Members of the B’nei Menashe community reunite with relatives at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport on December 24, 2012. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.
The autobiographical account that follows is an edited version of one of many interviews conducted in 2017-18 with men and women belonging to the founding generation of Israel’s B’nei Menashe community. It is part of an ongoing oral-history project in which I have participated; the project is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of New Mexico with the special assistance of Sabra Minkus, its vice-president at large.
The B’nei Menashe, an estimated 4,000 of whom live in Israel today as full Jews and citizens, originated in a Judaizing movement that arose in the 1970s among the Kuki-Mizos, a Tibeto-Burmese ethnic group inhabiting the federal states of Manipur and Mizoram in the far northeast corner of India. Like other Judaizers in modern history, including the Subbotniki in Russia and the Szombatosok in Hungary, they emerged from the matrix of Christianity—or, more exactly, from their rejection of a Christianity that they perceived as having betrayed its biblical, “Old Testament” roots.
In each of these cases, the rejection started with the Sabbatarian belief that Christianity had illegitimately moved the Bible’s mandated day of rest from Saturday to Sunday. But where most of the world’s Sabbatarians have remained within the Christian fold—the Seventh Day Adventists being a prime example—groups like the Subbotniki, the Szombatosok, and the B’nei Menashe ended by leaving Christianity completely and embracing all of the commandments of Judaism, starting with circumcision and observance of the biblical festivals and continuing on to a total acceptance of rabbinic tradition.
At the same time, however, the B’nei Menashe are unique.
First, their founding fathers and mothers took their first steps toward Judaism almost entirely unaided. Not only were there no Jews in their vicinity to inspire or teach them, but they were at first hardly aware that Jews existed elsewhere. Inhabiting a remote, hilly area covered largely by jungle and traversable if at all by primitive roads, they only gradually came into contact, first, with the small Jewish community of Calcutta; next, with the larger one of Mumbai (Bombay); and finally, with a dedicated Israeli rabbi, Eliyahu Avichayil, who in the 1980s and ’90s taught them the basics of Orthodox Judaism. It was Rabbi Avichayil who first began bringing groups of them to Israel, where they underwent halakhic conversion.
Second, unlike the Subbotniki and Szombatosok, whose forefathers had been Christians for centuries, many of the first Judaizers of northeast India were born into non-Christian families and baptized only as children or young adults. Christianity arrived in Mizoram and Manipur with British missionaries at the start of the 20th century; before then, the Kuki-Mizos, an amalgam of ethnically linked but frequently warring tribes, had practiced an ancestral religion of their own that revolved around animal sacrifice performed by village priests. Although this religion was ultimately rooted out by the missionaries, it lingered in some places into the 1960s and beyond. Not a few of our interviewees have clear memories of it from their childhoods.
Third, the B’nei Menashe possessed something that other Judaizers did not: namely, the conviction that they were descended from one of the “ten lost tribes” of Israel, exiled, according to the Bible, by the Assyrian empire in 722 BCE.
This conviction rested on a number of striking parallels between certain biblical stories and customs and those of the old Kuki-Mizo religion, as well as on the latter’s having had a prominent ancestor-figure called Manasia or Manmasi, identified by the Judaizers with the biblical Menashe, the son of Joseph. Hence the name taken by them of B’nei Menashe and hence, too, their feeling that their adoption of Judaism involved a return to their true selves. Rather astonishingly, three field trips of my own to Mizoram and Manipur in 1998-2000 led me to the conclusion, put forth in my 2002 book Across the Sabbath River, that the Manasia/Menashe equation might contain a kernel of historical truth.
Shlomo Gangte’s personal history, supplemented by that of his wife Yemimah who participated in the interview with him, is likewise both typical and atypical. Like most of those interviewed for the oral-history project, he was raised in a small, largely self-sufficient village surrounded by jungle; as in their case, the religion of his childhood was the old pre-Christian one; as with them, it was his unsatisfying experience with Christianity that eventually led him to Judaism. Without it, he would never have encountered the translations of the Hebrew Bible that changed his life.
But Shlomo Gangte’s story also differs considerably from that of the other interviewees. Born in 1967, he is the youngest of them, and came of age at a time when Judaism was a tiny but already going concern in northeast India, rather than an initially vague goal that its founders were struggling to articulate. However roughly, the religious trail that he took had already been blazed when he embarked on it.
His road to Israel, by contrast, was completely his own. Almost all of the other B’nei Menashe who reached Israel did so in groups organized over a period of many years by Rabbi Avichayil, and at a later stage by his successors. Shlomo and Yemimah Gangte were among the few who refused to await their turn but set out on their private initiative. Their tale of how they succeeded is one of a kind in the annals of the B’nei Menashe’s aliyah to Israel.
Finally, and most unusually, Shlomo Gangte’s journey to Judaism has taken him farther than any other member of the B’nei Menashe community has gone. He is not the only one to have been rabbinically ordained; there is another such case to date. Yet he stands out in the lengths to which he has carried his acquired Jewish knowledge and commitment, and his life’s trajectory has been truly remarkable.
In 1999, when I first met Shlomo on my trip to Manipur, I could not possibly have imagined that this smiling young man in a t-shirt and baseball cap, knowing so little about Judaism yet so eager to learn all he could, would one day grow the beard and wear the black hat and clothes of a ḥaredi Jew, let alone becoming educated enough to be entrusted with the work he now does. How he became, in addition, a national hero in Israel is something I’ll leave to his interview to relate. It’s a mind-boggling story—but so, when one considers it, is the entire story of the B’nei Menashe.
The interview with Shlomo and Yemimah Gangte was conducted in their native language of Thadou by Yitzḥak Thangjom, who has worked together with me on this project and has provided the translated English transcript that, abridged and edited by me, appears here.
Definitions of words marked with an asterisk (*) can be found in the glossary at the end of the interview.
Shlomo and Yemimah Gangte
Shlomo Gangte: I was born in Phainuom, in the Khoupum valley, in the Nungba Sub-Division of the Tamenglong district of the Indian state of Manipur, on September 12, 1967. We were twelve brothers and sisters, and I was the eleventh child. My parents named me Tai Lalmuon, which means “Zealot of the King of Peace.”
We must have been about 20 to 30 families in the village. It was a typical village for the area. It was founded by my grandfather, who was the first to settle there. The valley was flat and rectangular, like a very large soccer field, with a gentle beauty that I feel nostalgic for to this day. Two rivers flowed along either side of it, and trees grew on their banks. It was surrounded by treacherously steep mountains. Our village stood at one end of it. Most of it was farmed. In the middle of it stood a hillock with a single tree on it. Important events were held there.
We grew all that we liked and needed. We had a vegetable garden in our backyard. Thanks to the many streams and rivers nearby, fish were plentiful. At other times, we’d slaughter one of the domestic animals that we raised. We had mainly cows and water buffaloes. Since I was too young to be useful in the fields, I was assigned to tend the buffaloes. My job was to take them to pasture. Once there, I’d hop on the back of one and lie there daydreaming the whole day.
There was a dirt road on which cars started to travel when I was growing up. They were a rare sight, though. There was still no bus service. Christianity hadn’t reached our village at the time. There may have been a few families that had accepted it, but they weren’t significant enough for me to notice. When I was a small boy in the early 1970s, I had no idea what Christianity was. My father became a Christian only on his deathbed, after being told that if he didn’t he wouldn’t be given a proper burial.
My grandparents had died by the time I was born, but my father stuck to the old ways and resisted change. He was the thiempu (old-religion priest) of the village. My grandfather had been one, too. As far as I understood it, they worshipped Pathen, the one God. By the time I was growing up, missionaries were appearing in our area. They approached my father several times, trying to convince him to accept “Jesu Christa,” the redeemer of the world. My father asked them who this person was and whether he was still alive. When he was told that “Jesu Christa” had been killed by Roman soldiers long ago, he said the missionaries might as well worship the soldiers who had killed him. Why worship a dead man? I can remember hearing such conversations.
My father was a typically down-to-earth, no-nonsense man of the old days. If someone fell ill, a blood sacrifice was called for. That was the practice he’d always known. It’s hard to do away with age-old customs. I remember a rooster sacrifice. There was one having to do with rice stalks, too. I was still very small and have only fuzzy recollections of those things. I never got close enough to a sacrifice to hear what my father was saying. I remember him calling out during a bad storm,
We are well!
The children of Manmasi are well!
But I didn’t know who Manmasi* was. I don’t think he did, either.
In those days, there were no religious divisions among us. Everyone drank rice wine, which the Christian missionaries forbade. When you visited a friend, he offered you wine and food, and you did the same when he visited you. It was a good, easygoing, uncomplicated life.
My friends and I were a bunch of active, curious boys. We played a lot of kang.* We played soccer, too, and other traditional games like Lut thel thel.* I remember one strange incident. Five or six of us had been playing together toward evening. Suddenly I looked up and saw that there were many more children playing with us than that. I didn’t recognize any of them; they weren’t from our village. They played with us for a while and just as suddenly disappeared. I thought they were thilhas.* I’m simply telling you what I saw.
Every household had a gun, an old musket. We grew up learning to handle it. The first time I fired one, I wasn’t more than ten years old. There was a river at one end of the village, with lots of trees along its banks in which doves roosted. I had a friend stand in front of me and I rested the barrel on his shoulder. Another friend stood behind me and stuffed his fingers in my ears, because those old guns made an awfully loud bang. l took aim, fired, and a bird came tumbling down from a tree, It was better than any game I had ever played.
The Khoupum Valley was like a paradise, but had my brothers, sisters, and I remained there, we wouldn’t have gotten ahead in life. One by one, my father sent us all to live with my oldest brother in Churachandpur, 200 kilometers away. This brother taught political science at Churachandpur College. I was one of the last to go. We walked the whole way.
When I got there, I missed our village. I missed my mother and father. I cried a lot. I was still a small child, and my older brothers were busy with their studies and all the other things that young men their age did. That left me, the youngest, the only one with free time—or so they thought. They made me do all the chores at home. I had to be the first one up every morning to sweep the house, fetch water, kindle the hearth, put the kettle up to boil, and feed the pigs while the tea was brewing. Only then would my brothers begin to stir.
When I had done all my chores, I’d wash and we’d all sit down to the morning meal that I made, after which I had to clean up and run to school. I loved school. I was attentive in class, and since I never had time at my brother’s to do my homework, I did it there. When I finished elementary school my brother enrolled me in a high school. I continued there through my senior year, majoring in science. Unfortunately, I cared more for athletics than for having a career. I was even hired by a semi-professional soccer team, the Teddim Road Athletics Union, and played for them as a midfielder for two years. I took up martial arts. One was thangta, Manipuri swordsmanship. When you’re young, you want to learn and do everything. I also belonged to a gospel rock band called Hallelujah. We toured villages. Although I wasn’t a Christian, the boundaries were fluid in those days. I even played at Christian revival meetings, though it felt odd to be taking part in them. The church elders trusted me so much that they put me in charge of a Sunday school.
By this time, most of my older brothers had become Christians. I myself hadn’t decided yet. Being the youngest in the family, I wasn’t under any pressure. I suppose it was assumed that I would sooner or later go along. I didn’t attach too much importance to the whole matter.
Although I continued on to college, I fell in with a bad crowd. Some of my new friends were members of an underground independence movement, the Manipuri People’s Liberation Army. They were outlaws. I ferried them around on my scooter and ran errands for them. It took me away from my studies, but it was exciting to be with them and their guns, and I couldn’t resist the adventure of it. By now, I was well-known as a soccer player and on the music scene. I had lots of friends and was popular. I even acted in a few films. The roles were small but it was fun. After a while, though, I accepted a job offer from a school to teach science and English, and a year later, I met my future wife Ngaineithiem. All her friends called her Buongthe.
We met at a well. A cousin of mine was in charge of making repairs on it and invited me to watch the work. Buongthe came to bring tea and cake for the workers. I noticed her because she was lovely and friendly and liked to smile and laugh. We were married and lived in Churachandpur until the early 90s.
My wife’s family in Churachandpur were Sabbath observers, and I joined their congregation. It was called the House of Yahweh. It had about 25 households and worshiped in a large, beautiful building, with over 100 participants at an average service. It was very much like a family. Everyone cared about everyone else. There was no gossip or backbiting. Communally, it was very nice. My wife’s father was the congregation’s chairman and I was made its secretary. One of the things I did was tell Bible stories
I took them mostly from the Old Testament. Gradually, I came to realize that the Sabbath movement, too, was not being true to the Bible. It may have worshipped on Saturday, but there was no circumcision, no biblical festivals, no purity laws. But although I was already aware of the Judaism that was developing in Manipur at this time, I couldn’t find anyone to discuss it with on an intellectual level. I had heard that it was difficult to win an argument with the followers of Judaism, but they couldn’t beat me in a single debate. I don’t mean to demean anyone, but in those days the Judaism people were not my idea of what Jews should be like. Later on, as I learned more about Judaism, I found that it taught and practiced the very things I had already accepted in my heart: Shabbat, circumcision, family purity and festivals, kashrut. The Judaizing community may not have followed all of the rules, but the religion itself seemed right to me.
That’s why I had myself circumcised. Looking for someone who would perform it on me, I found a man named Kailam. who was known as the “Judaismpa,” the Judaism guy. He told me that he had performed the operation on more than 1,000 people. He showed me recommendations and assured me he was the best. I agreed to do it and he came with his equipment.
It was evening. He lay me down on a table and put his equipment beneath it. Then he gave me an anesthetic injection and cut the foreskin all around. When he wanted to stitch me up, though, he couldn’t find his needle and thread. As he fumbled around looking for it, I was losing a lot of blood. He started to panic. I tried calming him, “Everything is going to be fine,” I said. “If you can’t find it, you probably didn’t bring it.”
An hour passed and the bleeding continued. I was starting to feel weak. My landlord had a son who had come to watch the proceedings. I told him to go his house and bring a needle. He ran there and came back without having found one.
In the end, a needle was found on the premises, a large, rusty one, the kind used for sewing gunnysacks. There was no choice but to use it. By the time Kailam started to stitch me up with it, the anesthesia had worn off and the pain was indescribable. Although he was shaking with fear, he managed, thank God, to get it done. I told him not to worry. “You did well,” I said—after all, it had been my decision to do it. I was pale from loss of blood. Meanwhile, my wife had called her father, who rushed over with food and medicine. He was so angry at Kailam that he nearly gave him a thrashing. I had to explain that it wasn’t his fault.
I was the only one in the House of Yahweh to be circumcised. The Torah said I should do it. What the church said was irrelevant. I was always ready to go my own way if I believed it was the right thing to do. There were things that were forever: circumcision, Shabbat, festivals, kashrut, family purity. A table needs four legs. If one is missing, it won’t stand. There were people who didn’t understand me. There were a lot of questions in my Sabbather church, especially since I held a senior position in it.
When civil war broke out in the mid-90s, we moved to Imphal, the capital of Manipur, to get away from it. It was hard to find jobs there. I worked as a photographer, made short films, and even ran a printing press to make ends meet. Sometimes I traveled to Nepal and brought back electronic goods to sell.
There was a church in Imphal called, if I’m not mistaken, the New Testament Church. It had a library with a large collection of books from all over the world. I spent whole days there reading up on Judaism. I felt an urgent need to discover the truth, and I was finding it harder and harder to believe in Christianity. It had too many contradictions. For example, Jesus said before his crucifixion, “Verily I say unto you, the men standing here will not see death till the son of man returns”—but those men, his disciples, had all died without his returning. There were many things like that in the New Testament. I made a list of 120 of them.
It was then that I decided to go over to Judaism. I had found no fulfillment in Christianity, not even in the Sabbath movement. We joined the Jewish community in Imphal. I took the name Shlomo and gave my wife the name Yemimah; it was from the Bible and I didn’t know what it meant, but I liked the sound of it. When our son Yiftaḥ was born in 1997, he had a b’rit milah. This time it was done by a doctor. It was just our luck, though, that he used too much anesthetic and Yiftaḥ fell into a deep sleep and didn’t wake up. We were worried sick. I kept telling myself, “If you had the faith that Abraham had when he went with Isaac to Mount Moriah, you wouldn’t be so afraid.” It was nighttime before he awoke.
All this had nothing to do with wanting to go to Israel. That hadn’t crossed my mind at the time. I wanted to study. I started with the Hebrew alphabet and learned to read the prayer book. When I progressed faster than the others in the congregation, they asked me to be their prayer leader. I started giving lessons on the weekly Torah reading. I toured villages teaching Jewish law, how to conduct prayers, and so on. I helped reorganize Judaism in Manipur and made arrangements for elections to the B’nei Menashe Council. It was only after this that there was a semblance of administrative order in the community. Still, there were also arguments about how to do things, who should be selected for aliyah to Israel, etc.—a lot of chaos.
After about five years in the community, I began to think seriously about aliyah myself. When you teach the same things over and over, they become repetitive. Nothing is new anymore. I felt a need to learn more. I had read a lot of books on Judaism, almost non-stop, but we still didn’t have a rabbi, a ritual slaughterer, or a kashrut supervisor. Without such things, a Jewish community can’t exist. I remember telling my wife that as far as Judaism was concerned, we were still in the wilderness. We had to go either to America or to Israel.
Yemimah agreed. We started to make preparations. I had six cameras and some photographic equipment and sold them all. My wife ran a beauty salon; she sold everything, too.
In 2002, we left for Delhi and went to the Israel embassy, the four of us: Yemimah, myself, Yiftaḥ, and a newborn baby girl named Hadassah. We met with a secretary named Nili Stein, who gave us forms to fill out. She asked us what the purpose of our visit would be. I told her that I was going to study Torah. “Will you be returning to India?” she asked. I said we didn’t know, possibly not.
She must have wondered why someone who was not even Jewish according to Jewish law would be doing such a thing. I had a letter of recommendation from an organization that sponsored “lost” Jews, but no one at the embassy had ever heard of it. We weren’t given the visas, and Nili made it clear that we had no chance of getting them. I suppose she found us laughable.
For two months, I went to the embassy every working day of the week. I bought a scooter to get around Delhi and visited every day, each time being told that it was hopeless and that my application was not even being processed. Toward the end, I wasn’t allowed in; I had to trick them by waiting for someone else to enter and sneaking in with him.
Yemimah Gangte: Don’t remind me of our time in Delhi! It was a nightmare. We were in a pitiful state. We had been told by people in Israel not to bring anything with us because everything was available there. We had two small children, the clothes that we wore, and little else. Shlomo went to the embassy every day. Sometimes, when he came back in the evening, I didn’t even want to speak to him.
Part of the money came from my father, who took an early pension to help pay for our trip. He still had a few working years left, but he saw how badly we wanted to go to Israel. Delhi is an expensive place. Our money was running out. I’d had enough. My parents were so worried about us that they traveled all the way to Delhi and offered to take me back to Manipur. Two months passed like that. Nobody should have to go through what we did.
Shlomo: It was May/June. It was very hot in Delhi. I had made up my mind not to retreat or surrender, but I felt that everyone was laughing at me. Each time the phone rang, it was my wife’s family telling her to come home. And then, one morning, Nili phoned and asked where I was. I told her I was about to start out for the embassy. She said that was good because the visas had just come through. I jumped for joy when I heard that. I took everyone’s passport, hopped on my scooter, raced to the embassy, and had our passports stamped. They were probably just fed up with me.
Yemimah: We reached Israel almost empty-handed. One suitcase was all we had. I remember it like yesterday. My cousin Uleina came to pick us up at the airport. We stayed at his house that night. Since he was a close relative, I thought he would let us stay for a while, but the next day he brought us to Gush Katif in Gaza and dropped us off at the house of Shlomo’s niece Choinu. We stayed with her. We didn’t know the language. We didn’t have a change of clothes and were too embarrassed to tell anyone. I had thought people would realize it without having to be told, but no one noticed and no one seemed to care. As soon as we were alone in the house, l would wash the children’s clothes, dry them quickly in the sun, and make them put them back on.
Aunt Hatneichong* was a smart woman. One day she asked why we were wearing the same things every time she came to visit. I broke down and explained our situation, and she took me with her and gave me lots of clothes, more than we needed. I’ll never forget her kindness.
We got along as best we could. With two young children, there were always things we needed—groceries, food, snacks. One day Aunt Yambem said to me that we couldn’t go on like this. “Come with me and take a look at the work I do,” she told me. She showed me how to use a floor squeegee—back home, we used our hands—and taught me that it was called a magav in Hebrew. I wrote the word down, as I did all the new words that I learned. Then she gave me one of her cleaning jobs. I was paid seventeen shekels (about $5.00) an hour and worked a five-hour day. At first I went on scrubbing the floors with my hands and barely touched the magav.
The owner of the house was very pleased with my work and asked me to work for her regularly. I was conscientious and cleaned her home as if it were my own. Although I didn’t speak Hebrew, she spoke a bit of English, which helped us to communicate. And she paid me for seven hours even though I only worked five. Aunt Yambem helped us to get back on our feet.
From there we moved to Shavei Shomron, a small settlement in the West Bank. Luckily, I found a cleaning job there with an English-speaking family. They had a very big house. Every Friday, after work, they gave me a bouquet of flowers and ḥallah loaves besides the money for work. I used to wonder why they were so generous. After we left, they found someone else to take my place. I heard that she didn’t last a week with them.
Shlomo: Normally, tourist visas are for six months and can be renewed on expiration. After that comes an A5 or temporary-residence permit, which allows you to take preparatory classes for conversion to Judaism. Upon your conversion, the Interior Ministry gives you citizenship and an ID card. It’s a cumbersome process. All in all, we lived in Shavei Shomron for eight months, during the last part of which we attended conversion classes. When the time came for our interview with the dayyanim, the rabbinic judges who approve a conversion, some of our own people tried to create problems for us by spreading the rumor that we were Christians, not Jews. The rumor reached the dayyanim and at first they refused to see us.
Yemimah: They had even booked tickets, without our knowledge, to send us back to India.
Shlomo: Apparently, someone had slandered us to the dayyanim. An organizational rift had developed in our community. Until then we had always used the Ashkenazi prayer book and followed Ashkenazi customs. We hadn’t known there were different customs in the Jewish world and that there was such a thing as a Sephardi ritual, too. When a new sponsorship group took over, it insisted that we follow Sephardi ways and threatened that anyone disobeying would not be brought to Israel.
The new sponsors also brought baseless charges against the former leaders of the community, accusing our former president in Manipur of embezzling funds when he had in fact given large sums of his own money to the Judaism movement and donated the upper story of his home for use as a synagogue. His son was falsely accused of stealing a Torah scroll.
Our community was split in two. Brothers stopped speaking to each other. Hate was whipped up against the “Ashkenazim” and against my own clan.
When the dayyanim finally agreed to interview us, I told them, “You can’t divide us into who was a Christian and who wasn’t. Everyone from our community who has stood before you was a Christian in the past. We’re all Christians who want to enter the Jewish fold.”
There was envy of me. I was better educated Jewishly. The dayyanim said to me, “Is it true that you say that you know the whole Torah?” It didn’t sound like a question for a conversion interview. I answered that if that were so, I wouldn’t be standing in front of them. Not even Moses, I said, knew the whole Torah. I would have preferred to be asked questions on Jewish law. In the end, though, our family passed.
While still in Shavei Shomron, I began traveling to the settlement of Beit-El, closer to Jerusalem, for work. I had a job there in a factory that made cardboard boxes, and we decided it would be better to live there. To be accepted by the B’nei Menashe community in Beit-El, you had to be recommended by one of its leaders. I asked one of them for a recommendation. He told me, “We have to be very careful about who comes to live here. We only want good people, and since I don’t know you well, I can’t vouch for you.” I felt cast away by my own kin!
When the owner of the factory heard about this, he intervened with the mayor of Beit-El and I was given the keys to a mobile home. My family lives in it to this day.
I worked for three more months and told my boss that I was quitting. I explained that my main reason for coming to Israel was to study Torah and that’s what I wanted to do. I had always wanted to enroll in a rabbinic program. He urged me to reconsider, since I had a family and children to support, but I told him I had to do it. A fellow worker encouraged me, saying he would have liked to do the same thing but couldn’t risk being without a job. I left with his blessing.
I found a place in the Makhon Meir yeshiva in Jerusalem and traveled there from Beit-El every day. In the mornings I had a lift, but going home in the evening was a problem. I had to walk for miles from the western outskirts of Jerusalem to French Hill in the northeast and from there hitchhike to Beit-El. After about a month, I decided the yeshiva wasn’t what I was looking for, as its program was geared more to newly observant Jews, baalei t’shuvah, with little religious knowledge.
One day, while walking down a narrow street in the Old City on my way back from prayer at the Western Wall, I chanced upon a gift shop in which a Torah scribe was writing the parchment scroll for a mezuzah. It was beautiful work, and I stood there fascinated. I had always been interested in calligraphy. I asked him where he had learned his art; he told me he had studied at a yeshiva called Midrash Sephardi and gave me the address. While visiting there, I picked up a brochure advertising a five-year rabbinic course. I knew immediately that it was for me, and made an appointment to meet the yeshiva head.
When we met, I said I wanted to enroll in the program for ordination as a rabbi. He replied that it wasn’t easy to be accepted: there were many applicants, and a background in Jewish texts was a prerequisite. Besides their perfect Israeli Hebrew, all of the applicants had years of talmudic studies behind them, and even so they had to submit to a rigorous interview—and here I was coming from India without even the minimal credentials for an interview! When he asked me what I knew, all I could answer was “Nothing.” “In that case,” he said, “I can’t take you.” I said, “It’s because I know nothing that I want to study. If I knew all that I don’t know, I wouldn’t be asking you to take me.”
He turned me down, but I wouldn’t take no for an answer and went back day after day. In the end, after throwing me out of his office seven times and ordering me to stop bothering him, he gave in. He arranged for me to study in an intensive Hebrew class for half of each day and for the other half in the yeshiva. I followed that routine diligently for six months, at the end of which I was accepted as a full-time student in the yeshiva.
The regular study hours were from 8:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and I continued on my own until 10:00. After a year of this, I was admitted to the rabbinic-ordination program. I received a monthly stipend of 800 shekels, which was barely enough to buy groceries with, and supplemented it by working as a photographer at bar-mitzvahs, weddings, and circumcisions. My wife worked, too, cleaning schools and homes.
That was in 2004. In 2008, I was ordained. Searching for a way of making a living, I decided to specialize in kashrut supervision. That meant another six-month course studying the dietary laws and their application in various fields from hotel and restaurant management to agriculture and beyond. After completing the course and passing the exam, I was sent to work in Jewish communities in a number of foreign countries, first in Poland and then in Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
After three years of that, I took and passed a four-hour exam that qualified me as a shoḥet, a ritual slaughterer. You had to know every law on the subject from the Talmud to the most up-to-date legal commentaries and decisions. Once again I was sent to work in South America, which is a big supplier of kosher beef to England, France, Belgium, Holland, and even Ireland.
Two years later I took another exam, this time for a certificate qualifying me to inspect and test knives for deficiencies. At my examination, I was given a butcher’s knife and asked to sharpen and check the blade, only to be told that I needed more practice. Six months later, I returned and passed, and from then on I’ve earned higher pay and more benefits.
Being a shoḥet isn’t simple. Once you’ve been certified, the whole Jewish world depends on your dedication and expertise. You have to live a life of purity and service to your Creator and His people, to study Torah every day, to immerse and purify yourself regularly in a mikveh, to pray for divine guidance and protection. Your mind has to be clear and concentrated at every moment. All kinds of accidents can happen. It’s said that there is a special place in hell for the careless or negligent shoḥet.
We were paid well, but we worked all year ’round and came home only for the fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, and for Pesaḥ in the spring. The first time I left for Brazil, my daughter Brachah was a toddler in kindergarten who couldn’t yet talk. When I returned to Israel, she was speaking and didn’t recognize me. That was a shock.
After a while, my wife suggested that I find a job that would keep me in Israel. I took an eight-month bus driver’s course and started to work. Being ḥaredi, I was given a bus line that serviced ḥaredi neighborhoods.
One day in August 2015, after finishing my first trip of the morning, I was on a fifteen-minute break before starting back the other way, using the time to check and clean the bus and do a bit of exercising. It was a big intersection, with a number of trolley and bus stops and lots of people coming and going. When it was almost time to start out, I opened the door to let in passengers. As I was about to drive off, I glanced out the side window and suddenly saw, about ten meters away, an Arab standing over a security guard who was on the ground and fighting to hold onto the gun the Arab was trying to grab from his holster.
The assailant had the advantage. I knew that if he wrenched the gun free, he would shoot the guard first and then as many people as he could. I jumped from the bus, ran over, and hit him as hard and as often as I could, punching and kicking until he fell. The guard was shaking. I shouted at him to fire at the man, but he was too much in shock. People were panicking and running in all directions. I saw hats, personal belongings, strewn all over the place. A Jew was on the ground, being beaten, fighting to hold on to his gun, and everyone just ran away!
A single policeman approached us. As he came near, the Arab managed to get to his feet and went for his gun, too. This time I hit him even harder. His hands were already on the policeman’s holster, my own hands were bloody. He was very strong. I kept hitting him until he fell again, and even then he put up a fight. The whole thing lasted a few seconds.
Later, I found out that I had broken a wrist. If I hadn’t put him out of action, his first bullet could have been for me.
After a while, more police and soldiers came along and I went back to my bus. I was already in the driver’s seat when I noticed a yeshiva student begging for help. He had been stabbed from behind by the same Arab who then attacked the security guard, and the knife was still in his neck. Nobody had paid any attention to him.
I made him lie face down in the street and tried calming him. I told him he could talk but mustn’t move. When the ambulance attendants arrived, I told them absolutely not to remove the knife from the man’s neck. Only the doctors in the operating room should do that. (I’d learned this in the first-aid classes I took in my bus driver’s course.) Later, the man called to thank me. The doctors in the hospital told him that if the knife had been removed, he could have died from loss of blood.
By now the media had arrived, and I was prevented from returning to the bus. I said I had work to do, that my bus was waiting for me, but people held on to me and wouldn’t let me go. Ambulances arrived, and I was told I had to go to the hospital. I protested, but they insisted; that was the procedure. While I was there, police investigators came to question me. What made me do what I did when everybody else was running away? I told them, “As a Jew and a citizen, I did what I should have done.” It was as simple as that. Afterward I received many thank-you calls, including one from the prime minister.
I didn’t feel a need to be thanked. I was put by God at the right place and time and I did what I could. The truly overwhelming thing was that within a few hours after a report of the incident was posted on Facebook, 6,000 people expressed their appreciation. Some of them actually asked me to bless them. It was embarrassing.
Yemimah: Shlomo usually phoned me every day before noon. When he dropped me off at work that morning, he told me he was feeling melancholy. He had said his morning prayers as best he could, but he felt something wasn’t right and had kept singing nostalgic songs to himself. I told him he was always nostalgic.
We decided he would call at 11:30, when I’d be on a break. When he didn’t, I had a bad feeling. At noon, I called him. There was no answer. My heart was pounding. Some time after that he called and said he was in the hospital and that he’d call again to tell me what happened. By 4:00 or 5:00 I still hadn’t heard from him. I left work early and went home. My son’s phone beeped. “It’s a message just with Father’s photo,” he said. “Something must have happened.” We switched on the TV, and then the phone rang and someone said, “Mazal tov!” There were more and more calls. People began dropping by to ask about Shlomo. Finally, he came home that night in a taxi.
There’s no reason to have pride in one’s heart. Still, it’s always been painful here when people, our own people, have been disdainful toward us. One of them happened to call that day and said, “I’m so happy and proud of what our brother did.” I answered, “Since when have we become a family?” Silence. It was mean of me, I know; I probably shouldn’t have said it. But I couldn’t help thinking: suddenly, we’re brothers!
The children felt the difference at once. That Friday, there was to be a performance at school, and they were informed that they would be called up on stage and introduced as the children of the hero of Israel, Shlomo Gangte. I told them their father had just come home from the hospital and that we had to stay with him. I didn’t let any of them go to school that day. I didn’t want them getting swelled heads. Children can be affected by such things.
Over the years, we had many difficult times. There were times when I cried. We had always tried to be strong. I remember my children telling me that they were embarrassed to be living in a trailer. I said to them, “Go visit a hospital and see what it’s like there. Then come back and we can talk.” They never went and they never complained again. In a hospital you see suffering. All the money in the world doesn’t help. Who doesn’t want riches? It’s not as if we’ve worked any less or prayed any less than others. God will give in good time. We have what we’re meant to have.
Sometimes, when I look at the world around me, I find it funny. It’s like a big game, everyone always buying things. Some people are so busy working that they don’t know where their children are. I don’t envy them their fine houses. A trailer is enough.
I enjoy looking after my children, worrying about their getting enough sleep and enough food, about their having taken their baths, and so on. Some people have called me crazy for paying so much attention to them. At work we receive bonus credits that cover a few days’ vacation at a hotel. I’ve never accepted them, not even once. I never could. It would mean leaving my children and I couldn’t bear thinking how they would miss me.
Family always comes first for me. I love my husband—that’s why I married him—but my children are the most important thing in the world to me. I like to hug them and sleep with them at night. I’ve been told by friends that this isn’t done in Israel. But what if a child develops a fever at night or has a bad dream? If you were sleeping alone with your husband, you’d never know. It’s our way. We’ve lived like that for generations.
Native Israelis have started to notice how we B’nei Menashe relate to each other, how we respect our parents and elders, how much we dote on our children. There are young girls my daughter’s age who are already working and earning money. I’ve seen cases in which they’ve started to drink. Someone once suggested to me that it would be good idea to let my daughter get a job. I told her never to raise the subject again in my house.
I’ve been given children by God and it’s my first duty to look after them. Once they marry, my job is over. I know I can’t offer them much because I don’t have much, although if it’s for their education, I’m always ready to take out a loan. We’ll do our best. I give them advice knowing they won’t always listen but that one day they’ll come around to taking it. If my daughter goes out in a short skirt and I tell her it’s beautiful but inappropriate for the occasion, she’ll keep it in mind the next time. That’s a mother’s job.
Lately, on the other hand, Yiftaḥ hasn’t wanted to attend synagogue. That’s something for his father to take care of. I joke with him that he should go live in Tel Aviv. I always try to remember that there are people with worse problems. Some have kids who don’t pray at all or who smoke pot. But at the same time, when I see parents whose children are more observant than mine, I feel like crying.
You have to learn to accept these things. When Shlomo scolds Yiftaḥ, I comfort him after Shlomo leaves. If I scold him, too, I’ll just drive him away from us. When one parent scolds, the other should keep quiet and comfort the child later, when the first parent isn’t there. Parents shouldn‘t argue in front of their children. We need to play this thing out well. I’ve heard stories of Israeli kids leaving home to be on their own. I don’t want that to happen to us.
I have to find ways to hold things together. Even if you awaken at 5:00 in the morning, there’s never enough time. Every night before they go to sleep, I tell the children what I expect of them in the morning. And I make sure they do it. I’ve disciplined them not to cry or sulk unreasonably. I tell them that I spend the whole day hearing children cry at work and I don’t want to hear any more of it. Whoever needs to cry can go to his room and come back when he’s finished. And that’s what they do.
Their father isn’t as strict. When they want to do something they know I won’t agree to, they’ll go to him.
Shlomo: Because of my broken wrist, which has permanent damage, I couldn’t return to driving buses. And anyway I didn’t want to, because it left me no time for Torah study and prayer. I kept getting calls from the rabbinate to go back to work for them as a shoḥet, and finally I did. In 2014, I was in Europe and in mid-2015 I was sent again to South America.
We work as a team. There’s a head of staff, an exterior inspector, an interior inspector, four or five butchers, an expert extractor of forbidden veins, and a group of supervisors, mashgiḥim. Normally, we leave for the slaughterhouse at about 4:00 a.m., start work at 5:00, and knock off at noon. We rotate taking time off from work for the morning prayer. After work we wash and immerse in the mikveh. There are Torah study groups every afternoon.
On an average day each shoḥet slaughters about 125 cows. For me, that adds up to 187,500 of them so far! But you always have to be careful. Sometimes an animal breaks loose and runs away, or gores one of the workers. Restraining chains break and animals drop to the ground. Cows jump from their holding pens and land on you. Sometimes you lose your grip on the animal and there can be injuries. You’re always praying. The hardest part is that I miss my family and wife. Sometimes I even miss her nagging!
After a year of this, in mid-2016, I fell ill and had to come home. I’d developed what’s called minimal change disease of the kidneys. Nobody believed that such a thing could happen to me. I had always taken good care of myself. I wasn’t aware of it until my feet started to swell and I began to lose weight. I went to the hospital in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. I had to be hospitalized for twelve days before there was a diagnosis. The doctors advised me to return to Israel, where there were better medical facilities, so I came back and was treated at Sha’arei Tsedek hospital in Jerusalem. That was seven months ago. For the first six months, my body didn’t respond to any of the medicines. Nothing worked. I had to be put on dialysis.
Yemimah: I brought the children to visit their father during his dialysis. I told them that they needed to know what he was going through. When we came home, I made them stand next to the washing machine. “When we saw your father,” I told them, “some of you were afraid and some of you thought it was awful. But when clothes get dirty, we need to put them in the washing machine and add detergent. Is that scary?” They said no and I said, “So why were you scared at the hospital? After I wash your clothes, you see how clean they are. The same thing happens to your father. All the dirty blood is washed out of him. That’s going to make him well again.” When it was explained to them like that, they stopped being afraid.
Shlomo: Two weeks ago, I went to the hospital for my regular treatment. Suddenly, I felt I had to urinate and went to the bathroom. For the first time in months, my urine flowed freely. I gave blood for a test and went for my dialysis. When the doctors looked at the results, they were amazed. Two days later, I went to the hospital again. After reading the reports, the doctor told me that I didn’t need any more dialysis. They had no explanation for the sudden improvement. I was given some medicine and sent home. I haven’t been back to the hospital since then. Now the rabbinate wants me to go back to work. I will, as soon as I get my full strength back.
Yemimah: They said at the hospital that Shlomo’s recovery was a miracle.
Shlomo: Everything depends on prayer. It’s all in the hands of the one God. He decides the fate of all His creatures: health or illness, wealth or poverty, life or death.
Aunt: a title of respect for an older woman.
Kang: a game played by rolling the large seeds of the kang plant with the aim of hitting a rival’s seeds.
Lut thel thel: A game in which a conga line is formed while singing lut thel thel, siyon muol a lut thel thel, “Let us enter, let us enter Mount Zion.”
Manmasi: now taken to be a variant of the name Manasseh, Menashe in Hebrew. The Tribe of Manasseh is one of the ten lost tribes of Israel.
Thilhas: generally invisible spirits, sometimes friendly but sometimes malicious.