Standing Tall

By Aye Chan Myae 30 July 2014

YANGON — On 26th Street in downtown Yangon is a building almost hidden from sight and barely noticed by those who pass it every day. Built in the 19th century, it is part of the city’s history, but one with an interesting history all its own.

The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue was founded by a prosperous community of Jewish traders who began arriving in this country from India in the mid-19th century. At one time, around 3,000 Jews lived here, concentrated in an area around Mahabandoola Street, and also along Yaw Min Gyi and Bo Yar Nyunt streets.

Very little is left of this community today, however—just around 20 people for whom the synagogue is a living reminder of a once vibrant past.

If you decide to take a closer look, you might not find it particularly welcoming at first glance: The sign visible from the closed gate informs you that “outsiders are not allowed.” But visitors can enter if they seek permission a day in advance, and this unique place of worship has recently become an unlikely tourist attraction for those wishing to explore Yangon’s impressive cultural and religious diversity.

Once inside, one immediately feels transported to another time and place. The most prominent feature of the interior is the bema, a raised platform with a railing where the Torah (the Jewish holy book) is read during services.

Surrounding this platform are cane-backed chairs of an indeterminate age; they seem quite old, but they’re in very good condition. A grandfather clock that stands near the entrance also has the look of an antique, but no longer tells the time. It’s not easy to tell where or when it was made, but the word “Rangoon,” in English, appears on its surface.

As I stood admiring this towering timepiece, Sammy Samuels, the son of the synagogue’s patriarch, Moses Samuels, offered to shed some light on its provenance. “That clock was donated to the synagogue when it was first established,” he said. “Like almost everything else here, it is the same age as the synagogue itself.”

As a descendant of the founders of the synagogue, the younger Mr. Samuels is busy these days sharing local Jewish history with a growing number of visitors. The US-educated 32-year-old also operates a travel agency, Myanmar Shalom Travels, which offers, among other packages, a nine-day Jewish Heritage Tour.

The synagogue itself dates back to the mid-1890s, when it was built to replace a smaller wooden structure. The interior is quiet, spacious and well-lit, with a high ceiling and a second floor that is open in the center, offering a view of the area below where the congregation gathers for prayer.

From Heyday to Decline

Myanmar religion
A view of the inside of the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in downtown Yangon. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

Although everything seems in excellent condition today, at one time the synagogue was in a state of disrepair; in May 2008, when Cyclone Nargis struck, it even lost its roof. In some ways, its fate mirrors that of Yangon’s Jewish community, which has suffered a number of serious setbacks over the past century, but remains strong, if much diminished in size.

In their heyday during the years of British colonial rule, Yangon’s Jews played a notable role in the city’s commerce, owning many large shops and companies. The community also distinguished itself intellectually, producing many doctors and scholars.

But all that changed in 1942, when Japan’s Imperial Army invaded Myanmar. Local Jews were suspected of spying for the British and some were detained and interrogated, so most of the community decided to
flee. However, even during these trying times, around 1,000 remained.

When the war ended, things began to look much better for the country’s Jews.

Soon after Myanmar regained its independence in 1948, it established
friendly ties with Israel, and in 1955, then Prime Minister U Nu became the first foreign leader to visit the newly created Jewish state.

In December 1961, then Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion paid homage to this relationship as he departed for a state visit to the country then still known officially as Burma.

“In all of Asia, there is no more friendly nation to Israel than Burma,” he declared. “Israel and Burma are two old countries with old histories which renewed their independence in 1948. Both are democratic and both follow the same principle in foreign relations—promoting friendly relations and mutual aid with all peace-loving countries irrespective of their internal regimes and without injuring the interests of any other country.”

But Myanmar would not be democratic for much longer: On March 2, 1962,
the military seized power in a bloody coup and imposed a rigid socialist system that was devastating for what was left of the local Jewish community.

Many lost their businesses to nationalization, and the deeply xenophobic brand of nationalism fostered by the new regime forced most to flee to the US or the UK via neighboring India.

A Prayer for Peace

Now, more than 50 years later, Yangon’s few remaining Jews continue to play a role in fostering a spirit of unity that transcends religious and ethnic differences. Every year during Hanukkah—the eight-day Festival of Lights in December—the synagogue invites members of other faiths, as well as diplomats and government officials, to light the menorah, the nine-branched candelabrum that is the central symbol of this important Jewish holiday.

“It is a ceremony to pray for peace, and for freedom to believe. Leaders from other religions come to light the candles, including Muslim leaders,” explained Mr. Samuels. “This [religious harmony] is what we need in Myanmar. Even though we are a religious minority here, we don’t want to stay out of it when the country is facing religious conflict.”

Despite the troubles they’ve experienced over the years, Myanmar’s Jews know they are nothing compared to those of Israel, a country that has rarely known peace in its 66 years of existence.

“When we Jews meet each other, we like to say that the longer the egg
is boiled, the harder it becomes,” said Mr. Samuels, explaining how the Jewish people have managed to endure the many challenges they have faced.

The key to their survival against such odds, he added, is unity. “As Jews, we believe that we are never alone. For example, even though there are only a few of us living in Myanmar today, we can still cast our vote at the World Jewish Congress every year,” he said.

As he spoke, I noticed a sign on the wall that echoed his sentiments. It read: “A tree in the field stands alone. A man alone in the world would feel lonely. But a Jew need never feel alone during the holidays.”

After more than a century in this country, Yangon’s Jewish community has proven that it has staying power. And as long as it stands together, there is every reason to believe that it will continue to be an important part of Myanmar’s rich cultural tapestry for years to come.