Finding Faith

The lives and rituals of the Lost Tribe Jews in Mizoram

Women seen through a mechitza, a traditional partition used to separate men from women in some Jewish temples, during prayer services at the Talpiyot synagogue in Kalaymyo, Myanmar. The use of the mechitza was one of the traditions from Orthodox Judaism that was practised by Lost Tribe communities in northeast India and Myanmar.
Photographs and Text By Daniel Tepper
30 September, 2022

I first learnt about Jewish communities living in India while traveling through the country in 2017. A friend from Assam told me about “Lost Tribe” Jews in neighbouring Mizoram. Those who identify as members of Lost Tribes believe that they are the descendants of the ten Jewish tribes that were exiled from ancient Israel after the Assyrian empire conquered it around 722 BCE.

I had previously been aware of the existence of Lost Tribe Jewish communities around the world but had not actively given it much thought. I was raised in a Jewish family—my parents are observant Jews, but I had never fully embraced the religion. However, I was curious to learn more about these communities in India who identified so strongly with the Jewish faith—something that I had simply taken for granted for most of my life.

 In March 2017, I travelled to Mizoram and parts of Myanmar to meet the Lost Tribe communities and document their rituals and daily lives. The first thing I photographed was a Jewish funeral in Aizawl. What surprised me most were the personal interactions after the funeral when I had put my camera away. I experienced what would become a pattern through the rest of my journey—the Lost Tribe members warmly and wholeheartedly welcomed me into their homes and services. I was no longer a mere photographer documenting their rituals, but rather a fellow Jew from the outside world, the kind they had only limited contact with and looked upon with great curiosity. They were eager to know about my upbringing and had many questions about what life was like in Israel, where I had briefly lived. Almost all expressed a desire to return to Israel.

Over the last two decades, Jewish-Zionist groups, with funding from private donors and evangelical Christian organisations, have facilitated the relocation of members of the Lost Tribe communities from northeast India to Israel. The communities are known as the Bnei Menashe, meaning Sons of Manasseh, one of the ten lost tribes. At present, there are about three thousand members of Lost Tribe communities from India living in Israel. Another seven thousand live and practice Judaism in India. As reported in the Israeli press, the Bnei Menashe require special government authorisation from Israel to move to the country. They are not automatically covered under the Jewish Law of Return which requires proof of at least one Jewish grandparent.