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Indian Jews struggle to fit in in Israel


ABC Online, October 20, 2008

Jews around the world are marking the High Holy days, a three-week period to celebrate a new year on the Jewish calendar and reflect on the one that's passed.

For a small community of Indian immigrants living in Israel, it's been a year of adaptation to new cultural and religious norms.

Presenter: Alana Rosenbaum
Speakers: Shimon Gangte is a Bene Menashe rabbi in Kiryat Arba; Yair Lotjem, a cleaner in Kiryat Arba

ROSENBAUM: Kiryat Arba looks like any other middle-class Israeli neighbourhood. Row of identical houses face manicured lawns, and kids ride around on bikes. If it wasn't for the armoured vehicles patrolling the streets, you wouldn't guess you were in a Jewish settlement in the heart of West Bank.
Some of the most recent settlers in Kiryat Arba are Jews from Manipur and Mizoram, two small Indian states bordering Burma.

SFX: Bnei Menashe singing

ROSENBAUM: The Jews of Manipur and Mizoram are Bene Menashe, a group that claims to have descended from one of the ten lost tribes mentioned in the Old testament. Cut off from the Jewish diaspora for thousands of years, the Bene Menashe practiced what some say is a form of ancient biblical Judaism.
Over Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, the Bene Menashe would sacrifice a chicken. Shimon Gangte is a Bene Menashe rabbi in Kiryat Arba.

GANGTE: The father of the household would do an atonement for the whole family, what they would do is they would take a chicken, a male chicken, and cut its throat and cleanse all the members of the family. But we can't really do that now, because it's weird.

ROSENBAUM: The 500 Bene Menashe in Kiryat Arba have cast aside most of their old rituals, and taken on a more mainstream approach to Judaism. They dress much like the other orthodox Jewish settlers; women in long skirts, and men in skullcaps, known as a kippahs. But Rabbi Gangte says the community still struggles to find acceptance in Israel.

GANGTE: Every time we go somewhere new we have to deal with a lot of silly and stupid questions 'Where are you from, Indonesia? Thailand? Are you Jewish? Why do you have that kippah? Do you know what being Jewish is? Are you a convert? Are you related to Bruce Lee?' It's crazy.

ROSENBAUM: He says there's growing resentment in the community.

GANGTE: When you come here people view you on a different spectrum, as someone trying to escape their poverty in India, so it hurts us a lot, and there's a lot of anger among my community. A lot of people try to suppress that and on Yom Kippur it really comes out, when you ask for forgiveness and atone for your sins. A lot of people do remember these things.

ROSENBAUM: There are about 1,400 Bene Menashe Jews in Israel and most of them live on settlements. They've come under fire from politicians who want to return the occupied territories to the Palestinians.

GANGTE: The settlers offered us to live here because they're often looking to strengthen their settlements. That's one of the reasons. The second reason is economically it makes more sense, because it's much cheaper to live out here. The Indian rupee is not very strong, so even if we come with a lot of money, when we convert it into Israeli shekels we only get about one tenth of what we had. So most of us can't afford to live in the big cities.

ROSENBAUM: About 7,000 Bnei Menashe still in India want to settle in Israel. The government acknowledges that they're of Jewish descent, but it doesn't class them as Jewish. This means that they can't become Israelis under the right of return law, which give citizenship to anyone who can prove they're Jewish.
Most of the Bene Menashe in Israel have got around the problem by converting formally to Judaism. Yair Lotjem, who works as a cleaner in Kiryat Arba, hopes Israel's government will help the Bnei Menashe to immigrate.

LOTJEM: I still have family in India and one of the main reasons I'm still working is so that I can bring them over here. I want to bring them over here even if the government can't help me. The community here is lobbying to bring to Bene Menashe. I hope it succeeds.

ROSENBAUM: Rabbi Gangte is helping Lotjem to bring out his 94-year-old mother.

GANGTE: You know what she said to me? On the phone she said 'I'm weak, I can't go in and out of the house anymore, someone has to carry me. But I'm not going to die until I set foot in the land of Israel.'