A Jewish tour of Burma


Only a handful of Jews live in Burma today. For more than 35 years, my family has taken care of the synagogue, cemetery and what remains of the once flourishing Jewish community. Burma has been our home since 1890 or even earlier, when my great-grandparents left Baghdad to start a new life in the vibrant city of Rangoon. During World War II, my grandfather, Isaac Samuels, risked his life for the synagogue, and today we still revere the same building, which has been at the center of Jewish life in Burma for the last century. Every day, my father, Moses Samuels, sits in the quiet synagogue, waiting to greet Jewish visitors and share with them the rich and unique history of the Jewish community here. Every Friday, my father and I used to wait at the synagogue for Jewish visitors until we can gather a minyan to begin services. My father posted this sign on the front door of the synagogue: "A tree may be alone in the field, a man alone in the world, but a Jew is never alone on his holy days." It is my father's fervent belief that no Jew should be alone during the holidays - and yet most of the time, the two of us found ourselves alone in the synagogue. But even if only he and I are present, I always feel the echoes of the many Shabbat services that have taken place in this beautiful shul, and hear the melodies of the songs our grandparents used to sing when the community was at its peak. Jewish life in Burma today is quite different from what it was during colonial times. Before World War II, it still was the case that "the sun never set" on the British Empire, including in Southeast Asia. Jewish merchants, who migrated originally to Burma in the late 1800s, served as a natural conduit between the British colonial rulers and the export-import community abroad. The Jewish community of approximately 2,500 people was a respected presence in local business and a valued part of the local society. During this "golden age," Jewish influence within the government and society as a whole grew rapidly. Jews played a prominent part in various fields. In tropical Rangoon, Jews owned ice factories and bottling plants. Some dealt in textiles and timber, while others were customs officials and traders. Jews held a designated seat on the Rangoon Municipal Committee. The Jewish community in Burma was so influential, in fact, that in the first years of the century, Rangoon and the smaller city of Bassein had Jewish mayors, and Judah Ezekiel Street in downtown Rangoon was named to honor a Jew. The Sofaer family donated the iron gates to the Rangoon Zoo, and another Jew, Mordechai Isaac Cohen, donated a beautiful cast-iron bandstand in Bandoola Square. Both are still standing tall today. In the center of downtown Rangoon (now Yangon) stood Musmeah Yeshua, the grand synagogue with its soaring ceiling and graceful columns. Musmeah Yeshua, one of 188 sites on the list of Yangon Heritage Buildings, was constructed in the 1890s and is a testimony to the Jewish affluence and comfort in this lush land. The synagogue had 126 silver Torah scrolls, the Jewish school had more than 200 students and there were more than 600 gravestones in the Jewish cemetery. As Jewish wealth grew in those early days, Jewish philanthropy grew too. The community donated large sums for local schools, libraries, hospitals and helped local Burmese in many different ways. The Burmese were very appreciative of this aid and the country was a welcome and tolerant home for Jews for many years. The "golden age" of Jewish life in Burma came to a close when the Japanese invaded in 1941. Japanese occupation forced most of the Jewish community, along with most of the British colonial population, to flee to other countries. Some Jews returned after the war, but they soon realized that the beautiful life they remembered was no more, and their homes and wealth were gone. Even so, there were promising relations between postwar Burma and the new State of Israel. Burma and Israel both achieved their independence in 1948 and Burma recognized the State of Israel in 1949; in fact, it was the first Asian country to do so. Burmese prime minister U Nu was the first foreign head of state to visit the newly independent State of Israel in 1955. In 1961, prime minister David Ben-Gurion spent two weeks in Burma. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres also visited Burma. Despite cordial relations between Israel and Burma, Jews found it difficult to restore their lives and reestablish their businesses in the country after World War II. The Jews of Burma scattered - to Israel, Australia, England and the United States. Since the war, the Burmese Jewish community has steadily decreased in population. We may not be able to return to the glorious days of Jewish life, but our tiny community believes that, through tourism, we will be able to make a difference in keeping the Jewish spirit alive in Burma. In 2005, we started the travel agency Myanmar Shalom, with the goal of linking Jews around the world to our community and enabling visitors to explore and experience the beautiful country about which Rudyard Kipling wrote, "This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know." Through years of isolation, the country has managed to retain many of its cultural traditions and preserve much of its historical heritage, making it one of the few remaining places that truly can bring a visitor back in time to experience the Asia of old. Whatever the politics of Burma, the tourist will find a nation of gentle folk and smiling people, rich archeological sites, glittering pagodas, colorful bazaars and joyous festivals. Among many other programs, Myanmar Shalom has hosted its unique "Southeast Asia through Jewish Eyes" and with Lotus Travels brought more than 30 participants to Burma. The tour was led by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, creator of "Journeys through Jewish Eyes" and one of the world's foremost authorities on the Asian Jewish experience. For many years, the synagogue has not had a local minyan, so the group visit makes a great difference to this small community, once again filling the Rangoon synagogue with joy and song. I often think about the history of the Jewish community in Burma from its golden days before World War II, when the synagogue was filled with more than 300 people for congregational activities, Jewish holy days, weddings and bar/bat mitzva ceremonies. No matter where the descendants of Jews from Burma now live, the synagogue will remain an important landmark of Jewish history in Southeast Asia for all of us and a reminder of the very vibrant community that once lived in Burma. Today, only a few of us are left in Burma, but our Jewish spirit is still alive and our prayer services still continue. I pray that through tourism, the Jewish community may begin to revive and that our beautiful synagogue once again will be filled with joy and song as we continue our historic role in the life and welfare of the country. The writer is the last of a long line of Jews in Burma and a graduate of Yeshiva University who currently resides in New York and works for the American Jewish Congress.