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Wanted: A Mohel and a Name

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

(June 22, 2023) A week ago, a Jewish boy came into the world in Mizoram. This in itself was not unusual: B’nei Menashe children are born in Mizoram and its neighboring state of Manipur all the time. All the time, too, however, they are given Hebrew names soon after birth. Liansuanlal Tungnung is still waiting for his.

The family waits expectantly for the baby's arrival.

Liansuanlal is – need we say it? – Liansuanlal’s Kuki name. His parents, Oren and Efrona Tungnung, who like most B’nei Menashe are known their co-religionists by their Hebrew names, hail from Churachandpur in Manipur, where, the parents of two small boys, they were expecting the birth of a third child in mid-June. When Kuki-Meitei ethnic conflict broke out in Manipur in early May, they felt sufficiently safe in Churachandpur – both a Kuki and a B’nei Menashe stronghold – to plan on staying there. However, as the conflict continued to escalate with no sign of abating, and Oren and Efrona’s parents in Israel sent them frantic messages pleading with them to leave for somewhere more secure, they changed their minds.

On May 11, Efrona, in an advanced state of pregnancy and with two young toddlers in tow, aged four and two-and-a-half, managed to make her way to Mizoram’s capital of Aizawl. It wasn’t simple. None of the usual drivers plying the 16-hour Churachandpur--Aizawl route that winds through mountain roads wanted to hazard the trip, and renting a car by itself would have cost the young couple an inflated price of 40,000 rupees or $500, an enormous sum by Indian standards. Only when they found fellow townsmen eager to make the same trip were they able to afford the cost of a shared vehicle – and even then they had to pay several times more than tit would have cost them before the troubles broke out.

Why did Oren not join his family at this critical juncture? Because at the time a rumor was making the rounds in Manipur that able-bodied Kuki young men were not being allowed by Kuki village volunteers to leave the state, being needed for the fight against the Meiteis. Since all Internet services had been suspended in Manipur and reliable information was at a dearth, there was no way to corroborate or disprove this rumor and the Tungnungs decided it was best no to risk Oren’s possible arrest and detention for desertion.

Yet once Efrona informed her husband that she had safely reached Aizawl, and the worrisome rumor remained unsubstantiated, Oren decided to head for Aizawl come what may. Unlike others he was traveling with, who managed to obtain certificates of safe passage from their local community associations, he boldly boarded the vehicle armed with nothing but the assertion that he was rejoining his family. Nor was there a seat for him. The van transporting him was jam-packed, with three passengers instead of two in the front seat, six instead of four in the middle row, and four more in the last row, half-perched on the travellers’ luggage. Two more men were given space on the baggage rack on the roof.

One of the two was Oren, who literally clung for dear life to the bars of the rack as he was jounced up and down on the twists and turns in the bumpy road climbing to Aizawl. Sleep was out of the question. The lucky thing was that it didn’t rain, it being just before the start of the monsoon season. The ride on the roof cost Oren 2,000 rupees.

On May 13, Oren reached Aizawl. For several weeks he, Efrona, and their two boys stayed in makeshift quarters in the city’s B’nei Menashe Council-run Shlom Tsion synagogue, counting the days until Efrona gave birth. Then, with the help of BMC leader Ben Aryeh Chenkual, who briefly put them up at this residence, they rented an Aizawl apartment paid for by Efrona’s parents. “It was a privilege to be able to extend hospitality to our brethren from Manipur,” Chenkual told our Newsletter. “We’re only sorry that we didn’t see the wave of B’nei Menashe displaced from Manipur coming in time to prepare for it better.”

On June 13, the same day that Efrona was finally admitted to the maternity ward of the government-run Aizawl Civil Hospital, Oren and the two boys moved into the apartment. B’nei Menashe activist Leah Renthlei tended to Efrona from her beside while she awaited labor and concomitantly, Amina Lhouvum, a young lady and former neighbour in Churachandpur now living in a refugee camp in northern Mizoram was brought to Aizawl to assist the young couple when their new child was born.

Finally, on Thursday, June 15, at half-past-four in the afternoon, a beautiful baby boy, Liansuanlal Tungnung,

Proud mother Efrona with newborn, Liansuanlal.

was born. What about a Hebrew name, which every B’nei Menashe has – which is indeed a badge of B’nei Menashe identity? Although Oren and Efrona have decided on one, they were determined to keep it themselves until Liansuanlal’s circumcision, since the Jewish custom is not to announce a newborn boy’s name until then – and a date for the circumcision, which did not take place on the eighth day after birth per Jewish practice, has yet to be set.

Why is this? The reason is that in all of Mizoram there is no mohel or ritual circumciser, the local community being too small to sustain one. Traditionally, either a mohel has been brought from Manipur, where there are several, or else the procedure has been performed by a physician -- and in this case, neither has been possible: the disturbances in Manipur have kept mohalim from traveling to Mizoram and Mizoram physicians are squeamish about performing what they consider an “elective procedure” on little babies. B’nei Menashe boys born in Mizoram who are not circumcised by a mohel from Manipur generally have to wait to have it done until the age of five to seven.

Do many B’nei Menashe boys in Manipur, then, have no Hebrew name until they are five or more years old? No, because in Mizoram B’nei Menashe parents do not wait that long to announce such names. Even if circumcised by a doctor at a later age, the boy’s Hebrew name is revealed after birth.

Well, then – to ask one last question – why don’t Oren and Efrona Tungnung adopt the Mizoram custom and announce Liansuanlal’s Hebrew name now?

Because – to give one last answer – they’re from Manipur, where the custom is to name a boy only at his circumcision.

Efrona was sent home from the hospital on June 22 and was brought along with Liansuanlal by Oren to their new apartment. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the warm welcome that our family has received from the local community in Aizawl,” she says, “and I appreciate all their efforts and the love they have shown us.” Meanwhile, only they know Liansuanlal’s Hebrew name. It will not be made public until a mohel can arrive from Manipur, which will hopefully be sometimes this summer.


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