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A pilgrim's quest for answers to an ancient puzzle

Across the Sabbath River, In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel, Hillel Halkin, Houghton Mifflin: 400 pp., $28

October 27, 2002|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."

To assert that one of the "Ten Lost Tribes" ended up in a remote backwater of India and Burma, as Hillel Halkin does in "Across the Sabbath River," is mostly a matter of conjecture, if not merely a literary conceit. Even so, Halkin puts the notion to good use in a book that is, at once, an armchair adventure, a historical mystery and an almost novelistic account of encounters with the exotic all over South Asia.

The starting point for "Across the Sabbath River" is the Bible, which reports the conquest and dispersion of 10 out of 12 tribes of ancient Israel in distant antiquity, thus adding the lost tribes to the list of biblical mysteries that includes such all-time favorites as the whereabouts of Noah's ark, the grave of Moses and the ark of the covenant.

The most likely explanation is plausible but unremarkable: Some of the "lost" Israelites re-emerged into history as the people known as the Samaritans, while others simply assimilated into the populations of the places to which they were exiled nearly 3,000 years ago. But there is a long and colorful tradition, if also a deeply eccentric one, that suggests various other explanations: The Armenians, the Japanese, the Maori, the Native Americans, the Welsh and the Zulus have all been proposed as the descendants of the lost tribes.

Into that tradition steps Halkin, a man with a sense of adventure, a gift for spinning a yarn and an almost obsessive interest in solving the mystery of the lost tribes. As if to acknowledge the whimsical nature of his enterprise, Halkin's title refers to the legend that the 10 lost tribes ended up on the far side of a river called the Sambatyon, whose roiling currents are impassable for six days of the week but restful on the Sabbath. But Halkin is utterly earnest about his search to find hard historical evidence that links the biblical legend to flesh-and-blood human beings in our world.

"If the Bible says the tribes were carried away and will return, they were carried away and will return," insists Eliahu Avichail, the charismatic rabbi who inspired Halkin to undertake his quest and with whom Halkin traveled on portions of his trek. "But you have to look for them in the right places."

Halkin invites us along on his wanderings through China, Thailand, Burma and India, where he encounters a series of welcoming but mostly baffled locals across a vast stretch of South Asia. After a few false starts and dead ends, Halkin comes to focus on an ancient but obscure community in northeastern India, the Mizo people of Mizoram and Manipur and related communities in Burma and Bangladesh, as likely candidates.

Halkin was intrigued by reports that the Mizo had once practiced the rite of circumcision, although he acknowledges that they could have adopted the ritual from Islam. He is also forced to concede that two other fundamental practices of Judaism are unknown to them: observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws. But he insists that other commonalities between biblical tradition and Mizo tradition are too numerous to ignore.

"More and more customs with biblical parallels kept turning up," Halkin argues in support of the claim. "A seven-day period of mourning for the dead.... A four-cornered altar on whose posts was sprinkled the blood of sacrificed animals.... A single supreme God."

"Across the Sabbath River" belongs on the same shelf with the bestselling "Walking the Bible" by Bruce Feiler and "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden" by Yossi Klein Halevi. Halkin, like Feiler and Halevi, draws on the richest and strangest of biblical traditions to let us see and understand more about the world we actually live in.

Whether or not the Mizo people are descended from the lost tribes -- and Halkin allows that the case is not proven -- the conjecture is ultimately less important than the commonalities that he finds between peoples of such different backgrounds and places.

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