Keeping the faith in Burma
Jewish life in Burma today is quite different from what it was during colonial times, which lasted until World War II. Before the war, 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 business and a valued part of local society. During this “Golden Age,” Jewish influence within the government and society as a whole grew rapidly.
Jews were incorporated into the life of the country and 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 the 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. The Jewish cemetery, with more than 600 gravestones, and the synagogue with its 126 silver sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) and Jewish school for over 200 students, proclaimed Jewish affluence and comfort in this lush land.
As Jewish wealth grew in those early days, Jewish philanthropy grew as well. 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 days 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; 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, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion spent two weeks in Burma. President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and Shimon Peres also visited Burma. Despite these cordial relations, Jews found it difficult to regain their lives and re-establish their businesses in Burma after World War II. The Jews of Burma scattered — to Israel, Australia, England and the United States. Since then, the Burmese Jewish community has continued to decrease in population.Tor
Today, only a handful of Jews live in Burma. For more than 35 years, my family has taken care of the synagogue, cemetery, and what remains of the community. Burma and the Jewish community are always our home and history since the 1890s or even early 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; today, we still revere the same building and its history, which encompasses Jewish life in Burma.