For 83-year-old Mendel Kingbol, a recent immigrant, Passover and its message of deliverance resonate far more strongly than perhaps any other festival.
As one of the elder members of the Bnei Menashe community, Kingbol still recalls, with a mixture of fondness and nostalgia, the way his ancestors celebrated the festival over the centuries in the farthest reaches of northeastern India.
The Bnei Menashe reside primarily in the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. They are descendants of the tribe of Manasseh, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel exiled by the Assyrian empire in 723 BCE.
A century ago, when British missionaries first arrived in India's northeast, they were astonished to find that the local tribesmen worshiped one god, were familiar with many of the stories of the Bible and were practicing a form of biblical Judaism, including observance of the Sabbath, kashrut and the laws of family purity.
Before long, the missionaries succeeded in converting most to Christianity. Some, however, continued to adhere to the ways of their ancestors. Indeed, in recent decades, the Bnei Menashe have built dozens of synagogues across India's northeast, and three times a day they turn fervently in prayer, with their eyes raised toward Zion, to which they collectively long to return.
In March 2005, after I approached Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and asked him to study the community and its origins, he decided to formally recognize the Bnei Menashe as "descendants of the Jewish people" and agreed to facilitate their return.
OVER the past decade, thanks largely to Shavei Israel, some 1,500 Bnei Menashe have moved here, where they have undergone formal conversion to Judaism to remove any doubts regarding their status. Among them are Kingbol and his family.
Now, comfortably ensconced in the Galilee, he is adjusting well to his new surroundings. Asked about Passover, he proceeds to recount the remarkable manner in which the festival, known in the Mizo language as Chapchar Khut, was commemorated by his ancestors. "Chapchar Khut is an ancient ritual that I have always believed is strongly connected with Passover," Kingbol says.
The holiday was typically celebrated for seven days during the spring, in the month of March, and at its center was a ceremony with remarkably Jewish overtones.
"The Bnei Menashe in Mizoram live in mountainous villages, so to grow crops we needed to make a clearing," he remembers. "This period of clearing, which was done immediately before Chapchar Khut, was regarded as a new year for us," much in the way that the Torah enumerates the Hebrew months starting with Nisan, when Passover falls.
Along with clearing a field for agricultural purposes, the Bnei Menashe would also fashion a new road as part of the traditional observance of the holiday. This, it appears, was intended to symbolize the long journey out of Egypt that lay ahead of their ancestors at the beginning of their deliverance from bondage.
Since this was considered the start of a new year, a blessing for the entire community was recited, with the village priest taking four or five people with him to the outermost edge of the settlement where, while beating the bushes, he would chant: "Behold, bushes of above and below! Make way, for the sons of Menashe are coming!"
On the first night of the festival, Kingbol relates, the villagers would all gather at the hut of the local chief, where they would sing and dance until the early hours of the morning. The celebration started precisely at midnight, Kingbol says, because that is when all the first-born of Egypt were slain in the 10th plague, as recounted in the Bible.
"The next morning, on the threshold of the village, everyone had to eat a quick and hurried meal," he says. "They did this because our ancestors, when they left Egypt, did not have time to bake their bread. The villagers would feed each other very quickly. This was known as chhawng hnawt - I don't know exactly what this phrase means, but it signifies something that had to be done hastily, because our ancestors were under pressure to leave after Pharaoh's command to depart Egypt."
WHILE Kingbol's recollection of Chapchar Khut revolves around the social and communal aspects of the holiday, another Bnei Menashe elder named Yossi provides an additional perspective on how the Bnei Menashe celebrated its ritual components.
On the first night of the holiday, after sundown, the village priest would don special white garments in preparation for carrying out the sacrificial rite. These garments included, according to Yossi, one that had strings dangling from its four corners, recalling the tallit.
"The priest would take an animal and slaughter it, and then collect the blood in a special pouch," Yossi says. He would then dip a branch or leaf into the blood and smear it on the doorways of people's homes, just as the Israelites had done before leaving Egypt.
The priest then had to carefully separate the meat from the bones of the carcass, for if even one bone were to break, it would invalidate the animal for use in the ceremony. For anyone familiar with the Torah's description of the Paschal sacrifice, this requirement will sound more than a little familiar (see Exodus 12:46).
Having successfully completed this task, the priest would place the animal on an altar and offer it up to God, in the process reciting a series of ancient Bnei Menashe chants and prayers. Perhaps the most extraordinary of them is "Miriam's song," as it is known among the community. "We had to cross the Red Sea," it began. "Our enemies were coming after us with chariots but the sea swallowed them all as if they were meat. We are led by the cloud during the day and by fire at night. Take those birds for the food, and drink water coming out from the rock."
The echoes of the biblical account of the Exodus and its aftermath are unmistakable - a Bnei Menashe version of the Haggada as it narrates the story of how their ancestors left Egypt, together with our own.
Now, after so many years of wandering, the Bnei Menashe are once again setting out on the long journey back to the Promised Land. May the road ahead lead to their safe and quick return.
The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based group that assists "lost Jews" seeking to return to the Jewish people.