Tag: Jews of Burma

Sammy Samuels leads growing Burmese community

There are 20 Jews born in Myanmar, but the community is growing, with 80 – 100 Jewish expatriates now living in the country. Sammy Samuels is determined to follow in the footsteps of his father Moses Samuels, who died in June of this year aged 65. Sammy is leading the Yangon  community, as it prepares to host a Hanucah candle-lighting ceremony. (The festival begins this evening and lasts for eight days). Report on the BBC website (with thanks: Nelly, Tim and Ron).

“Jewish people came here in the 19th Century from Iraq and Iran. They
traded goods such as coffee and teak between Burma, as Myanmar was known
then, India and the Middle East.

By
World War Two, when Burma was a British colony, there were about 2,500
Jews here, enjoying a wonderful life. We had a Jewish school with more
than 200 students and there were dozens of Jewish-owned stores in
downtown Rangoon (now Yangon). In 1910, the city even had a Jewish
mayor.

But when the Japanese came in 1942, they gave the Jews of
Rangoon a hard time. My grandfather was interrogated and the synagogue
was closed for two months while they searched for evidence that we were
collaborating with the British. They found nothing and left us alone.
But it was enough to make us afraid, and many Jewish families left.

Then,
in 1962, the military took over and nationalised many businesses. This
led to a second exodus of Jews. Incidentally, as well as taking their
Torah scrolls with them, they left the country without Coca-Cola. The
drink was sold by the Solomon family, which owned a bottling plant in
Rangoon. After they left, Coca-Cola didn’t go on sale again officially
until 2012.

But through all this, my family – and just seven others – stayed. My
grandfather Isaac Samuels felt very strongly that Jews should remain in
Burma and that if we left, the synagogue would be taken over by the
government. So in 1978, as my grandfather lay on his deathbed, my father
promised him that the Samuels would stay as long as we could.

I was born two years later, the youngest Jew in the country. I’m 35 now, and I am still the youngest.”

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Top: Musmeah Yeshua synagogue is in a Muslim area of the capital Yangon. Below: Samuel Samuels’ wedding was the first for 27 years.

Doyen of Burma synagogue is dead

 He used to sit in his sarong outside Yangon’s only synagogue in the hope that enough tourists would, that day, make up the minyan, or quorum of 10 men, needed for a service. His father refused to leave Burma during the wartime Japanese occupation. Now Moses Samuels is dead, the Jerusalem Post reports:


Moses Samuels z”l

Moses Samuels, the longtime leader of the Jewish community of Myanmar, died on Friday. He was 65.

According to Public Radio International, he had been suffering from throat cancer for two years.

“Of
Iraqi Jewish descent, Moses Samuels continued the work of his father
in caring for the synagogue and Jewish community for over 35 years,”
the community said in a statement on Monday.

“He certainly kept
Judaism alive with a profound love for his heritage and was an
inspiration to many people, a helping and warm hand to all visitors who
came to the synagogue in Yangon, Myanmar.

He treated everyone
with equal respect and dignity with an open door – no matter if they
are Jewish or Buddhist, Muslim or Christian, Hindu or Baha’i.”

Jews
first came to Myanmar, formerly Burma, in the late 18th century. With a
peak population of between 1,200 and 2,500, the community is now
“teeter[ing] on the verge of extinction,” according to the Jewish Times
Asia.

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Keeping the Jewish spirit alive in Burma

 The Yangon synagogue decked out for Sammy Samuels’ wedding (photo: Israeli embassy)

 Since Burma (Myanmar) became nominally democratic in 2011, tourists and businesspeople are injecting new life into Burma’s Jewish community, founded by Baghdadi Jews in the 19th century. Public Radio International has a report and transcript on the Mesmuah Yeshuah synagogue, where the caretakers are the Samuels family. (With thanks: Andrew)



Walking down Mahabandoola Street, one of the
main thoroughfares of downtown Yangon, right at about 26th Street, if
you look carefully, you may notice a little, blue Star of David painted
above a row of ordinary looking shops. It’s on the side of Burma’s
beautiful, old, Sephardic synagogue.

It’s been almost 50 years since regular services were held at
Congregation Mesmuah Yeshuah, but every morning 63-year-old Moses
Samuel, patriarch of Burma’s remaining Jewish community, opens the
synagogue doors and waits for any visitors, Jewish or not, who might
come by.

Moses got throat cancer two years ago, so his son, Sammy, has become the voice of Burma’s Jews. At 32, he’s also the youngest of Burma’s Jews.

At its peak, the prosperous and prominent Jewish community numbered
about 2,500. Most migrated from Baghdad during British colonial times.
Burma’s then-capital, Rangoon (today known as Yangon) even had a Jewish
mayor in the early 1900s.

But when Japan invaded during World War II, Jews were generally
treated like British spies, and most fled.  Some returned after the war,
and in 1948, when Burma gained independence, Burma became fast friends
with another new country — Israel.

But in 1962, the Burmese military toppled the government and
nationalized businesses. Most of the remaining Jews left, but the
Samuels family stayed. Sammy says they never thought of leaving. They
loved their home country and being there was important, because they
wanted Jewish visitors to Burma “not to be alone.”

In 2002, Sammy got a full scholarship to go to college in the US. He
moved almost permanently to New York, but every summer he’d travel back
to Yangon.

One Friday evening in summer, Moses went to the synagogue alone.
Sammy wasn’t feeling well, but 45 minutes later Sammy got a call from
his dad begging him to come. “He sounded as if he won the lottery,”
Sammy says.

Before he even got there that night, he heard the singing. About 40 American tourists had showed up for Friday night services.

“My father was so happy, he opened all the kosher wines that he had,” Sammy says.

Sammy, who was looking for a way to connect his homeland with his
adopted country, got a brilliant idea. If those 40 tourists would come
for Friday night services, maybe others would come, too. He started a
travel agency called Myanmar Shalom, to — as he puts it — “keep the
Jewish spirit alive in Burma.”

In 2011, Burma became nominally democratic, and tourists began to
pour in, relatively-speaking. And Myanmar Shalom, which does group and
personal tours for Jews and non-Jews, has gone from two employees to
20.

The US-ASEAN Business Council Institute (USABCI) just finished
restoring parts of the synagogue, and Frances Zwenig, head of the
project, says there are always tourists at the synagogue when she visits
now.

And now that Myanmar Shalom can cover costs, the USABCI handed synagogue upkeep back to the Samuels Family.

Myanmar Shalom is not only easing the way for tourists, Sammy also
runs a consulting company for Fortune 100 businesses trying to tap in to
Burma’s untouched markets. Those businesses often bring Jews into
Yangon for work opportunities — much like their ancestors did.

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Preserving Burma’s last synagogue

 Mesmuah Yeshua synagogue in Rangoon (Yangon)…more than just a building

 The last synagogue in Rangoon is a symbol of fast-diminishing religious tolerance, argues Michael Rubin in the Commentator (with thanks: Lily):

Voice of America picked up a fascinating story about efforts to preserve Burma’s (Myanmar’s) last synagogue:

The Mesmuah Yeshua synagogue is in a
neighborhood typical of colonial Rangoon. Mosques, Hindu temples,
churches, and Buddhist pagodas dot busy streets of markets, hawkers, and
hardware shops. The protected heritage building dates back to 1896, and
has been under the care of a member of the Samuels family for
generations… Author and historian Thant Myint-U heads the Yangon Heritage Trust,
an organization dedicated to saving Rangoon’s heritage buildings. He
says the synagogue’s preservation effort is about more than just the
building: it’s about recovering Burma’s past, to help people understand
the city’s rich multiethnic history.

The whole story is worth reading, especially against the backdrop of the destruction of Java’s last synagogue
earlier this summer, the razing of the Jewish quarters in both
Sulaymani and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, the end of the Jewish community
in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the start of what might well become a Jewish exodus
from an increasingly intolerant Turkey. Sixteen years ago, I watched
the Jewish community in Tajikistan build a guest house near the Jewish
cemetery to prepare for the end of what they assumed would be that
country’s permanent Jewish community.

Religious intolerance is spreading
across the Middle East and many places in Asia as populist and
radicalized clergy urge their followers to make life intolerable for
Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist minorities. Traveling over
the years in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Iran, I have
heard older generations describe the cosmopolitan atmosphere of their
youth, playing with friends of different religions.

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Will pluralism ever return to Burma?

The Sofaer store in Yangon. Some 3,000 Jews once lived in Burma

It never ceases to amaze me how the media can wax lyrical about the ‘surprising survival’ of only 20 Jews in Burma, and dare to predict that the community might revive. The truth is that tolerance and pluralism of different faiths were old-fashioned colonial values. Article in The Economist (with thanks: Shaul)

Amid the bustle and crumbling masonry of downtown Yangon, there is one building that likes to keep up appearances: Myanmar’s only synagogue. On a narrow street, tucked behind a lot of paint shops, stands the splendid Musmeah Yeshua. Dating from the 1890s, it is a reminder of a lost world and an almost vanished community. It also provides a test of how far Myanmar can change.

Many of Myanmar’s Jews came from Iraq in the 19th century to trade and set up businesses. What was then Rangoon was a flourishing port of the British empire, and the Jewish community became influential. At its peak, it numbered around 3,000. The city even had a Jewish mayor.

Some of the prosperity and worldliness of those days lingers in the streets around the synagogue. Musmeah Yeshua is virtually next door to a Sunni madrassa, dating from 1914. A bit farther down the same street is a large mosque. Both of these are legacies of a Muslim influx from Gujarat, in India. Across the way is a large, gaudy Hindu temple. A few streets down is a large Hokkien temple. Methodist, Catholic and Anglican churches are all nearby. Immigrants came to Rangoon from around the world to make their fortunes.

A virtue, perhaps, of having been isolated from the world is that several decades of religious bigotry seem not to have touched this corner of Yangon. Living and working together, Jews, Muslims and others seem to get along cheerfully enough—in contrast to the violence between the majority Burmans and many other indigenous groups, such as the majority-Christian Kachin in the north and the Muslim Rohingyas in the west. When the devastating cyclone Nargis hit Yangon in 2008, interfaith prayers were held in the synagogue. It was to describe just such a multicultural and commercial conglomeration that J.S. Furnivall, a British colonial servant in Burma, coined the term “plural society” 60 years ago.

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A talk in London on the Jews of Burma by Dr Saul Zadka is scheduled for 1 May. For further details check out Harif and Spiro Ark websites.

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