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Families Reunited

Celebrating Purim With The Jews Of Manipur
I celebrated Purim with the Bnei Menashe in Mumbai in 2010

I recently reflected upon all the current news about the "lost" tribes of Israel around the world suddenly being found. It seemed to me to have become a world-wide development - villages and groups in Africa, Asia and even South America, discovering Jewish descent or coming out of obscurity to show their practise and commitment to Judaism over centuries and even millenia. I saw it as an amazing example of the attraction, longevity and power of our Jewish tradition, and even perhaps a demonstrable example of "klal Yisrael"; the ongoing embrace of our world-wide "family of Israel". In light of growing anti-semitism in recent years, and particularly over the last year, I saw the desire to reconnect with our Jewish family and a yearning to have the freedom and ability to live a dedicated Jewish life, as a sign of hope for the coming secular year of 2013:


PARASHAT VAYECHI 5773

FAMILIES REUNITED

One of the advantages for Jews during this time of the year is that our Christian friends perhaps feel almost an obligation to spend time with family, or feel particularly bad if they are not close to their family. We have the luxury of having statutory time off to spend with our families if we choose, or at least not to feel bad about it if we don't. We can wing off to Spain or Israel or North Africa for a little winter sun. I had the advantage, then, of being able to nip up to very un-sunny and wet Scotland for a couple of days over the statutory holidays, to visit my in-laws. While there I had hoped to visit with my old friend and “study buddy”, a Catholic priest. However, it is a little busy for him at this time of year. We managed only to have a chat over the phone instead. He has recently returned from a few months of teaching in Ghana. In boiling hot conditions and with meagre food, he toughed it out for 16 or 17 hours a day in a remote Catholic seminary teaching and leading prayers. He was keen to tell me that in a country he believed to be completely devoid of Jews he was told that there was, in fact, a Jewish community. Although he never encountered it during his stay, he did some research and sent me a fascinating account by a man, Michael V Gershowitz, a visiting professor, who found an entire village of Jews with whom to celebrate Shabbat. He posted his experiences on a website entitled “kulanu”, which is an organization solely dedicated to researching and helping “lost” Jewish communities, lost as a result of war, exile and forced conversions. It turns out that the Jews of this Ghanaian village claim to be one of the lost tribes of the 8th c. BCE, perhaps either from Ephraim or Menashe who figure so prominently in this week's Torah portion. In that time, the ten northern tribes of Israel were conquered by Assyria and the captives forcibly resettled. The descendants of these lost tribes are believed to be found in India, Burma, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. The man who spent Shabbat with the Jews of Sefwi Wiaswo, in a remote, mountainous region of western Ghana, called them the “proverbial Wandering Jews.” He said that their oral history recounts that they have been, “.... wandering about in West Africa for hundreds of years, each time moving because of persecution..…they have lived in Ghana for about 150 years, and before that, in Ivory Coast, a neighbouring West African country, for some 250 years. They moved from Ivory Coast to Ghana because of persecution. Until 400 years ago, they lived in Mali, where they also were persecuted.” During the weekend, he celebrated a full Shabbat, even observing the congregation read the Torah portion from a Hertz chumash. Indeed, it seems that this visitor had been as amazed at discovering a lost tribe of Jews, as I had been during my stay in India. He wrote, “Imagine a community of people who have never had a Sefer Torah, but know Torah—by heart; who don't know the word "kosher," but keep kosher; who until recently didn't know they were "Jews," but live a thoroughly Jewish lifestyle, and who claim to know the most impenetrable of Jewish secrets—how to pronounce God's name—but, out of reverence, don't....”

Finding “lost” Jews seems to be a theme of recent years for me. I keep encountering people who claim to have been lost, like a number of people from Spanish speaking countries who say they have now discovered they are descended from Jews forcibly converted over 500 years ago, during the Spanish Inquisition. I have even sat on a Bet Din with a man from Mexico who claimed this. At the recent EAST (East Anglian Synagogues Together) weekend conference, I spoke and showed photos from my recent sabbatical travelling in the India, the Far East and South America. One of the most amazing discoveries I had during my travels, occurred during my stay in Mumbai, where I was kindly hosted by ORT – an international Jewish educational teaching and training organization. I participated and helped lead the local Mumbai Purim celebrations. Among the other participants was a group of young people from the northeastern Indian state of Manipur who also claimed to be descendants of a lost tribe. Looking more like Tibetans or Chinese, they were determined to claim their Jewish status and eventually move to Israel. Naturally, I was amazed by a headline I found in the Daily Mail this week, “Our hope is to bring everyone here': Indian villagers who claim to be a 'Lost tribe of Israel' to return to Jewish homeland after five-year legal fight.” The story was about a group of a few thousand villagers from north east India, areas called Manipur and Mizoram, who claim to be the descendants of a lost biblical Jewish tribe. This week they emigrated to Israel from their village after a five-year struggle to get in. They call themselves the “Bnei Menashe”, and are descended from Jews banished from ancient Israel to India in the eighth century B.C. They had been recognized by one of the Israeli chief rabbis as one of the 10 'lost tribes' in 2005, and about 1700 moved to Israel over two years, but were then no longer given visas. The policy has now been reversed, and the remaining group of over 7000 are allowed to emigrate. Claiming to have been sent into exile almost 3000 years ago by the Assyrian Empire, naturally one of the big questions for Israel was whether they qualified as Jewish or not. This was the very same group I had encountered while staying in Mumbai. They were taking a number of Jewish educational courses in the hope that they could either formally convert or be accepted as Jewish. During the Jewish community Purim celebrations, the Bnei Menashe group put on a Purim spiel in English – it was most likely their very first Purim and their very first time performing in English, a language in which they were not particularly fluent.

A number of my colleagues have been writing derashot on this week's Torah portion of vayechi, the last in the book of Genesis, focusing on family estrangement and reconciliation. In it, Joseph is at last reunited with his family and his father, Jacob, whom he has not seen for over 20 years. Jacob lives for quite a few years in exile in Egypt, and then, on his deathbed, he calls Joseph forward to bless his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. In the final verses of the book, he gives a kind of “blessing” or prediction for each of his sons, each one a foundational statement on each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Is it possible that these Manipur villagers I encountered could have been descended from the Menashe who is blessed by his grandfather in this week's Torah portion?

In this last Shabbat of 2012, I have trepidations about the year ahead. We Jews seem to have become a more and more legitimate target for anti-semitism. I read terrifying things about various developments across Europe, about Jews afraid to admit they are Jewish, the rise of anti-semitic political parties in Greece, Norway, Hungary, Jewish hatred in the guise of so-called “legitimate” criticism of the state of Israel. As we end this year and look forward to a new year which could bring even more frightening anti-Jewish attacks, I wonder why there are still so many groups, so many “lost” Jews who still want to be found? People who, despite all the odds and all the cards stacked against them, want to identify as Jewish, count themselves in, even become productive and committed citizens of the state of Israel?

I found an interesting insight provided by the outgoing chief rabbi, Jonathan Sack's” devar Torah. In it, he examines the very incident we read about today in the Torah – the blessing of Joseph's two sons. Despite great care and even insistence by Joseph that Jacob bless the older one, Menashe, first and the younger one, Ephraim, second, Jacob makes a point of doing the very opposite. Rabbi Sacks notes how ugly had been the consequences, throughout Genesis, of favouring younger over older children – Rachel over Leah, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers. It made complete sense that Joseph did not wish a repeat. For an answer to Jacob's actions, he looks to the very names Menashe and Ephraim themselves. Quoting from earlier in the story, he observes that, “Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh, saying, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim, saying, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” (41: 50-52)

About these lines Rabbi Sacks writes, “With the utmost brevity the Torah intimates an experience of exile that was to be repeated many times across the centuries. At first, Joseph felt relief.” He had been a slave, and that was over. He was great, and a leader in the greatest civilization of the ancient world. He sought to remove the bitter past from his mind. Menashe means “forgetting”. Time passed and Joseph began to realize that it was not his culture. His family may be undistinguished shepherds, but they had made him who he was. God had spoken to them, the God who,....”did not make His home in temples and pyramids and panoplies of power, but who spoke in the human heart as a voice, lifting a simple family to moral greatness.” When Joseph's second son arrived he had changed. Egypt, though affluent and a great society, became the “land of my affliction” because it was the land of exile. Calling his son Ephraim made Joseph remember what he had tried to earlier forget: who he was, where he came from, where he belonged.”

Rabbi Sacks sees their names as an overt demonstration of the tension between a desire to forget (assimilate, acculturate) and the promptings of memory (the knowledge that this is “exile,” that we are part of another story, that ultimate home is somewhere else). The child of forgetting (Manasseh) may have blessings. But greater are the blessings of a child (Ephraim) who remembers the past and future of which he is a part.” Thus, he had to bless Ephraim over Menashe.

I wonder if herein lies the answer to the puzzle of the “lost” Jews of Ghana and the Bnei Menashe of India? There would have been great blessings for them becoming part of the surrounding culture. But it is our human destiny to want to know who we are, where we come from and where we belong. The persistence of memory is long and determined, as is the desire to live one's authentic identity, even in the face of great opposition and oppression.

Even here we see a connection to the major weekly theme of family estrangement and reconciliation. Perhaps the family of Joseph, rife with envy, competition, hatred and anger leading to estrangement, end up reconciling because they recognize that ultimately they are all they have and their family is all they are. Their story touches and moves us so deeply because they are just an example of every human family, even our family, the family of Jews. Even across centuries of wandering, exile, oppression and estrangement these “lost” Jews will sacrifice everything to be found because they have kept the memory alive of who is their family. This memory and this longing to be reunited with family appears to be stronger and more enduring than any attempts of hatred, resentment and envy to oppose it. May this love of family help sustain us and help us weather the storms we may face through the new year of 2013.

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