Keeping the menorah burning in Myanmar

The corner of MahaBandoola and 26th Street bustles with food service, tightly packed fashion stores, teashops and vendors. The cars squeeze by as people weave their way up and down on their daily business. The place is thriving all day, busy enough that unless you knew what you were looking for, you could easily miss it. Look closely, however, and you will find that tiny religious marking that announces the unlikely presence of the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue.

The small sign, and the building it represents, are over 120 years old. There is only a small handful of practicing Jews in Myanmar, and this is where they congregate and hold religious and festive ceremonies. The synagogue was built in 1854 to accommodate the increasing number of Jews emigrating away from the Ottoman Empire, as well as from British India. It was originally constructed out of wood but that structure burned in a fire in the 1890s. It reopened shortly after as the grand neo-classical facaded building that you see today. In 2016, it was awarded a commemorative blue plaque by the Yangon Heritage Trust.

While the size and historical significance of the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue has grown over the building’s lifetimes, the number of congregants has dramatically shrunk. The elderly Mr Sammy Samuels, one of the few remaining Jews in Yangon today, still spends a lot of his time in and around the building, sometimes with purpose, other times just to breathe life into old memories. He can point to specific areas of the synagogue and name weddings that occurred there, or where the old community elders used to sit during ceremonies. Today, it sits mostly silent.

His father, Moses Samuels, was the leader of the Jewish community in Myanmar in his time and trustee of the synagogue until his death in 2015.

“Even back then, if we could get ten Jews together to start the prayer, we considered that a miracle,” Mr Samuels said. Today, he is the default leader of the Myanmar-Jewish community, but spends most of his time alone inside the grand vaulted hall of his place of worship.

During the era of the British Raj and colonial development in Burma, the pull of business, adventure and moderate religious freedom drew Jews, a historically persecuted minority, from far and wide to establish communities in Yangon and Mandalay. They prospered as merchants, small business owners and traders in cotton, rice, timber and other commodities. By 1940, the Jewish community in Myanmar hit its peak at around 3,000 people.

Both Rangoon and Pathein saw Jewish mayors in the early 20th century, such was their community presence. Long forgotten now, Yawmingyi street, Yoaut street and Boyarnyut street once made up “Jewish Town” in the economic capital.

“That was the golden era for Jews in Myanmar,” Mr Samuels said.

The decline began with the Japanese invasion and occupation of Burma. The Jewish community that had not yet fled to the safety of India became suspect to the Japanese, who were allied with Nazi Germany, and found the occupation increasingly untenable for the war-time conditions and threat posed by the hostile occupying army.

Following Burma’s independence in 1948, the new government granted approval for an extension of the synagogue, which no doubt required some rejuvenation after years of war-time chaos and material shortages. The number of Jews living in Myanmar following independence thinned further following the 1962 Tatmadaw coup and subsequent economic downturn. By the end of the century, there were fewer than 50 Jews left in the whole of Myanmar.

“And even then, our numbers continued to shrink,” said Mr Samuels with sadness.

He reported that his strong yearning to build a community back up was even dismissed by his father, the late Mr Samuels, who called Sammy’s plan to hold a public Hanukkah ceremony “crazy”. “How do you properly celebrate Hanukkah with less than even ten people?” Sammy recalls his father saying.

Sammy ignored his father’s pessimism and pushed ahead with the event. In the end, 120 people attended to witness the lighting of the menorah, and that number grew each year after.

“Although we are by far the smallest religious minority in the country, I’m very happy to know I have a responsibility to the community – to keep the heritage alive,” Mr Samuels said.

“Although being the smallest community, I’m very happy and knew that I have more responsibilities to keep the heritage,” Mr Samuels says.

Including the Samuels family, there are nine member of the Jewish community in Yangon and almost ten other members in Mandalay and Pathein. Mr Samuels’s family opened the Myanmar Shalom travel and tours in order to help strengthen the network of Jewish families still in the country.

Being a very little known religion to Myanmar people, he reported that his faith has often caused him bureaucratic difficulties.

“Whether in school or trying to apply for a registration card, when you tell people your religion they have no idea what you mean. What is ‘Jew’, they ask. ‘Is that a real relgion?’”, Daw May Mi Mi reported.

Daw May Mi Mi’s Jewish name is Khana Samuels and she is Sammy’ older sister. If you step to the synagogue in Yangon and hear a “Shalom” called your way, it’s Khana.

“Fortunately for us, being Jewish in Myanmar does not cause any problems. There’s no opposition, we’re free to go about worshiping and maintaining our community,” she said.

The loneliness of their position has been slightly relieved by contact with the outside world and the internet. Today, they maintain relations with many international Jewish communities from Europe and the USA. This also revealed families who have histories in Myanmar but had since left, wanting to return and pay their respects.

“I remember a time when my parents were sitting in synagogue with the congregation; it was a time when we were all happy. I miss that feeling,” Ms Rosie Isaac said.

Ms Rosie is a 65-year-old Jewish woman from England. She had lived in Myanmar but left for England back in the 1960s. She recently returned to Myanmar for the first time in 50 years.

Strength in diversity

Mr Samuels said that he does his best to mix with the people on the street and keep warm relations with his diverse neighbours, which downtown means predominately Buddhists and Muslims. On 26th Street alone there is one Buddhist site and two mosques. The Samuels family accepts invitations to any and all local religious event, and in kind they receive their gentile neighbours into the synagogue to partake of their religious celebrations.

“We live indivisibly,” he said.

“We have always cared about the synagogue because it’s an important heritage building. We guide the tourists there,” said U Tin Sein, a lower business owner near the entrance of the building. The maintenance person of the synagogue itself is a local Muslim man named U Myint Lwin, who’s father before him took care of the upkeep.

“People are very surprised by this,” U Myint Lwin said. “When I explain that we are a big family, tourists want to talk about how happy that makes them”.

Mr Samuels also runs an interfaith tour for students and gives religious education. He sends students to difference places of worship every month.

“Conflict emerges from not understanding one another. If everyone could learn to respect and understand each other, we’d have no more conflicts. I only really want one thing – I want to nurture and grow our heritage and culture for future generations. That’s all,” Mr Samuels said.

Source: Myanmar Times

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