Getting to Manipur was a whole adventure in and of itself. But now the adventure was really set to begin.
Exiting the Imphal airport, I peered at the line of people holding signs with passengers names, searching for my own in any spelling. It was, however, a different sort of sign my driver had on him: a yarmulke. Reuven, who was to be my driver the whole time, had with him, well, a lot of people. Four or five at least, each looking as Jewish as you can possibly look if you are from Manipur.
They brought me to a micro-mini-van. I had my oddly-shaped luggage. And my large carry-on bag. And my other carry-on bag. I watched with amusement as the six of them tried unsuccessfully to squash my luggage into the trunk and get the door to close. Finally they gave up and the rest of them all piled into the back seats with my luggage stuffed in there with them. I sat on the ‘driver’s’ side, though there were neither controls nor steering wheel on my side; the driver sat on the right and took the wheel.
The ride to Kangpokpi was an hour and a half of the craziest driving I’d ever experienced. You might say Indians are awful drivers because of the total lack of regard for rules, lanes, safety norms and apparent common sense. But I say they must be brilliant drivers or the way they drive they’d be crashing every ten seconds. They basically drive with one hand on their horn, and a good helping of instinct and trust as they overtake everyone in their path regardless of oncoming traffic. I basically rode with my mouth gaping open, in total shock, and wondering why I’d ever thought there was a problem with Israeli drivers.
We rode through areas that became increasingly rural, on roads that became bumpier and dustier. At least the driving became slightly less insane as there were fewer cars to avoid as we barreled forward.
Finally, in the center of a town, I saw a huge sign stretched between two buildings, with ‘Brukhim Habaim’ (the Hebrew words for ‘Welcome’) printed across it in huge letters. Several young Asian-looking boys with large yarmulkes were nearby. We’d arrived!
Despite the fact that I had made the trip all the way here to be in the Bnai Menashe community, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. Entering the courtyard of the Kangpokpi Shavei Yisrael center – a Jewish center complete with synagogue and mikva – I saw many, many hundreds of Bnai Menashe of all ages from all over the region participating in a beautiful ceremony in honor of Shavei Israel’s founder Michael Freund. Choirs and dance troupes from all over had each prepared special programs. There were decorations, including hundreds of Israeli flags, and everyone was dressed in their finest or in costumes native to the region for their performances.
One of the first songs they sang was Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem. It was also one of the first (of many) times I cried on this trip. Here we were in this most far-flung, remote region with people who look every bit the part and yet their hearts – and their dreams – are in Israel. They sang with all their hearts, and I cried.
From there we drove an hour and a half to another Shavei Israel center and I began to understand the scope and size of the Bnai Menashe community.
Settling in at the center/guest house gave me a tiny taste as to how people live in Manipur. Upon our arrival I was asked if I would like them to prepare hot water for my shower. Assuming that by ‘prepare’ they meant flicking a switch to heat the water, I said, ‘yes.’ I was quite surprised when they showed up in my room a little while later with a bucket of hot water. I was flabbergasted. They instructed me to ‘adjust the water temperature’ by mixing enough cold water in with the hot water and shower by somehow maneuvering the bucket to pour water on myself and through some unimaginably miraculous pouring skills manage to get myself clean using these buckets.
Always up for a challenge I began the process of my ‘shower’, but found myself to be bucket-shower challenged, most of the water missing its mark altogether. That was a #showerfail. For the rest of my stay I bit the bullet and took my showers the way the locals do: with cold water. [Hint: when in Manipur take your shower during the heat of the day when your body is warmer, and the water is less freezing…] I had to hold my breath and take the showers fast, but at least I knew the water would go where I aimed it.
Actually it seems taking an ordinary shower is a bit of a luxury over there as running water is not to be taken for granted. Even the Shavei Israel center has a prominent well which is used for washing dishes (in buckets, naturally). Wells are a standard fixture all over the village as that is where people get all or some of their water, that they then carry to their homes as needed. The ‘sewer system’ – if you can even call it that – consists of open channels dug into the ground in the gutter on either side of the street. Little makeshift bridges and planks take you from the street to each house or store to avoid stepping in the waste. But there’s no avoiding the smell…
Have I succeeded in gaining your sympathies for the Bnai Menashe? Then I have done wrong. You may feel bad that they don’t live according to our standards. But that’s the thing… we cannot help but to look at their lifestyle through the prism of our own pampered existences. But they don’t see their lives in that way at all.
Many people see portraits of the beautiful Bnai Menashe children. The children’s exotic looks and simple lives makes one think of National Geographic or Save the Children ads. We Westerners with our superiority complexes look at people who don’t have what we have and think they are primitive or lacking. It’s true that the simple towns in Manipur haven’t changed much in decades – or perhaps even much more than decades. But how much have we changed from the time Europeans wanted to ‘help’ the Native Americans…?
The Bnai Menashe, with their ways that hearken back to simpler times, are a proud people with a quiet dignity whose dedication to Torah and Judaism is not easily matched. Their desire to go to Israel is not out of seeking a better life; in fact, moving to Israel is fairly guaranteed to be quite challenging for them. Rather their desire is to fulfill the dream of the Jewish people, despite the challenges. Our challenge is to do whatever we can to help them get there.
I was truly moved by all that I’d seen that first day. Now all I wanted to know was what on earth was ‘The Sacrifice’ that was to take place the next morning… To be continued…
Click here to read more of my posts chronicling the homecoming of Bnei Menashe.
[Addendum: Since posting people have asked how they can help. Shavei Israel is a private organization that works tirelessly to help the Bnai Menashe and other lost Jews to return. Donations are graciously accepted.]