Alongside Bnei Menashe: A Personal Journey

A special people have entered my life and my heart. In November I was honored to visit the Bnei Menashe in northeast India, the place they have called home for the better part of the last three millennia. But it is for Israel that they long.

Israel: the place that has always been central to their dreams. A place that no one in their recorded history had even seen, and yet it remained dear to their hearts and souls. And it was to Israel that 250 of them, men, women and children; from the smallest babies to the elderly, traveled with a minimum of belongings to start their new lives just a few months ago. I had the privilege of being with them on the journey they’d waited their whole life for; and to start my own.

Thus my deep feelings for a most humble people were firmly established. Having begun working for Shavei Israel in September, I found myself among the Bnei Menashe often. But the trip to Manipur, India made me fall in love with them. I wrote and wrote. I took thousands(!) of photos. I wanted to share their story with the world. For some reason the last people I thought to share with, the Bnei Menashe themselves, were the ones who loved it most of all.

I recently took a trip to the Galil (Galilee) in the north to photograph some of the people in existing Bnei Menashe communities in Israel. Touring the towns I was thrilled to see members of the Bnei Menashe at various stages of their absorption to life in Israel: living, finding their way and so happy. I saw kids of all ages in Israeli schools. I saw children in Hebrew enrichment programs. I saw adults in job training courses. I saw the most beautiful wedding, where Orthodox Jewish-Israeli customs were beautifully blended with Bnei Menashe traditions. And I met many, many people.

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The first person I met with, Yonatan, is a newly married young man in Migdal HaEmek. He publishes a monthly, full-color glossy magazine in Kuki (a language spoken in Manipur) for the Bnei Menashe here in Israel. (I know – I was surprised as you are.) He had translated all four of my articles and made a feature article out of them including all of the photos.

Special cover story in Menashe Hayom magazine, consisting of four Times of Israel articles written by Laura Ben-David about the Bnei Menashe, translated to Kuki.
Special cover story in Menashe Hayom magazine, consisting of four Times of Israel articles written by Laura Ben-David about the Bnei Menashe, translated to Kuki.

I was both pleased and touched. However I was stunned as I went from town to town, meeting with both recent arrivals from India and those who’ve been here for years, and over and over people recognized me and thanked me for what I wrote. (They seemed very amused by my shower story…) In fact it seems that just as many of them had read the articles in English right here on Times of Israel as had read it in their native language in the magazine.

The following week, I joined all 250 of the newest arrivals on their emotional first trip to Jerusalem and to the Kotel (Western Wall).  As I accompanied them and photographed the next leg of their journey I found them turning the camera on me – literally. Here I was with these people who have entered my life and my heart; how gratifying it is to know that I have entered theirs as well. For it is nothing less than my own personal journey to see a world I was born into and grew up in as it slowly unfolds for those who appreciate it more than I ever can and absorbs those who will never take it for granted.

A young man gazes before approaching the Kotel for the first time. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
A young man gazes before approaching the Kotel for the first time. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Twenty-somethings gather with excitement on their first trip to Jerusalem. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Twenty-somethings gather with excitement on their first trip to Jerusalem. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Children in the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Children in the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Middle-school girls. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Middle-school girls. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Mother and baby, first time at the Kotel. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Mother and baby, first time at the Kotel. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Praying at the Western Wall. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Praying at the Western Wall. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Bnei Menashe men pray at the Western Wall for the first time. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)
Bnei Menashe men pray at the Western Wall for the first time. (Photo: Laura Ben-David)

Reprinted with author’s permission from Times of Israel