ACROSS THE SABBATH RIVER: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel

Hillel Halkin, Author . Houghton Mifflin $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-618-02998-3

Noted author and translator Halkin (Letters to an American Jewish Friend) offers a captivating tale that is part travelogue, part ethnography, part cultural treasure hunt. His trail of tantalizing clues too often leads nowhere, but readers should hang in, because the search is not in vain, and the culture Halkin describes is in itself striking. He visits the Mizo people of northeast India—a people who improbably but passionately claim to be descendants of the ancient Israelite tribe of Manasseh, one of the 10 tribes of northern Israel who were exiled by the Assyrians around 720 B.C. and then lost to history. Mizo tradition says they are the "children of Manmasi"—possibly a corruption of Manasseh. Their rituals include a fragment of a "red sea song" and the symbolic circumcision of a baby boy eight days after birth; their god is named Za or Ya, possibly linguistically related to the biblical Yahweh. The attempt to trace Mizo traditions is frustrated by the disintegration of what they call "the old religion" as Christianity has insinuated itself into even remote regions of Asia. The intense desire of the Mizos to be considered Jews is both comical and touching (and colored by an equally intense desire to emigrate to Israel); their internecine conflicts over theology will be sadly familiar to Jews everywhere. Halkin offers a rich portrait of an entire people suffering an identity crisis in the midst of a region filled with ethnic turmoil, and his conclusions about the origins of the Manmasi people will amaze even skeptical readers. (Aug. 15)

Reviewed on: 07/22/2002
Release date: 08/01/2002
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