You don’t have to take the “Road to Mandalay, Where the flyin’ fishes play,” to find the Jews of Burma, a country where little has changed since British colonial times over a half century ago.
Fly into Yangon (Rangoon) and take a taxi to the heart of the city, and you will discover the 100-year-old majestic, blue and white painted synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua, located at No. 85, 26th St.
It was at this historic house of worship that I saw a phenomenon that I had seen many times in the vast Jewish Diaspora: A Jewish man or woman opens the synagogue in a community where most of the Jews have long disappeared.
There are only eight Jewish families in Burma, but Musmeah Yeshua remains open thanks to one man, Than Lwin. Jews know him as Moses Samuels, the man who carries the load of Jewish history on his shoulders. Each morning, he walks a few blocks from his house to unlock the doors of the synagogue and keep a Jewish presence in Burma, now known as Myanmar.
Usually no one shows up for a minyan, though a prayer service does occasionally take place — the result of someone having to recite a Kaddish, or, on occasion, when a group of Israeli, American or Australian Jews arrives during the tourist season.
When that happens Moses frantically calls the few Burmese Jews as well as the Israelis at the embassy in the city to come quickly to the synagogue and meet the guests in this building, one of 188 sites on the list of Yangon Heritage Buildings.
Like the recent influx of tourism to Burma, Jewish groups have been touring this land of the golden pagodas. Today, Myanmar is transitioning from a half century of repressive military rule, which shut off the country from the outside world. Myanmar is opening itself to the West and introducing economic and political reforms, including the release of prominent political prisoners. All this prompted the historic visit to Myanmar last December of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her trip resulted in the United States restoring diplomatic relations with Myanmar.
And for the first time in at least several decades, the small Burmese Jewish community, joined by government officials, members of the diplomatic corps, and former ambassadors to Israel, held a communitywide Chanuka celebration in the Park Royal Hotel. Prior to the festivities, Samuels and his family visited the home of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize winner and symbol of Burmese freedom, who emerged from house arrest in 2010.
The Jewish group had invited Suu Kyi to the Chanuka program, but “the Lady,” as she is known, told the delegation she could not attend because she was holding a prayer ceremony at her home for her late mother, who was the wife of General Aung San, Burma’s independence hero. The group invited her to visit the historic Musmeah Yeshua again, since she was last there 15 years ago.
The interior of the synagogue is similar in style to the grand Magen David synagogue in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, with its soaring ceiling, memorial lamps suspended in mid air and pale beams over a central carved bima located in the center of the prayer hall, surrounded by benches for the worshippers. Above them is a women’s gallery.
I moved about Yangon, visiting pagodas, spotting saffron-robed monks, all the time hearing the tinkling bells of Burma. I saw stores, which were once occupied by Jewish tailors, wine and liquor traders, coffee and fruit vendors, and antique dealers. Today, gold and diamond shops have replaced those former shops. The Jews are long gone.
Not far away, in the middle of this sprawling city of 5 million, sits the Shwedagon Pagoda, the chief place of pilgrimage in the Buddhist world and a tourist’s delight. This enormous golden structure, close to 400 feet high, with a magnificent stupa, is adorned with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. At the tip of the structure is a 76-carat diamond. The platform covers 12 acres. Rudyard Kipling described it as a “golden mystery.”
For the visitor, this is a land of colorful bazaars and joyous festivals. For tourists, Myanmar of today is similar to Thailand 40 years ago. As Kipling said, “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”
Once, several thousand Jews called Burma their home. The first Jew in Burma was Solomon Gabirol, who served as a commissar to the army of King Alaungpaya (1752-1760). Over the years, Jews arrived in Burma and in the mid-19th century, David Sassoon and his co-religionists, known as Baghdadis, settled in India and Burma and other Far East lands. Within decades of British arrival in the 1880s, life for the Jews of Burma became pleasant. After the 1941 Japanese invasion, however, many Burmese Jews fled to India. When a military junta seized control of the country in 1962, installing an authoritarian regime and nationalizing business, most Jews departed.
Both Israel and Burma were born in 1948. Until 1962, the year when the military took over, relations between the two nations were strong and promising. U Nu became the first foreign prime minister to visit the Jewish state, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, spent one of the longest official trips abroad for an Israeli prime minister with a two-week sojourn in 1961. Israel aided Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and Israeli Ambassador Yaron Mayer said in an interview for the Chronicle that the Jewish state and Myanmar have maintained good relations over the years.
Samuels 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 a driving force as he raises funds for the synagogue, and with his father, established Myanmar Shalom Travels and Tours, an entity designed to “keep the Jewish spirit alive in Burma.”
(Ben G. Frank is a journalist and travel writer. His latest book is titled, “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond.”)