I had witnessed this phenomenon before: In the Bronx, USA; in a small town in
Alsace, France; in Seville, Spain – somewhere in the vast Diaspora, a Jewish man
or woman walking down a main city or village street and opening the synagogue in
a community where most of the Jews have long since departed.
Myanmar (once known as Rangoon, Burma), even in monsoon season, 61-year-old
Moses Samuels leaves his home every morning and begins walking along 31st
Street, near the golden Sule pagoda. As he makes a left turn on Maha Bandula
Street, (once called Dalhousie) the roar of sidewalk merchants’ throaty voices
announcing their wares reaches his ears.
Sauntering down this market
street, he turns left on 26 Street to number 85, takes out his keys and unlocks
the gate to Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, which remains open thanks to just this one
This daily stroll should take seven minutes, but for Moses Samuels,
known in the neighborhood as Than Lwin, 45 minutes elapse as he greets his
fellow Burmese, all of whom recognize that he carries on his shoulders the
weight of Jewish history in Myanmar.
Opening this over-a-century-old
religious structure is a symbolic gesture as there are only eight Jewish
families in the country, with nine Jews, a small Israel Embassy staff and a few
Israeli businesspersons in Yangon.
Sometimes, Moses walks up to the
bridge over Maha Bandula to get a better view of the two-story, white stone
synagogue. Painted blue stripes circle the windows and a few horizontal blue
stripes decorate its whitewashed walls, giving the structure the recognizable
blue-and-white colors of Israel and the Jewish people.
All that’s needed
is the six-pointed Jewish star on the middle wall of the building – it’s not
there, but once you’re at the main street entrance, you can see a seven-branched
candelabra and the synagogue name spelled out in large, blue letters, as well as
the Jewish star on the inside wall of the entrance.
Services in the main
hall are rare, so Samuels often recalls the old days when worshippers sitting on
the wooden benches at times would stare at the beautiful stainedglass windows,
open wide during the hot Burmese summers. These days the windows are still open,
and birds coo and whistle as they fly near the top of the ceiling. It’s not hard
for the visitor to imagine that they symbolize the souls of Jews who once lived
and worked in the neighborhood.
The interior of Musmeah Yeshua stands
similar in style to the grand Magen David synagogue in Calcutta, India, with its
soaring ceiling, memorial lamps suspended in midair, pale beams over a central
carved bima (readers’ platform) located in the center of the prayer hall, and
surrounded by benches for the worshippers. Above them is a women’s
The synagogue is not hard to find; an Israeli backpacker told me
he discovered it on a city map at the train station; a Jewish star indicated the
Happily, from time to time a minyan does take place – the result of
someone having to recite a memorial prayer, or, on occasion, a group of Israeli,
American or Australian Jews arriving during the tourist season. When that
happens, Moses frantically calls the local Jews to come quickly and meet the
guests in the synagogue, one of 188 sites on the list of Yangon Heritage
Moses is not alone in keeping a Jewish presence in this city.
He is aided by his son, Sammy Samuels, 31, who lives most of the year in New
York City, but is the driving force as he raises funds for the
Together with his father, Sammy Samuels established “Myanmar
Shalom Travels and Tours,” whose mission it is “to keep the Jewish spirit alive
in Burma.” The firm’s profits go to the synagogue.
When Sammy is in town,
he conducts the services, as Moses does not read Hebrew.
name in Burmese is Aung Soe Lwin, graduated with high honors from Yeshiva
University in New York and is now a computer programmer for the American Jewish
Moses and his wife Nellie also have two daughters, Kuzna and
Dinah, who returned to Myanmar after their studies in the US.
December, a tour organized by Myanmar Shalom and Lotus Travel will bring 42
American Jews to this land of golden pagodas.
Their leader will be Rabbi
Marvin Tokayer of Great Neck, NY, a scholar and author who has led tours to
exotic Jewish communities throughout the world, especially in Asia. Friday night
and Saturday morning services will be held for this group.
Sammy told me Jewish tourists take pride in observing the gates to the Rangoon
Zoo as well as the ornate cast-iron bandstand in Bandula Square, the former
donated by the Sofaer family, the latter by Mordechai Isaac
Travelers flock here because the country has changed little since
British colonial times. Hotels are packed. The city, however, always seems to be
especially dark in the evenings because of a lack of electrical power in this
impoverished but beautiful land. Apartment buildings need repair, buses are
crowded, and except for a few main roads, traffic flows easily. But it is the
awe-inspiring pagodas which make a visit to Burma very worthwhile, including the
breath-taking Shwedagon pagoda, the holiest Buddhist shrine in
Once, several thousand 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). Over the years, more Jews followed and engaged in the
teakwood trade, accumulating great wealth. Jewish gem merchants visited this
lush and exotic country for diamonds, rubies, bejeweled gold ornaments, pearls
and gold bangles. Rubies, jade and handicrafts still head the list of tourist
In the mid-19th century, David Sassoon and his
co-religionists, known as Baghdadis, arrived in India and the Far East and
brought investments and connections of an extensive trading network which would
extend to Asian lands, including Burma.
Within decades of the British
arrival in the 1880s, life for Jews would be pleasant.
Jews mixed with
Christians, Burmese, Hindus, Muslims and Chinese. As in India, anti-Semitism did
not exist and Jews lived comfortably under the benign mantle of the British
Empire. Rangoon and Bassein had Jewish mayors. Those tranquil days ended when
the Japanese bombed Rangoon in December, 1941, and invaded the country. Jews and
thousands of Burmese fled to India. When peace came only several hundred Jews
returned to bombed-out Rangoon.
Burma’s Jewish community was “devastated
and never recovered,” according to Ruth Fredman Cerne in her book, Almost
Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma.
Judaism enjoyed a “brief
flowering” after Israel’s independence in 1948 and the establishment of cordial
A warm friendship existed between Israeli
prime minister David Ben-Gurion and U Nu, who was the first head of state to
visit the Jewish state. In 1962, however, General Ne Win overthrew the civilian
government, set up a military dictatorship, nationalized industry, declared a
policy of strict self-reliance and neutrality, and isolated Burma from the
world, including Israel.
Nearly all the Jews departed.
Jewish Cemetery on 91st street is in itself a repository of the country’s Jewish
life and history. The cemetery gate contains a very visible Jewish
Through this portal, one sees a mosque in the near background, and
in the far background a Christian church. A Burmese monks’ habitat is located on
the left side of the cemetery. Despite municipal edicts promising to move the
cemetery, no action has been taken.
For a half-century, the military
junta brutally repressed and isolated its citizens.
Today, a glimmer of
hope appears on the horizon in the struggle to ease dictatorial rule and open
Myanmar to more tourism and investment. The embattled Aung San Suu Kyi, known as
“The Lady,” a Nobel Peace Prize winner and symbol of democracy, was released
from house arrest last year.
Trade unions are allowed to form. About 200
political prisoners were let out of prison.
Elections were held, though
criticized as a sham to perpetuate military control.
Tourism to this land
of about 50 million is on the rise.
As for relations between Israel and
Myanmar, Ambassador Yaron Mayer, in his fourth year of service, describes them
as “ always good,” adding, “Myanmar is gradually changing and we should all
support this process.” He said a Myanmar delegation, headed by Deputy Union
Minister for Commerce Dr. Pwint San, visited Israel in mid- November for the
WATEC Israel 2011 Conference and Exhibition on water, energy and the
The Israeli Embassy obviously plays a role in trying to keep
up a Jewish presence. An Independence Day celebration was attended by 400
persons, as well as a UN International Holocaust Memorial Day with an art
exhibition of Sara Atzmon.
Will more Jews live in Burma? Perhaps American
Jewish ex-pats similar to those living in Vietnam, or sons and daughters of
former Burmese Jews, or Israelis doing business in the country, will come and
keep a Jewish presence in a country which once housed a proud Jewish
Meanwhile, Sammy Samuels promised his father Moses, as Moses
promised his father, Isaac Samuels, that he would keep the synagogue open.
Chances are he will; he doesn’t want to be the last one to turn the lights
out.Ben G. Frank is a journalist and travel writer, and the author of
The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to
India to Tahiti & Beyond, Globe Pequot Press, as well as
A Travel Guide to
Jewish Europe, 3rd edition, A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, and
Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.