DIMONA, Israel, (Reuters) - Living in the shadow of Israel's infamous nuclear reactor, Dimona's Black Hebrews are polygamous vegans who believe they are descended from a lost Israelite tribe.
The community of African-Americans which moved to Israel from the United States in 1969 calls its enclave in the Israeli desert town of Dimona, the Kingdom of Yah.
The Black Hebrews say they are the descendants of an ancient Jewish tribe forced into exile in West Africa and taken to the Americas as slaves centuries ago.
Their white-robed spokesman who calls himself Ahmadiel Ben-Yehuda says the songs about Zion and the Jordan River sung by African slaves as they worked in the fields are evidence of their Israelite roots.
Most scholars dismiss the cult's claims as far-fetched and say the proof to support their belief is tenuous at best.
But even if the Black Hebrews' claims are nothing more than fiction, the fact remains that 2,700 years after the 10 tribes of Israel were taken into exile and vanished, the fate of the lost tribes remains one of history's most intriguing mysteries.
Assyrians took the 10 tribes of Israel into captivity
In 722 BC Assyrian warriors captured the northern Kingdom of Israel which was home to 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel and took the inhabitants into captivity.
The Bible's Book of Kings records they were exiled "in Halah and in Habor by the river Gozan and in the cities of the Medes."
The other two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, which lived in the southern Israelite Kingdom of Judah, were forced into exile by the Romans centuries later in AD 70. Unlike their northern brothers who were assimilated, these tribes maintained their identity and are the ancestors of modern Jews.
Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail has been hunting for the lost tribes for decades. He has undertaken dangerous journeys to Myanmar (formerly Burma) and other war-torn parts of Asia to pursue the descendants of a people who disappeared almost 3,000 years ago.
"I am looking for Jewish customs and Jewish signs among people who are not Jewish. That's what it says in the Bible," Avichail said.
The Pathans of Afghanistan and Pakistan head the list of the peoples Avichail believes are lost tribes.
Avichail says the Pathans' ancient name is "Bnei Yisrael" or the sons of Israel and many of the clans are named after the 10 lost Israelite tribes like Ruben, Asher, Naftali and Ephraim.
But even more convincing are Pathan customs which mirror ancient Jewish rituals still practiced today.
Like Jews, Avichail says, the Pathans marry under a wedding canopy, light candles on the eve of the Sabbath and wear prayer shawls similar to those used by religious Jews. He says they even circumcise their eight-day-old sons as Jews do.
Avichail believes that after the Assyrian conquests, the tribes scattered along the Silk Road to Kashmir, China, Burma and Thailand. He suspects they may have gone as far as Japan.
"We had in the Bible a very clear tradition that the 10 tribes were exiled to the east of Israel and the prophet Isaiah in the Bible told us they will come back from this direction," Avichail said.
Not content to just study Isaiah's prophesies, Avichail is trying to fulfil them by bringing people he believes to be from the lost tribes back to Judaism and the Holy Land.
The tribe of Menashe tribe may be living in East Asia
One of Avichail's biggest success stories is the Shinlung people from the Myanmar-Indian border who believe they are the Israelite tribe of Menashe. He has already helped around 500 of them move to Israel and convert to Judaism.
According to Shinlung legends they are one of the 10 tribes of Israel that was exiled in China and later expelled to where they live today. They practice sacrifices similar to those in the Bible and celebrate holidays reminiscent of ancient Jewish harvest festivals.
So strongly do they believe they are Jews that some members of "the tribe of Menashe," as they call themselves, have begun to practise Orthodox Judaism and teach their children Hebrew.
Esther Thangjom moved to Israel and converted to Judaism to fulfil her belief the tribes must return to the Holy Land. Thangjom, who proudly wears a Star of David around her neck, has no doubt that she is descended from the tribe of Menashe.
"As a child every time something was mentioned about Israel my heart would move," she said.
Cynical experts say lost tribes are lost forever
Dr Rivka Gonen, an archaeologist and the curator of Jewish ethnography at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, believes the 10 tribes have disappeared for good.
She says it is inconceivable that people exiled thousands of years ago would have retained any semblance of their Jewish heritage.
Gonen said that even in the Bible it says the 10 tribes were conquered because they were not practicing Jewish customs and worshipped idols. She says there is no reason to expect they kept Jewish rituals in exile when they didn't do it at home.
"Wherever you find a tribe claiming they belong to the 10 lost tribes, you always find the fingerprints of Christian missionaries or romantics who came with the Bible and when they found vague similarities of names and customs, they immediately saw it as proof," Gonen said.
She says the methods used to trace the lost tribes is not at all scientific either anthropologically or linguistically as many languages have words which sound similar and rituals like circumcision are not uniquely Jewish.
Many of the theories border on the absurd, says Gonen, like the British-Israelites who claim the British people are from the 10 tribes or those who say the Danes are from the lost tribe of Dan.
"People are attracted to mysteries of the past and this is one of them because the tribes were exiled and God promised they would return," she said.