'I worried customs would disappear'
An Indian doctor in the 1940s documented the traditions that link the tribe to the Jews.
In the 1940s, Dr. Hofalam Miluy Lantang was a young Indian doctor treating the Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribe that lives in north-eastern India. In his travels among the tribe's villages, he heard songs and saw traditions that sparked his curiosity and he decided to document them, without realizing their significance.
Only in 1999, more than 50 years later, in a meeting with Hillel Halkin, a writer and Israeli journalist researching the connection between the tribe's members and the Jewish people, did he discover that the traditions he recorded do indeed link the tribe to the Jews. These are the same traditions that prompted some tribe members to define themselves as Bnei Menashe, some 800 of whom have already immigrated to Israel, while thousands more are waiting to follow their example.
"At that time, Christianity was starting to spread in our tribe and I worried that the customs would disappear," Lantang, now 88, told Haaretz, during his visit to Israel last week. "That's why it was important to me to record the customs. Today, they all really have disappeared, and my documentation is the only proof of their existence."
One of the noticeable traditions Lantang documented is the repetition of the word "Manamasi" (Menashe) in many of the tribe's songs, especially those describing the wanderings across Asia. Another clear example is the tribe's "Song of the Sea" whose first lines are reminiscent of the story of the Exodus from Egypt:
"When there was a king, the Red Sea dried up/in the afternoon we were guided by a cloud and at night by fire/during the day we fought many enemies/but those enemies were swallowed up by the Red Sea/and for those same people there is water that came forth from the rock."
Another tradition is the "Festival of Rice Bread," which resembles Passover.
Throughout the year, says Lantang, Kuki tribe members refrained from eating products made with flour.
Their bread was made from rice, to which they added yeast. Once a year, "when the corn is fully corn" (around May-June), they celebrated a three-day holiday and for one day they ate the rice bread without yeast.
Another tradition relates to circumcision: Kuki tribe members do not circumcise their sons, but when a baby happens to be born without a foreskin, says Lantang, they referred to the baby as having "a sex organ of the old style," apparently a reference to the fact that in the past, they used to circumcise their children. Lantang adds that when such a child is born, a white chicken is usually sacrificed in his honor.
Halkin, whose recently published (in Hebrew) book "Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel," which describes the journeys of the Bnei Menashe, explains the importance of Lantang's efforts.
"There is a claim that the traditions that are similar to Judaism found among the Bnei Menashe appeared following the arrival of Christian missionaries, who came to them during the 20th century and introduced them to the Bible. But the traditions documented by Lantang clearly existed long before. He recorded songs that tribal elders told him they learned as children from the elders in those days. This is several decades before the arrival of the missionaries."
The missionaries, Halkin believes, made a different type of contribution to the identity of the Kuki tribe.
"They introduced the members of the tribe to the New Testament and afterward to the Bible, and it is possible that when they came across the stories about Menashe in the Bible, it provided them with a connection to the Manamasi stories and to their other traditions, and that's how they knew to link themselves to the tribe of Menashe, but the traditions themselves existed before."
Lantang himself does not identify himself as part of the Bnei Menashe, but rather with messianic Jews. Following the conversion to Christianity of his tribe, he too continues to believe in Jesus, although he says he does so as Jew.
Even his visit to Israel was arranged by a pro-Israel Evangelist group from Sweden.
He and they share a common dream: that the State of Israel will absorb not only the 7,000 Bnei Menashe wishing to live as Orthodox Jews in every respect, but also the hundreds of thousands of messianic Jews among the tribe.