Keeping the faith in Burma
(Editor’s note: The remainder of this article will appear in The Chronicle’s Style section in Thursday’s edition.)
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.