Irene Shaland Special to the Jewish News
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Alex Shaland
Myanmar through the eyes of a Jewish traveler.
The road to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is definitely less traveled, even for a seasoned globetrotter. But if you venture along with your eyes and heart wide open, the country embraces and woos you with its sparkling beauty and the sincere friendliness of its people. The country’s temple art is matchless in its elegance. The deepest spirituality of its ancient form of Buddhism seamlessly blends with the pagan spirits of the Burmese universe.
Our “Burmese days” began in Yangon, home to more than 5 million people and the country’s largest urban center. It is also home for two most venerated ancient Buddhist treasures: the gold-covered Shwedagon and Sule Pagodas.
The Pagodas are the true centers of people’s lives. Each immense complex contains monasteries, meditation schools and multiple smaller pagodas, some of which are dedicated to Nats, spirits of the world. Both Sule and Shwedagon are said to be dated to the time of Buddha. These holiest relics are covered with tons of glistening gold and their spires are adorned with thousands of sparkling diamonds.
The ancient faith practiced in Myanmar infuses every daily action of the people. They consider their religion to be the oldest and purest form of Buddhism, the Theravada school or the Way of the Elders.
In Theravada, there is no clergy, but the country is punctuated by numerous monasteries with 50,000 nuns and 40,000 monks. Every young man in Myanmar should become a monk at least for a week or a month in his lifetime.
When we shared our “Burmese Days” with our friends, they would often ask: “Did you find any Jews in Burma? And why on Earth did they come there?”
Indeed, it is hard to imagine a religiously observant Jew with his family arriving in this “unlike any other” land with its rice fields and countless golden Buddhas and pagodas. But they did, and many built significant fortunes, while playing an important role in turning British Burma, especially Rangoon, into one of the most prosperous regions in Southeast Asia.
Jews began arriving in Burma in growing numbers between the first (1824-26) and the second (1852) Anglo-Burmese Wars when Yangon was annexed. They were the Baghdadi, a special breed of the Jewish tribe.
“The Buddhist Burma was, for the most part, a welcoming home for Jews for almost 160 years.”
— Sammy Samuels
There were also the indigenous or “tribal” Jews: the Karen, living primarily in the Karen state, in the southern and southeastern regions of the country, and the Ben Menashe, residing in the remote northwestern Myanmar, near the border with the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur. Since the late 1940s, the Karen have been fighting against the Myanmar government, demanding first their independence and, later, an autonomous federal region.
Since the late-20th century, thousands of Ben Menashe were longing to immigrate to Israel. They began actively studying Judaism in their desire to return to what they thought was the religion of their ancestors. Since 2005, when the chief rabbi of Israel declared their aliyah legal, many of them immigrated to Israel.
However, the Burmese Jewish story belongs to the Baghdadi. To better understand, we need to go to Yangon, follow the footsteps of the Jews in Burma, visit their synagogue and meet Sammy Samuels.
Samuels, a cordial bespectacled man in his 30s, had invited us to visit the Yangon synagogue to celebrate both Shabbat and the fourth night of Chanukah. If I met Sammy in the Upper West Side of New York, I would have taken him for a Columbia University student. A true citizen of the world, Sammy was educated in both Israel and the U.S. with degrees in business and computer programming and worked in New York for years. He could have chosen to stay in the U.S. or go to Israel. But a descendent of multiple generations of a Baghdadi family in Burma, Sammy is holding the torch to preserve Judaism in the land of golden pagodas. His forebear, who came from Baghdad in the early 19th century, was one of the founders of the Great Synagogue of Burma in 1854 and its first facility manager. That responsibility stayed in the family.
THE SAMUELS’ STORY
For me, Sammy is Jewish Burmese royalty. While we are waiting for other guests to arrive for the evening service, Sammy tells his story.
In 1978, when Sammy’s grandfather Isaak was dying, he asked his son, Moses, Sammy’s father, to promise to never leave Yangon and abandon the synagogue. When a few years ago, Sammy’ father was gravely ill and had only a short time to live, Sammy promised him the same. It did not matter that there was no rabbi, no congregation and only a few families. As a true scion of the dynasty, Sammy follows his ancestors’ footsteps. Every day, he and his sisters, Dinah and Kaznah, keep the doors of the synagogue open for expats, travelers like us and anyone who is interested.
When Sammy’s great-great-grandfather arrived in Rangoon, he, like many other Baghdadi, was not escaping persecutions and pogroms. He sought and found wide-open land for a commercial enterprise. This first of the Samuels, like other Baghdadi newcomers, soon was joined by an extended family, settling down, launching their businesses and marrying. The Samuels family became comfortable in their lifestyle and prosperous in their businesses. “The Buddhist Burma,” says Sammy, “was, for the most part, a welcoming home for the Jews for almost 160 years.”
In 1893, the old 1854 wooden structure was replaced with the new beautiful building we see today. The British and the Jews wanted their secure worlds to last forever. But World War II and the Japanese invasion put an end to this comfortable life.
The Samuels stayed because of their strong conviction: The synagogue, just like the Jewish faith itself, must not be abandoned. The beloved synagogue survived bombings, fires and lootings.
Out of almost 3,000 Jews who left Rangoon in 1941, a few hundred returned after the war only to find devastation and ruins. But the synagogue stood intact with all its beautiful Sifrei Torah safely preserved.
By the end of the 20th century, there were fewer than 50 Jews in the country. The Samuels family stayed and persevered throughout all those turbulent years. And so did their beloved synagogue with its doors wide open every day.
Located on Dalhouse Street, the synagogue used to be within easy walking distance from many Jewish homes prior to the war. Now, it is in the heart of the Muslim district of Yangon and is very easy to miss. Only when our guide stopped us and said, “Look up,” we turned away from the street sights and looked over the high white wall at an archway decorated with blue-and-white tiles and a seven-branched menorah. The name of the Great Synagogue of Burma was also in deep blue: Musmeah Yeshua, roughly translated as “bring forth salvation” or “the place of salvation.”
In the best of times, the synagogue could accommodate 500-plus people, Sammy says. But on that hot December night, there were only a few of us. We came from different places in the world to celebrate Shabbat and Chanukah: a globe-trotting Israeli family with a baby, a couple from New York, travelers like us, two men and a woman, expats and professionals from Colorado and Florida, living and working in Yangon. I was as happy as a child when Sammy asked me to light the candles.
While the exterior of the synagogue is modest, the interior is magnificent, with a beautiful soaring ceiling and columns, intricately carved central bimah and, at the far end, hekhal hekosh or the Holy Ark, with two Sifrei Torah in exquisite antique silver cases. There used to be 126 of them, Sammy explained. All were brought by various donor families over the years. When families left Burma, they took their Torahs with them, but two remain.
JEWISH HERITAGE PATH IN YANGON
Yangon has the highest number of the best-preserved colonial-era buildings in all Southeast Asia. For us, one colonial-era structure in Yangon that best evoked both the imposing elegance of the old Rangoon and the importance of the Baghdadi in the city’s economy: the four-story Sofaer’s Building that occupies the entire block between the Low Pansodan and 37th streets.
Its yellow Italianate-style façade is richly decorated and boasts a recently restored blue entrance to Sofaer & Co. In 1906, Isaak Sofaer, an architect by training and a member of one of the most prominent Baghdadi families in Burma, sketched the design of this building and commissioned the renowned architect Thomas Swales to construct it. No expense was spared.
In addition to their talents in commerce, the Baghdadi pioneered something else in Asia that never existed there before: philanthropy. Not many Yangon visitors admiring the Sofaer’s Building know that when it was completed, the family donated beautifully ornamented gates in front of the Victoria Memorial Park and Zoological Gardens that were formally opened by the prince and princess of Wales.
Our Jewish heritage path brought us to the Jewish Cemetery, a half hour’s walk northeast of the synagogue. We climbed a set of broken steps leading to the top of the brick wall. In front of us were rows of neat identical gray tombstones. The cemetery is severely overgrown. There are more than 700 graves, we were told, with the oldest dating back to the mid-19th century when the Baghdadi began arriving in growing numbers. We were able to locate the tombstones of two Samuels: Jack, who died in 1954, and Isaak, Sammy’s grandfather, who was buried there in 1978. We left a couple of stones on each. Cemeteries preserve memories when all else is gone. Maybe, I thought, this is why we always leave stones there, not flowers. Flowers will wither and die, but the stones stay forever, like memories in our hearts.
Sammy’s father told him something that has been in his heart ever since. As a true Baghdadi, Moses said: “The numbers do not matter. What does is the strength of your faith. If you have strong faith, you would feel the world.”
On Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah, Sammy tells us, family, friends and neighbors of various faiths come to the synagogue for the holiday feast and bring their national food as presents. Everybody, he says, loves his mother Nelly’s potato pancakes.
Sammy, his sisters, their mother and Sammy’s beautiful wife, Zahava Isfahani, a Baghdadi of Iranian descent, “feel very much to be Jews of Burma or Jewish Burmese,” he says.
“We love the country we were born in and grew up in. We love and respect Burmese culture and the kind hearts of the Burmese people.”
He is often asked “Why?” Why are they staying in Yangon instead of, say, making an aliyah to Israel? Few families are not a community worth dedicating your life to. But Sammy sees beyond the numbers. Like his father taught him, he “feels the world.” And for the benefit of that large world, he keeps the proud Baghdadi history alive. The synagogue which he serves is once again sustaining the Jewish spirit.