Amazing Story About Muslim’s Search for Jewish Mom

Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, Tazpit News Agency

It is the stuff of which films are made and novels are written. His absorbing story is such that it connects three continents, Asia, Europe and North America, five countries India, Israel, Canada, United Kingdom and Pakistan, and two communities seen as natural adversaries today – the Jews and the Muslims.

Urdu poet and Hafiz-e-Koran (one who has memorized the entire Koran) Mahfooz Ahmad Khan “Soz Malihabadi” was absolutely ignorant of his Jewish maternal side until he received a letter, dated October 16 , 1995, from his London-based Jewish aunt one day at his modest dwelling in Kakori in Lucknow district.

“I am very happy to know from my cousin David that he could find your address,” she wrote. “I and Ghazala (younger aunt) had a very hard life when my uncles and aunt sent us to Israel in 1956. The life was hard because I was only 17 years old and Ghazala was 11. We had no one in Israel, no parents, no brothers… A person can write a tragic story about us.

“I lived in Israel from 1956 to 1965. It was a very hard country to live in at that time, though things are better now… Ghazala got married in 1964… and in 1965 I immigrated to Toronto, Canada; lived there for one year, and again immigrated to London… I tried to find your phone number from the international operator, but I was told that you are not listed in the phone book…”

Soz had grown up hearing that his mother passed away when he was very young. The next letter from his aunt, dated November 25, 1995, proved to be the catalyst that set him on the search for his mother, Rehana (nee Rahmah), of whom he discovered from the letter that she was still alive and lived in the neighboring country Pakistan.

“You asked me about your mother… She is okay. Her husband died five years ago. She had a daughter Raana, who expired in 1980; she was only 21 years old. Raana died while giving birth to her fourth child. Your mother in Karachi has three grandchildren. She had a very tragic past; we will talk about it. I do not know how she survived all the difficulties. Anyway, we have to talk about so many things…”

Family photo: The small child is Mahfooz Ahmad Khan and the bigger child is his brother. The lady holding the elder child is their Jewish mother, Rahmah alias Rehana, and the man on the extreme left is their father, Maqbool Ahmad Khan. The two girls in the front row are the Jewish aunts. The one seated is the elder aunt, Khatoon alias Katty. The girls in the back row are Mahfooz Ahmad Khan’s father’s sisters (Photo: Tazpit News Agency)

Born in a Baghdadi Jewish family resident in Mumbai, Rehana married a young Pashtun named Maqbool Ahmad Khan in 1947. In 1950, their second child, Mahfooz Ahmad Khan, who later came to be known as Soz Malihabadi, was born to the couple.

Soon Maqbool’s thriving business failed, reducing him to penny pinching and souring his relations with his wife, who aspired to be a film actor. In 1955 they got divorced and Rehana married a Pakistani air force officer and moved to Pakistan, leaving behind her two little sons and two orphan younger sisters in her former husband Maqbool’s custody.

In 1956, Soz Malihabadi’s young orphan aunts, Khatoon and Ghazala reached Israel under the Zionist program of Youth Aliyah emigration to Israel, aimed at the ingathering of Jewish exiles from around the world, while Soz with his father moved to his ancestral village, midway between Malihabad and Kakori in Lucknow district.

When Soz met his aunts in Mumbai after an epoch of 40 years, he inquired about his mother’s whereabouts, but strangely enough they refused to divulge it to him. Not losing hope, Soz made a trip to Karachi, Pakistan, in search of his mother, but to no avail.

The posture taken by his aunts absolutely disillusioned him, and he severed all ties with them. The Muslim son is still in search of his Jewish mother.

Jews from China Defending Israel

From left to right: Gideon, Yonatan and Moshe (Photo- Eran Barzilai)

All three were born in China, in the ancient Jewish community in Kaifeng. They immigrated to Israel some five years ago and recently completed their conversion and naturalization processes. In two weeks, they’ll report to the Israel Defense Forces’ Induction Center in Tel Hashomer and join the army. Despite their relatively advanced age (all three are 25 years old), they are dreaming of enlisting in the Golani Brigade.

The three – Moshe Li, Gideon Fan and Yonatan Xue – are the first Jews from the Kaifeng community to enlist in the IDF.

They immigrated to Israel in 2009 with the help of Shavei Israel, an organization that reaches out to descendants of Jews around the world in an effort to strengthen their connection with Israel, and completed their conversion and naturalization processes last year. The Kaifeng community numbers around 1,000 individuals who, despite much assimilation, still maintain ties to Judaism.

Recent years have seen a fascinating awakening among the descendants of the Kaifeng Jewish community, and especially among the youth, who are seeking their roots and identity. Some are undergoing conversion and returning to Judaism; and there are those, too, who wish to immigrate to Israel.

Michael Freund, chairman and founder of Shavei Israel, which has been in contact with the community for quite some time and even employs a special representative there, managed a few years to get the Interior Ministry’s approval to bring Moshe, Gideon and Yonatan to Israel, and personally financed their immigration and absorption costs. Shavei Israelalso helped to enroll the three in a yeshiva and support them through their conversion process and integration in the country.

The three will now try to fulfill another dream on their way to becoming rank-and-file Israelis – to join the Golani.

To read the rest of this article, please visit the Ynet website.

Michael Freund on Voice of Israel Radio

Fresh upon his return from India, where he accompanied the latest group of Bnei Menashe immigrants on their journey from Manipur to Delhi and finally to Israel, Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund sat down for an interview with the “Voice of Israel” radio station to discuss the renewedaliyah from India. You can listen to the interview here:

Michael Freund on the Voice of Israel discussing the Bnei Menashe

Laura Ben-David with Bnei Menashe at Ben-Gurion Airport

Shavei Israel’s director of marketing Laura Ben-David also appeared this week on the Voice of Israel. She spoke with Judy Lash Balint about her recent – and first ever – trip to India where she joined Michael Freund in accompanying the Bnei Menashe home.

You can listen to her in-depth, first person encounter here.

Record Year for Bnei Menashe Return!

Kol Ami students with sign in Kuki and Israeli flag

“This was the first time I really understood what aliyahis all about,” said Tomer Yamtovich as he headed back to the bus after an emotionally uplifting hour of singing, dancing, clapping, hugging and unrestrained joy at Ben-Gurion Airport last week.

Yamtovich was one of 34 students from Kol Ami, an Israeli pre-army academy (ormechina), who swapped a good night’s sleep last week for a late night rendezvous with 50 Bnei Menashe new immigrants who had just arrived in Israel after the long flight from India.

The Kol Ami students came out to demonstrate at the top of their lungs – as perhaps only a group of boisterous, idealistic young Israelis and Jewish youth can – that the Bnei Menashe were finally home, and that their many years of dreaming of Zion had finally become reality.

Kol Ami was the perfect partner to greet the Bnei Menashe, as you can see by the enthusiasm expressed in the accompanying pictures. (They even made a sign in the Bnei Menashe language of Kuki reading ‘Welcome to Israel.’) Kol Ami has a unique syllabus focusing on issues of peoplehood, Israel engagement and the bonds between Israelis and the Jewish community abroad. “It was amazing, exciting and fulfilling,” gushed Kfir Cohen, one of the students who came to the airport. “A once in a lifetime experience,” added Nitzan Hasson.

The group of 50 Bnei Menashe on last week’s flight were the culmination of two weeks of furious activity organized by Shavei Israel, in which nearly 250 Bnei Menashe left their homes in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur to rejoin the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. This brings the total number of Bnei Menashe whom Shavei Israel has brought on aliyahthis year to 660, the largest one-year total ever.

As with their brothers and sisters before them, this month’s group of Bnei Menashe headed straight for the Kfar Hasidim absorption center, where they will spend the next several months learning Hebrew and basic Judaism, before moving into their permanent homes and formally starting their new lives in Israel.

While the final group of Bnei Menashe for 2014 is now here, our obligation to their successful integration into Israeli society is just beginning. And so is our financial responsibility. Shavei Israel, with your help, has already spent $1,200 on flights and transportation for each Bnei Menashe immigrant now in Israel. In 2014, that came to a total of $792,000. But that’s not all.

To cover the Bnei Menashe’s absorption requirements – including room and board for three months at Kfar Hasidim, teacher salaries, study materials and outings, on through setting them up in their first apartments once they leave the center – will cost an additional $2,800 per individual. So far in 2014, we’ve spent $738,000 and, for the 250 men, women and children who have just arrived, another $700,000 is required.

We need your help now more than ever. Our dream of bringing the Bnei Menashe home to Israel is no longer just in the realm of prayers looking towards the future or in lobbying activities in the Knesset. It’s a reality happening right now – as you can see in the pictures below.

Now is the time to open up your hearts –and your pocketbooks – and give generously. The Bnei Menashe have made it all this way. Help them take the first steps to true independence in the land of their forefathers. Please support us today.

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A special treat: Below you can watch a video from an earlier flight where, on the bus ride from the plane to the terminal at Ben-Gurion Airport, the Bnei Menashe spontaneously broke out into a rendition of Ka Thangnge Ka Thangnge – their traditional song about remembering Israel and the dream to return. Prepare to be moved!

A special thank you

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Mazel tov! Subbotnik Jewish couple gets married in Russia

Israel and Elisheva enjoying their wedding meal and party.

Israel and Elisheva enjoying their wedding meal and party.

There is an old Russian custom to steal the shoe of a bride at her wedding. Then the bride or her family must “redeem” the shoe through a variety of different techniques. Sometimes “money” will be demanded. Other times, the shoe-less bride must perform some sort of “task” such as drinking several shots of whiskey. Invariably, the bride gets her shoe back and the party can continue.

It’s all in good fun – even more so when the festivities are part of the small but vibrant Subbotnik Jewish community in southern Russia – which doesn’t see a lot of weddings.

Serge (Israel) and Natalia (Elisheva) Zilnatzkov were married two weeks ago at the synagogue in Voronezh, which until the completion of the shul in Visoky, was the only house of worship for Jews in the area. Israel Returns’ emissary to the Subbotnik Jewish community, Rabbi Zelig Arasin read the ketuba (the marriage contract). Rabbi Avigdor Nosikov, the congregational rabbi in Voronezh, was the master of ceremonies and conducted the ceremony. Members of the community were present as well. After the wedding there was a kosher seudat mitzvah – a festive meal – along with dancing and more drinking.

We asked Rabbi Avrasin what kind of alcohol was on hand. “Vodka, whisky, rum and Samogon,” he said. The latter is a local homemade vodka so strong (it is 60-70 percent alcohol) that, when Israel Returns Chairman Michael Freund tried it while attending a wedding in Russia several years ago, he commented that it might be better suited to removing old paint from a wall!

Israel and Elisheva, both in their thirties, are members of the Voronezh community. Elisheva has Subbotnik Jewish roots but needed to undergo a formal conversion prior to the wedding ceremony. For the past two years, Rabbi Avrasin has been accompanying the couple on their journey. This included frequent visits to Visoky, where Rabbi Avrasin is based. The new Visoky synagogue, which has been built over the past year with the help of your donations, is intended to support the Subbotnik Jews who live in the village. (You can read more about it here.)

Please join us as we say mazel tov to Israel and Elisheva!

PREVIEW: First pictures from November’s Bnei Menashe aliyah

Mother and son at Ben-Gurion Airport in November

Mother and son at Ben-Gurion Airport in November

The aliyah from India is back – the first of several flights, this one with 50 Bnei Menashe new immigrants from the Indian state of Manipur, landed last week. We have a few preview pictures – click here to see them.

Israel Returns staff is now in India preparing another 200 immigrants who will be arriving during the month of November. We’ll have more pictures and stories soon here on the Israel Returns website.

Aliyah from India: Elitzur Seikhogin Haokip

Elitzur Haokip and family before making aliyah

Elitzur Haokip and family before making aliyah

We continue our series of profiles of Bnei Menashe who have made aliyah in the past two years with Israel Returns’ help. The timing is especially meaningful: as this article is winging its way to you, Israel Returns staff is flying to India to bring 247 more new immigrants from Manipur to Israel. They will join the 413 other Bnei Menashe who have arrived in the last 12 months – the most ever in one year. As the Bnei Menashe pack their bags and head for the buses that will take them to the airport in New Delhi, let’s take a moment to say hello to Elitzur Seikhogin Haokip.

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Elitzur Seikhogin Haokip, 74, made aliyah in November 2012 after two long careers, first in the Indian National Army and then at the “All India Radio” station in Imphal, the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. The Haokip family were members of the Beit El synagogue in Imphal. Making aliyah with Elitzur were his wife and 12-year-old daughter.

“I was brought up according to traditional Manmashi customs,” Elitzur explains, recalling the path that led him to Judaism and then to Israel. Manmashi was the patriarch of the Bnei Menashe community – the name Manmashi is derived from “Menasseh” (that is, Menashe, one of the lost tribes of Israel) – and many of the customs of the Kuki people of Manipur who claim Manmashi as their ancestor are similar to those found in biblical Judaism. However, in the 1950s, when Elitzur was growing up, many Bnei Menashe had not yet made that connection.

Elitzur received a Bible as a youth, which he read “thoroughly,” he says. The more he explored the stories and laws contained in the Torah (the five books of Moses), the more he began seeing how “the rituals and practices of ancient Israel were related to our present Manmashi norms.” When he learned that Judaism was alive and well in the modern world, “I embraced it immediately, for I knew this was indeed the faith of my ancestor Manmashi and that the G-d of Manmashi was the G-d of Israel, the only true G-d in the universe. From that moment onwards, I have waited for G-d to send someone to bring us, the Bnei Menashe, back to Zion.”

Elitzur is writing a history of Manmashi customs and traditions, which he hopes to publish now that he is in Israel.

Aliyah for Elitzur is not only the culmination of many years of waiting; it is an opportunity for him to observe Jewish Law to the fullest. “To me, no matter how much I practice Judaism in the Diaspora, it is incomparable to a Jew living in the Land of Israel. And as long as I am alive, I want to serve G-d just as the Jews of Israel do.” He then adds, with a wry smile, “Perhaps it will also increase my chances of making it to olam haba,” – referring to the Hebrew for “the next world.”

Please join us in wishing Elitzur and his family many years of successful aliyah – right now, in this world.

Aliyah from India: Yoshi Thouthang and family

Yoshi Thouthang and family

Yoshi Thouthang and family

The Bnei Menashe aliyah is back! With G-d’s help, Israel Returns will be bringing 247 new immigrants from northeastern India during the month of November. This will bring the total number of Bnei Menashe who have returned to Zion in 2014 to 660, the most ever in one year! As Israel Returns staff prepares the Kfar Hasidim absorption center for the newest arrivals, we present a new series of profiles where we visit with some of the remarkable Bnei Menashe who have arrived in the last two years.

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At age 70, Yoshi Helkam Thouthang was one of the elders of the Beit Shalom community, the main Israel Returns community in Churachandpur, in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, before making aliyah last year. He lived together with his wife Esther, daughter Dori, son Yishai, daughter-in-law Yehudit and three adorable grandchildren, as “extended family” in the village of M. Songgel in the Indian state of Manipur. Yoshi already had two children in Israel, a daughter and a son, whom Israel Returns helped to make aliyah in 2007, so this family reunification after so many years was particularly joyful for the extended Thouthang clan.

When he was growing up, Yoshi felt something was missing. “Deep inside, I always felt something was incomplete with my faith. After I got married, I thirsted for a spiritual truth. When I met some of the early Bnei Menashe pioneers, men and women who were already devout practitioners of Judaism, I knew I had found the spiritual comfort I had been seeking for so long.”

From that day, Yoshi has lived a traditional Jewish life, reading the Torah regularly and doing his best to observe Jewish Law. “But there are certain obligations which can only be done in the Holy Land. I wanted to follow all of the halachot (Jewish laws) and fulfill all of the mitzvot (commandments), which is not easy to do in the Diaspora, especially in India. Making aliyah to Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) became my burning desire. And Baruch Hashem (thank G-d), we have finally overcome those obstacles. We are here!”

Yoshi’s son Yishai is now in Israel as well. Yishai served as an Israel Returns Fellow in India, traveling between Bnei Menashe communities in Manipur to teach Hebrew and Judaism, with Israel Returns’ training. Unlike his father, Yishai was raised in a fully observant Jewish home. “Keeping in mind that we are the descendants of the Israelites, I always believed that someday we will return to our native land, Israel, for good,” Yishai says.

As a teenager Yishai says he wanted desperately to make aliyah “in order to join the Israel Defense Forces and fight for Israel. However, as time took its toll, I met my beautiful wife Yehudit. We married and are blessed with three lovely children.” Yishai’s goals have now shifted to the next generation. “My objective now is to bring up my children in an Orthodox Jewish environment in the Holy Land,” he says. “Words fail to express how thankful we are to Israel Returns for its endless support in getting us to this day!”

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Please watch this space in the coming weeks for more stories of Bnei Menashe who have made aliyah – as well as stories direct from India of Bnei Menashe who are on their way now to their new home in Israel.

If you’d like to help support Israel Returns’ momentous undertaking in bringing the Bnei Menashe home, not at some point in the future, but at this very moment, please click here.

A Chinese Jewish New Year

Blowing the shofar: Jao Chao (left) and Li Bo (right)

Blowing the shofar: Jao Chao (left) and Li Bo (right)

Dipping an apple in a bowl of honey and blowing the shofar are two of the most iconic images of the Jewish New Year. But those customs are nothing short of miraculous when they take place so far from Israel or other large Diaspora Jewish communities that they are literally on the other side of the world.

Take a look at the pictures here and you’ll see the familiar fruits, the unforgettable curl of the ram’s horn, and the Hebrew words Shana Tova – Happy New Year – written on the whiteboard in the background. But the faces may be less familiar.

That’s because this Rosh Hashana gathering took place in Kaifeng, China, where the small Jewish community celebrated the coming of the New Year with the same vigor as Jews in Jerusalem, New York or Paris.

Jews are believed to have first settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, in the 8th century, arriving there from Persia and Iraq as they made their way eastward along the Silk Route. In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered as many as 5,000 people. But, by the mid-1800s, assimilation had taken a heavy toll and the Chinese Jews’ knowledge and practice of Judaism had largely faded away. The last rabbi of the community died in the early part of the 19th century, and the synagogue building was all but destroyed by a series of floods, which struck the city in the 1840s.

All of which makes the dogged perseverance by several hundred Kaifeng Jews to maintain their Jewish identity that much more remarkable.

Over the years, Israel Returns has been assisting the community in their thirst for tradition. We have sent emissaries and teachers to Kaifeng; helped open a center and a new synagogue just off the historic “Study of Torah Lane”; sponsored the first ever community-wide traditional Passover Seder led by a Chinese Jewish immigrant to Israel (including a Haggadah we translated into Chinese); set up Torah classes in person and via Skype; and even brought a number of Kaifeng Jews like Yaakov Wang on aliyah to Israel (with more to come soon – watch this space for details).

Israel Returns is also translating portions of former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau’s book “Practical Judaism” into Chinese. And next week will see the annual construction of Kaifeng’s communal sukkah for the holiday of Sukkot. Your support for our activities in China is always welcome: please visit our support page where you can make your donation securely.

So, when is a shofar not just a shofar? When it survives to be blown, loud and clear, with Jewish pride and joy, even in a location as remote as Kaifeng!

Here are a few more pictures from this year’s pre-Rosh Hashana celebration in China. Blowing the shofar in the picture above are Jao Chao (left, in the dark shirt) and Li Bo (right, in the white shirt).