Burma’s Razor-Thin Jewish Presence


Standing atop the Theingyizay Bridge overpass in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma), I sensed the exhilarating roar of hundreds of buyers and sellers float up to me from the Mahabandula Street market below.

Arguing, bargaining, shouting and pleading, these skilled and persuasive Burmese merchants hover over their goods spread out in carts and on blankets. It's simply a buyer's dream: watches, jeans, T-shirts, toys, CDs, DVDs, fried beans, vegetable tempura. I have been to markets in Delhi and Kochin in India; to shuks in Marrakesh and Fez in Morocco. But nothing like this outdoor market on Mahabandula between 26th and 31st streets in Yangon.

I knew I was in the Orient.

From atop the bridge, another site drew my attention: A two-story, white-stone building, fittingly painted with blue-and-white stripes on its walls. This last remaining synagogue seems just as exotic as this exotic land.

Yes, even with only eight Jewish families in all of Myanmar, the 100-year-old Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is open, thanks to one "just" man, Moses Samuels, who tends to its needs and raises money. He opens its doors every day, even if, as usual, no one shows up for a minyan — although, from time to time, Israeli and American tourist groups arrive, and are joined by diplomats from the Israel embassy for a service.

"Our family is still here," says 59-year-old Samuels, who opened the synagogue for me as he would for any visitor. Born in Burma, his parents were from Iraq. Today, Moses and his son, Sammy, a graduate of Yeshiva University who lives in New York, run Myanmar Shalom Travels & Tours Co. Ltd. ([email protected] com).

Everything is in its place in this house of worship: a soaring ceiling, a few memorial lamps — suspended in mid-air, diffusing their pale beams over the empty scene — benches and an empty bimah located in the center of this Sephardic synagogue.

Most of the original Jews came to Burma from Iraq via India. At one time, some 3,000 Jews resided on these streets. But that was a long time ago, when "life was wonderful," and Jews mixed with the Christians, Burmese, Hindus, Muslims and Chinese.

Most Burmese Jews fled the Japanese in World War II and, if not then, in 1969, when the regime nationalized cbusinesses.

Someday, the Samuels state, they hope Jews may come back, or at least visit a country where the people are indeed friendly, even though they now live under a repressive government.

Tourism's Now Big

This nation has opened up to tourism, which thrives here because the country has changed little since British colonial times. The pagodas and majestic rivers captivate travelers.

Yangon, once a jewel in the British Empire's crown, boasts the enormous Shwedagon Pagoda, a glittering, gold bell-shaped structure. Resplendent in the sun, the Pagoda — a landmark dominating the city skyline for 2,500 years — is the holiest Buddhist shrine in Myanmar and a must for visitors.

It's best to get there in the late afternoon, when shadows cast a mystic blanket over the shrine, with its glittering stupa gilded with eight tons of gold, a wonder of the world and a distinct "ah" moment. The calmness reminded me of the Taj Mahal.

Families come here with their young children — some of whom are novices to Buddhism, though dressed in monk's garb — arriving to pray and spend leisure hours. I walk around the circular promenade bordered on both sides by small shrines of carved wood, with Buddhas of various sizes. The spirituality grips one, yet the informality allows one to stroll undisturbed.

This October, a "Southeast Asia Through Jewish Eyes Tour" ([email protected]) will include Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, creator of "Journeys Through Jewish Eyes," and one of the world's foremost authorities on the exotic Jewish experience, will escort the tour.

For general information, see: www.myanmartravelinformation.com.


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