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Two Women from ‘Lost’ Tribes Find a Home

They tell the story of their journeys from China and Northeast India to Israel

Rachel Silberstein
November 22, 2013
Ruth Haokip, 26, from the Bnei Menashe community in Northeast India.(Michael Freund)
Ruth Haokip, 26, from the Bnei Menashe community in Northeast India.(Michael Freund)

Two young women, one from the Bnei Menashe ‘lost’ tribe of Israel in India, and another from the Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, visited New York City for the first time earlier this month with Shavei Israel, an organization that works with ‘hidden’ and ‘lost’ Jews across the world. I had the chance to meet them and hear their stories when they spoke at an event at Touro College in Manhattan.

From childhood, both women were told that they were Jewish and that a promised land awaited them, and—after many centuries of isolation from the Western Jewish world—both were among the first in their communities to see that that dream fulfilled. But that is where their similarities end.

Ruth Haokip, 26, belongs to India’s B’nai Menashe population, who believe they are descended from the tribe of Menasseh, one of the twelve biblical sons of Israel, were exiled by the Assyrian Empire more than 27 centuries ago. The tribe travelled through China and Burma for centuries, eventually settling in the states of Manipur and Mizoram on the Northeast border of India.

Standing confidently before a rapt audience of more than 50 people, Hoakip described how, in the 19th century, much of her tribe was converted to Christianity by British missionaries, but a small group of Bnei Menashe rejected Christianity, retaining many biblical Jewish customs. In the 1980s, the community first reached out to the wider Jewish world and began to embrace Halachic practice.

Though the idea of returning to Israel was ingrained in Hoakip from an early age, it always seemed abstract. While attending the University of Calcutta, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, sociology, and English, she took Jewish history classes and became more interested in connecting with her Jewish roots. Thanks to a major shift in Israeli policy in late 2012—which Eetta Prince-Gibson reported on for Tablet—Haokip immigrated to Migdal HaEmek, a city in Northern Israel, with her family and several others, and currently attends a rigorous ulpan program to learn Hebrew.

Haokip described the warm welcome and support her family received from the Jewish community in Migdal HaEmek, which holds a special significance for the Bnei Menashe. “I learned that it is the exact area where our ancestor, Menasseh, once conquered,” she said, visibly moved.

Initially, she told me, she was disappointed to learn that in order to gain acceptance in Israel, she would be expected to convert. “I was pretty reluctant,” she said, “I grew up knowing I was a Jew, but I kept praying to God and I realized after self-study, that after 2,000 years of exile, we’ve been mixed with different cultures. We lost much of Halachic Judaism, so I personally feel conversion is very important for us. Conversion is about lost Jews getting renewed again.”

Jin Jin, 28, who now goes by the Hebrew name Yecholya, hails from the Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, which originated in the Middle Ages when a group of Persian Jewish traders settled in the area. During the Middle Ages, Kaifeng’s Jewish community numbered over 5,000 people, had Rabbis, synagogues, and community centers. But assimilation took its toll and after Kaifeng’s last rabbi died in 1810, a series of floods destroyed what was left of the community’s synagogue.

Thanks, in part, to the softening of Chinese communism and rise of globalization, there has been an awakening among Chinese youth seeking to reclaim their Jewish heritage. Today there are estimated to be 500 to 1,000 descendants of Jews in China (Tablet’s Matthew Fishbane wrote about the renaissance of Jewish life among the Jews of Kaifeng for the New York Times in 2010).

Jin, who wore a black t-shirt and knee-length skirt, in line with the halachic standard of modesty, or tznius, showcased her playful persona with humor, drawing laughter from the audience as she told her story.

For Jews in Kaifeng, due to their centuries-long exile, Jin explained, abstaining from pork became the last remaining marker of their Jewish heritage. “And in China that’s a big deal,” she said. “So as a girl, I always had a desire to eat pork.” In order to reinforce the tradition, her father told her about a very wise group of people who immigrated to China many centuries ago.

“How did they get so wise?” he would prompt her. “They didn’t eat pork.”

Jin moved to Giva’at Zev seven years ago with a group of four young women. “As soon as I arrived at the kotel I was crying, and I didn’t know why,” she told the audience. “But something goes on there.”

Initially Jin worked on a kibbutz, at a vineyard, where she said she fell in love with the land. Today she works as a guide for Chinese tour groups visiting Israel and hopes to serve as a bridge between the two countries. In 2009, another seven young men from Kaifeng immigrated to Israel. One of them, Yakov Wang, is studying to become a rabbi and hopes to be the first rabbi in Kaifeng in two centuries.

Rachel Silberstein is a writer living in New York.