The story of the Jews of Burma

THE COLONIAL-ERA exterior facade of the synagogue flanked in front by street merchants plying their goods
(photo credit: JULIE L. KESSLER)

If you think of Burma – today more frequently called Myanmar – you might think of Britain’s former exotic colony, Rudyard Kipling’s prose, Somerset Maugham’s stories or George Orwell’s depictions.

You probably wouldn’t think of Jews or the Diaspora. After all, Burma is a mostly Buddhist country, bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, Thailand and the Indian Ocean.

However, the Jews of Burma have been in the area since the mid-19th century in significant numbers – mainly in Rangoon, the country’s former capital city – renamed Yangon in 1989, although the two names are often used interchangeably.

According to the Jewish Times Asia, the first Jew of record in Burma was Solomon Gabirol, who in 1755 was a commissar to King Alaungpaya’s army and was thought to have been present when the king conquered Rangoon. Jews even served as mayors – one in Rangoon and another in the smaller city of Bassein – and served in several other government posts. Encouraged by Britain to settle in Burma, about 2,500 Jews made it their home. Many found financial success and became donors to Burmese hospitals, schools and libraries.

When Japan occupied Burma in 1941, most Burmese Jews fled to other countries. About 300 remained, with some 200 returning to Burma following World War II. Burma gained its independence in 1948, just four months prior to Israel’s independence, and became the first Southeast Asian nation to formally recognize the Jewish state.

Like Israel, Burma has faced a plethora of challenges in the years since the heady days of independence.

In the wake of General Ne Win’s 1962 coup, Burma nationalized its industries and more Jews fled, leaving only about 150 Burmese Jews. Burma’s isolation in earnest began with the military socialism that ensued and the numerous sanctions imposed by the West.

The beginning of the isolation’s end commenced in 2011 when Thein Sein became president. This was followed by the 2012 landslide election of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy Party. Though for many who had high hopes for what would ensue for the country with Suu Kyi’s election, many have likewise been disappointed.

THE METICULOUSLY maintained interior of the synagogue with its high ceilings and imposing columns. (Credit: Julie L. Kessler)

Despite the historical, political and economic challenges that Burma has faced over the years, one Jewish family has remained a constant.

One of Burma’s early Jewish settlers was Isaac Samuels, who arrived in the 1890s with his parents from Baghdad. Isaac’s son Moses was a fixture of Burmese Jewish life. Moses lovingly maintained the last remaining Burmese synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua, located in central Rangoon, and kept Jewish life alive in this former capital city.

In November 2005, Burma’s political capital was moved from Rangoon to largely empty Nay Pyi Taw (Naypyidaw) in central Burma by its then-leader of the military junta, Than Shwe. Rangoon remains Burma’s largest city and business center.
Since Moses’s 2015 death, his son Sammy – who went to university in the United States – has carried on Moses’s life’s work.

Walking along busy Mahabandoola Street teeming with all manner of daily Burmese life, I turned down a typical, narrow Rangoon side street within its largely Muslim neighborhood.

AMID BURMESE dressed in traditional ankle-length longyi and carrying colorful umbrellas to block the beating sun, I spotted the synagogue, with a large stone menorah on its blue and white facade.

This architecturally significant colonial-era building is a testament to the once-thriving and vibrant Jewish community. Originally built in the 1850s and rebuilt in 1896, the structure is now one of the 189 buildings on the government’s Yangon Heritage List that provides statutory protections from destruction of heritage properties.

Inside the well-preserved, marble-floored synagogue, towering ceilings are adorned with blue and white Stars of David. Gleaming columns support the archways and the balustrade for the women’s second-floor section. In front of the gold-trimmed bimah, or podium, are the two remaining ornate silver-decorated Torah scrolls. During the “Golden Age” of the Jewish experience in Burma there were 126 Torah scrolls, many of which were taken by Jews who fled following the coup.

The sanctuary also houses a grand display of several large black-and-white photographs reflecting Burma’s friendship with Israel. One shows the late defense minister Moshe Dayan visiting Rangoon just after the Israeli Embassy opened there. In another, former president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi is depicted in 1959 arriving to the synagogue. A third photograph depicts Burmese prime minister U Nu greeting crowds in Tel Aviv.

Just 20 Burmese Jews remain in Yangon today along with another approximately 110 expatriate Jewish residents. Moses’s son Sammy Samuels says he has vowed “[t]o keep the Jewish traditions and spirit alive in Myanmar” despite the dwindling numbers. “The synagogue will always remain an important landmark and reminder of the vibrant community that once lived in Burma.”

ONE OF the synagogue’s Burmese caretakers, just inside the shul compound. (Credit: Julie L. Kessler)

Ten years ago, with one employee, Sammy launched Myanmar Shalom, a travel agency to bring tourists to Burma and to increase awareness of its Jewish heritage. Buoyed by the increase in Burma’s tourism in recent years, Sammy now has over two dozen employees and a large Yangon office. The agency’s signs can be seen throughout the country.

Though in the COVID-19 era tourism to Myanmar has all but ceased, once the pandemic is behind us, heading to this Southeast Asian nation should be high on an intrepid traveler’s bucket list. Not only is Myanmar a remarkably beautiful country with gentle, hospitable people, but visiting this slice of Jewish Burmese life also shines a light on a very unusual and distinctive component of the Jewish Diaspora.

As I turned to exit the synagogue, a large group of German tourists entered the sanctuary, seemingly overwhelmed by its beauty. I wasn’t sure what was more momentous: that I was standing in a synagogue in Myanmar with Burmese caretakers or that the synagogue managed to be on a German tour group’s itinerary.

A plaque in the sanctuary carries these words: “A tree may be alone in the field, a man alone in the world, but a Jew is never alone on his holy days.”

If you are fortunate to find yourself in Burma during the holidays, or any other time for that matter, you will not be alone at Yangon’s beautiful Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue.

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