surroundings was daunting, especially as Shavei offered no help in resettling us and expected us to manage on our own. There were too many uncertainties and fears. Most of us decided to stay in Saikul.”
Retaliation was not long in coming. “Fairly quickly,” Tuboi says, “Shavei made us realize that, as far as it was concerned, we no longer existed. It cut off all contact with us. Until then, the B’nei Menashe Council, which was run by Shavei, had come from time to time to take a community census and update us in its registry; now all that stopped. No one came as in the past to collect our dues. And when new Aliyah lists were compiled, none of us was on them, just as Shavei had threatened would be the case.”
This went on, Tuboi told us, for several years. The B’nei Menashe of Saikul continued with their lives as before. Though they were no longer able to turn to Shavei for guidance or instruction in Jewish matters, they kept up their Jewish observance to the best of their ability and knowledge, which included regularly reading from their Torah. Until, that is, 2019. Tuboi remembers the exact date. “It was the 6th of August. On that day, without warning, a group of B’nei Menashe arrived in our village from Kangpokpi. They were led by Haolal Chongloi, a well-known Shavei operative, and they told us they had orders from Shavei to confiscate our Torah scroll, since we no longer had any use for it. There were too few of us left in Saikul, they said, to have a regular minyan [a prayer quorum of ten men], and the Torah couldn’t be read aloud without one.
“This wasn’t true. We weren’t as big a community as Kangpokpi, but we certainly did have a regular minyan, and more than enough men for it. The Torah scroll had been given to us, not to Shavei. We protested. But Chongloi bullied us into submission and we felt helpless. Even though we had already been struck from Shavei’s rolls, we weren’t mentally prepared to defy him. He took our Torah and left.”
The Saikul community was desolate. Its Jewish life went on, but it wasn’t the same as before without a Torah. “We looked desperately for another one,” Tuboi says, “but no B’nei Menashe community in Manipur had one to spare and we had no means of bringing one from Israel.”
Meanwhile, though, things in Manipur were changing. Saikul’s wasn’t the only B’nei Menashe community that had suffered at Shavei Israel’s hands. In 2020, an anti-Shavei revolt broke out, culminating in communal elections in November of that year for a new B’nei Menashe Council, which resulted in a narrow victory for the
The ballot was preceded by a floor fight in which Saikul and three other B’nei Menashe communities that had been blacklisted by Shavei were reinstated and given the right to vote. Saikul was now again a recognized part of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe society.
It still took two more years to get a new Torah. “It was our good fortune,” says Tuboi, “that early this autumn, Lalam Hangshing was in Israel. When he was there, he told Degel Menashe’s managing director Isaac Thangjom about our problem and Thangjom offered to donate not one Torah but two if Lalam would take them back with him to Manipur.” The larger of the two Torahs was about half-a-meter tall and came in a wooden case as per the Sephardi and Eastern custom; the smaller Torah had, Ashkenazi-style, only the traditional drape.
“One can think of it,” Thangjom said to our Newsletter, “as symbolic of the ‘Sephardi-Ashkenazi’ reconciliation that Degel Menashe has been working for after years in which Shavei Israel split the community by seeking to force the Sephardi rites on everyone.”
Taking with him the two Torah scrolls, Lalam Hangshing returned from Israel to Manipur after Rosh Hashanah, just in time for the holiday of Sukkot, of which Simhat Torah is the final day. “On October 12,” Yochanan Tuboi told us, “he brought the scrolls to Saikul, almost 21 years to the day on which his father brought us our first Torah, and we rejoiced now just as we rejoiced then. We would have liked to stage a huge celebration and invite all of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe, but putting up so many people was more than we could handle, and besides, a big Sukkot feast had already been planned for that week in Churachandpur. But even though we decided to have a smaller ceremony, there was such a feeling of solidarity with us that over 200 guests showed up.
B’nei Menashe came from different congregations in Churachandpur, from Gamgiphai, from Pejang, from Imphal, from Kangchup, from Phalbung, from Kangpokpi, and from still other places.
“It’s been a great joy,” Tuboi summed up, “to see our community’s spirits soar now that we again have a Torah to read from every Shabbat. There are two boys in Saikul, the sons of my friend Samuel Misao, who can recite the parshat ha-shavu’a [the weekly Torah portion] and now do it every week; they don’t yet know the chant notes, but I’m sure they’ll learn them soon. And they’re not the only ones in Saikul who can read Hebrew. Most of our youngsters can, and most of them know how to pray from the Siddur. We still number 20 families and nearly 100 people despite those who left for Churachandpur, and we expect now to take our rightful place on the Aliyah lists. Our destination is still Zion.”