In the spring of 1997, shortly after Israel pulled out of its settlements in Hebron, Michael Freund was working at the communications bureau of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then serving his first stint in that office. The Diaspora Affairs adviser at the time worked across the hall, where mail to the cabinet was handled. The adviser and Freund kept what they jokingly referred to as “The Crazy File”: letters from across the globe from people who believed that they were the Messiah or who made oddball requests of the government. These were sometimes illegible, sometimes threatening, sometimes naïve and amusing.
One day, a secretary handed Freund a beat-up orange envelope, addressed to the Prime Minster of Israel. Freund opened it. The letter inside had been sent by the leadership of a community in Manipur, in Northeast India, which claimed to be a lost tribe of the biblical people of Israel. The rest of the letter was a simply worded plea to be allowed to come back to the land of their ancestors after 2,700 years in exile. They had written to Golda Meir and every prime minister since then but had never gotten an answer. Why not?
“I read it,” Freund says, “and I thought it was completely nuts.” Then, without really knowing why, he did something crazier. He answered the letter. What follows is the story of what he became, as a result.
The palanquin on which Michael Freund will be lifted this November morning has been assembled from a cushioned tropical hardwood lounger, covered in tribal cloth and bunting, and lashed to a pair of stout bamboo poles painted silver. His porters sport dark turbans adorned with eagle feathers and a white sash across their brown torsos. Each carries a single chromatic grass pan-whistle, which they blow in time with the marching, boo-bee-boo-baaaa, as they hoist him shoulder-high above the crowd of several hundred Kuki, Paithe, and Thado men, women, and children waving small paper Israeli flags on sticks. A barefoot drummer leads the procession, and gong players trail. Freund’s legs dangle. The look on his face is a mix of mortification, embarrassment, and deeply satisfied delight: He wishes to honor the tradition that honors him, but he seems to realize that this whole scene is ridiculous, like something Werner Herzog if not Joseph Conrad might have dreamed up: the great white redeemer arriving to gather a remote tribal people, who shout, I low Michaew! I low Michaew!
Freund and his people are in the yard of Beith Shalom synagogue, in a town called Kangpokpi, across from the bazaar, in Sadar Hills, Manipur state, 30 miles from the Myanmar border. A faint smell of burnt rice fields, in full harvest, wafts in from the floodplains and terraces. The antlered, mounted head of a sakhi deer looks down from the pediment of a thatched proscenium, wreathed in a Star of David made of tied rice stalks. Along the short parade route, women hold handmade posters adorned with Israeli flags and scrawled with messages such as: “MAY HASHEM BLESS MICHAEL AND HIS FRIENDS FOR THEIR GOOD DEEDS AND MAKE THEM STRONGER.”
Freund is the guest of honor at a ceremony to celebrate Operation Menashe, through which, largely due to Freund’s efforts, 900 local hill people will make aliyah, or immigration to Israel, this year. Hebrew for “ascent,” aliyah represents both the ingathering of the Diaspora and the national aspirations of the Jewish State as embodied in the founding tenets of the Zionist movement.
Freund alights and takes his place on stage along with tribal elders and envoys from neighboring villages. The crowd sits on benches in the yard, skirted women to the left, their heads covered; men to the right, most wearing hand-crocheted kippot. In the audience, a shirtless porter with an eagle feather snaps a pic on his smartphone, while a white woman, part of Freund’s delegation, aims a zoom lens at him. Bnei Menashe Council Chairman Avihu Singsit makes a welcome speech, calling Freund by his honorific, “Pu Michael.” The teens of the Kids’ Folk Action Songs and Dance Cultural Troupe of Beth Shalom Community Kangpokpi perform the Eagle Dance, with its barefoot agricultural gestures of digging, sowing, reaping, and gathering, boys and girls aligned, lightly coquettish. The girls’ forearms are wrapped in gold. A black vest handwoven in ethnic patterns is ceremoniously bestowed on Pu Michael, who before donning it sheepishly had only a silver Rolex to decorate his uniform of pleated black slacks, white Oxford shirt, and sensible black shoes. Looking mildly pasty and baggy from travel, he steps up to the microphone, flanked by a pair of tribal sentinels brandishing a sickle and a wooden sabre.
“We are living in the days of aliyah,” he says, staring into a sea of beseeching faces, as he delivers his words with the measured pace of a practiced speechmaker. “We are witnessing the return of the Bnei Menashe after 2,700 years of exile.” He pauses to allow a translation to Kuki-Thado, a lingua franca for the hundreds of dialects spoken by the many tribes of the Kuki, Chin, Mizo, and Lushai people of Assam, Bengal, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Kachin, and Chittagong. Applause, laughter, and cheering echo off the hills, after a short delay. “Abraham was the first immigrant to Israel, and you now are following in his footsteps. For 27 centuries your ancestors dreamed of the day when you would return to Zion,” he says. “You and I may not look alike, but we both share a Jewish soul, and that is what unites us. You are my family, I am your family, and together, with God’s help, soon we will march back to Zion.”
This is the opening section of Becoming Moses, a Tablet special profile of Shavei Israel founder Michael Freund, reported in India and Israel. It can be read in its entirety, with multimedia, for free, by clicking here.