Jews in Burma: “We are still here!”
Eight Jewish families keep the legacy alive.
Call me old-fashioned, call me a romantic, but every time I think of Burma (now called Myanmar), I start humming Kipling’s imperial British poem:
“On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder
outer China ’crost the Bay!”
The British are long gone, and the Jews are pretty much gone — all, that is, except a remnant. But it is the remaining Jews in Burma that are keeping a wonderful legacy alive. Miraculously, the synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, at 85 26th St. in Yangon (Rangoon), is open every day.
Yes, exotic Burma was once again in the news as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently completed a whirlwind tour of the country. She announced that the U.S. would loosen some restrictions on international financial assistance and development programs in response to the country’s recent political and economic reforms now taking place after a half-century of repression by a military junta.
And with the reforms, more tourists, including Jewish travelers from the U.S., are visiting this “land of the golden pagodas” as well as the synagogue, and meeting with the few Jews (eight Jewish families in the whole country), most of them in Yangon. Visitors are intrigued by the nation that straddles the Asian highway connecting China and India with Southeast Asia and flock here because little has changed since British colonial times more than half a century ago. The pagodas, the majestic rivers and the friendly people captivate tourists.
Near the synagogue, for instance, is the Sule Pagoda and further on is the famous Shwedagon pagoda, the breathtaking monument that amazes travelers as they walk clockwise around the stupa. This enormous gold-plated pagoda, the holiest Buddhist shrine in Burma, is indeed the chief place of pilgrimage in the Buddhist world.
Musmeah Yeshua remains open thanks to one “just man,” Than Lwin. Jews know him as Moses Samuels, the man who carries the load of Jewish history on his shoulders. Every day he walks a few blocks from his home to open the doors of the synagogue and keep Judaism alive in Burma. He tends to its needs, raises money and supervises repairs.
Usually, no one shows up for a minyan. But when a group of Americans, Israelis or Australian Jews arrives during the tourist season, Moses frantically calls the few Jews in the city to come quickly to the synagogue and meet the guests in the building, one of 188 sites on the list of Yangon Heritage Buildings.
The synagogue was built in 1854 and rebuilt in stone in 1896. The community maintains a cemetery whose oldest tomb dates back to 1876. The interior of Musmeah Yeshua stands similar in style to the grand Magen David synagogue in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, with its soaring ceiling, memorial lamps suspended in midair and pale beams over a central carved bimah located in the center of the prayer hall, surrounded by benches for the worshipers. Above them is a women’s gallery.
“Our family is still here,” says 60-year-old Moses, who opened the synagogue for me, as he would for any visitor. Born in Burma, his parents were from Iraq. Together with his son, Sammy, a graduate of Yeshiva University in New York City who now lives in New York, Moses runs Myanmar Shalom Travels & Tours Co. Ltd.
Sammy, whose name in Burmese is Aung Soe Lwin, graduated with high honors from Yeshiva University. Moses and wife Nellie’s daughters, Kuzna and Dinah, returned to Burma after their studies in the U.S. When Sammy is in town, he conducts the services as Moses does not read Hebrew.
For the intrepid traveler, it is always a thrill to come across an object that kindles mental images of America, thousands of miles away. In the synagogue, I chanced to come upon a stack of Haggadahs. The books recalled my childhood days, for emblazoned on the covers were the words: “Produced by Maxwell House Coffee — Good to the Last Drop. Kosher for Passover.”
Once, 1,500 to 2,000 Jews called Burma home. The first Jew in Burma was Solomon Gabirol, who served as a commissar in the army of King Alaungpaya (1752-60). In the mid-19th century, David Sassoon and his co-religionists known as Baghdadis arrived in India and the Far East, including Burma, and brought investments and connections of an extensive trading network.
Life for Jews would be pleasant until those tranquil days ended with the Japanese invasion in 1941, and thousands of Burmese and Jews fled to India. The community never recovered, even though Judaism enjoyed a “brief flowering” after Israel’s independence in 1948 and the establishment of cordial Israeli-Burmese relations, which also exist today. The Jews departed after the military takeover in 1962, leaving only several dozen by the 1980s.
Exiting the synagogue, I noticed that above the gate on the inside wall was a Jewish star and the Hebrew word, Shalom.
Despite the fact that only a few Burmese Jews remain in Burma, that only a few Israelis work in their embassy in Yangon, that groups of Jewish travelers only occasionally show up here from November through April, this small number of Jews conveys the message to the world: “We are still here!”
Photos and story by Ben Frank, Special to the Jewish NewsBen G. Frank, journalist and travel writer, is the author of the just-published, ”The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” (Globe Pequot Press). He spoke about ”The Scattered Tribe” at the recent 60th annual Jewish Book Fair at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit.