At this point, some of you may be wondering if our intrepid group of adventurers left the relative comforts of Bombay, took a series of plane rides to New Delhi and then Manipur, and then traveled south in a caravan of taxis for no other reason than to admire the admittedly gorgeous view at the state park or for yours truly to consider the ramifications of cows walking down a busy street in a small village along the way? That seems like a long way to go for such a modest reward. Never fear, gentle reader, you may be sure that there is more to it than that. We did have another destination: a village wherein we would find members of another group on our itinerary, the Bnei Menashe, eagerly awaiting our arrival.
There used to be a time, not so long ago, when students of Jewish demography could take a map and pinpoint with some certainty where Jewish communities could be found around the world. If you took that map back then and were idly looking at the Indian subcontinent…….let’s just say that there wouldn’t be much doing in the region of Manipur . (To be fair, in 1950 there wouldn’t have been much to show in Ethiopia either.) By the 21st century, Jewish demography had become a lot more complicated and perhaps a lot more interesting. Part of it was because there were these groups, like the Bnei Menashe, whose origins were, shall we say, “shrouded in mystery.” And there were people – like the two Ari’s – who keep running around trying to locate possible descendants of the Jewish tribes that had seemingly disappeared from history over the course of the last 2,000 years. A lot of the looking has been done by Michael Freund, who created an organization, Shavei Israel, which has assisted a number of far flung groups in regaining their Jewish identities, in the process, bringing a considerable number of these individuals to Israel.
So there we were, in Churachandpur, visiting the main Bnei Menashe facility – built through the efforts of the very same Michael Freund – whose name is prominently displayed on the premises – hearing a presentation of the why’s and wherefore’s of Bnei Menashe life from leaders of their community. The cherry-on-the-top, so to speak, was the presence of a young man who had made his way to Israel, gone through formal conversion, and served in the IDF; he had recently returned to visit with the old folks at home. I think it would be fair to say that a lot of his family, friends, and neighbors would be willing to join him, forsaking their ancestral homes for a piece of The Land – difficult as that journey might be.
After the presentation, after a Bnei Menashan song, after we all davened Mincha, we sat outside and ate our boxed lunch. (Quick, take a few minutes to walk the nearby street in search of something to photograph.) Back in the taxis to visit another, smaller house of worship in a neighboring village. By this time, it was well past mid-afternoon. Time for the fleet of taxis to head back to Imphal, past the soldiers on duty several miles apart all along the way, past the herd of cows heading “home,” causing a traffic jam along the road, all the while, the sun sinking under the mountains to the west.
The following day could be summarized with the repetitive “same old, same old.” We went back to the airport and boarded another el cheapo Indigo flight, this time to Coimbatore, going through the same tedious set of security checks, sitting in exactly the same seats we had on the flight in, staying on board while the plane landed en route to discharge some of the passengers, do another security check prior to allowing a new set of fellow travelers to embark. We did arrive at our destination, where we boarded a bus, taking us to our hotel. Get settled in: evening prayers and dinner on the veranda. Tomorrow would be another day, in many ways the highlight of our trip. And if you are patient, all will be revealed.