Yochanan Phaltual is the administrator of the 5,000-member Bnei Menashe in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, a community believed to be one of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel.
In June, Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption voted in principle to resume permitting the remaining 7,200 Bnei Menashe in India to make aliyah, but it set no time schedule.
Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar in 2005 declared the Bnei Menashe were part of the lost tribe of Menashe and could make aliyah under the Law of Return after a complete conversion. About 1,700 came in the 10 years ending in 2007, when immigration was halted.
Phaltual, 36, is also the area representative of Shavei Israel, a Jewish group that actively seeks out “lost Jews” to facilitate their return to Israel. He runs the group’s Hebrew Center and organizes educational, cultural and religious activities. A graduate of India’s Delhi University with a bachelor’s in history, he is married with one daughter and has two siblings and a nephew who live in Israel. He was interviewed by phone during a visit to Palm Beach, Fla.
Q: What is the purpose of your visit?
A.: I was invited by the American Friends of Shavei Israel to explain how we live in India and how we practice Judaism, its customs and traditions. Ours is similar to the biblical customs that were followed during the Temple period. We did sacrifices and dealt the same way you do with dead bodies — washing them, wrapping them in a white cloth and sitting for seven days of mourning. The close relatives don’t work during that time and relatives or neighbors cook for them. It is said that something bad will happen to close relatives who go hunting or do any work during the seven days.
Did you have the Torah?
We didn’t have the Torah, but we have kept the customs of the Jews since we were exiled. We follow the three festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. We didn’t have the festivals like you do now, but we observed the day. During Pesach, we put blood on the doorpost but we didn’t know anything about matzah or the seder. We made a sacrifice because we knew of the korban, the sacrifice of the lamb. …
Do you have synagogues in India?
In Manipur there are 27 synagogues, and in the whole of northeast India there are about 50 synagogues. They were built after we started practicing Judaism [beginning in 1975]; I myself started in 1999. In the old days, the kohen had a special room in which to make sacrifices. We didn’t have a synagogue but rather a resting place that we went to for prayer. It was like a meeting hall but it was used for religious gatherings.
How has the adjustment been for those who have immigrated to Israel?
We are rediscovering our roots in Israel. Our dream is that we want the government of Israel to bring us home as soon as possible. Those who are there like it. It’s like a dream come true, even though they have to struggle. The land is good, and they pray for us to come soon. Spiritually, they are very, very happy and everything is good for them.
How are they getting by with Hebrew?
In India, they are taught Hebrew, and around 50 percent can read it, even though they don’t know the meaning. Some can speak a few sentences. Israel has sent us a rabbi and there are one-month seminars for selected students who come back and teach the others.
When do you expect to go to Israel?
I have not been to Israel so far. In fact, this is my first time outside of India. I have read a lot about Israel, and I have relatives who have come back for bar mitzvahs and weddings and shivas and who tell us they are enjoying it there.
I know you just attended a morning prayer service in a Palm Beach synagogue. How was it?
I didn’t see young ones pray in the synagogue. It was a minyan of only elderly people, and it took some time to get a minyan. In India, we have young and old alike. The sun rises at 5, services are at 7:30 and school starts at 9:30, so there is plenty of time to eat before school. Sometimes even women who have time come and pray; there is a separate room for them.
Do you have a mikveh in India?
We have lots of rivers in Manipur, so we used the rivers. But now Michael Freund (the founder of Shavei Israel) has dedicated a mikveh in honor of his mother.
Do you have a message for the Americans you are visiting?
I want the people here to remember our desire to make aliyah. … I hope that soon we can start the process of aliyah again. It is a dream. Everyone, even old people, say they want to die in Israel, not in the diaspora. Just like Joseph, we all want to be buried in Israel.