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A Jew goes to Burma

August 3, 2009 – 9:00 pm17 Comments

by Sibella Stern

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue*

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue*

Burmese demographics are mind boggling; in a land heavily devoted to Buddhism, you will nevertheless be woken every morning by the Muslim call to prayer. Your 16 hour bus ride (which you will spend on a plastic chair) will stop repeatedly to pay tribute to the millions of nats (animistic spirits) that seem to rule your fate. You will eat a bizarre and wonderful mix of Chinese and Indian food with a splash of Thai, followed by Shan or Karen sweets (you will be fed to bursting point.)

Unbeknownst to some, Burma has a Jewish Community – actually it has two. I don’t refer to transient Israeli mercenaries, missionaries or misfits. In the North of Burma (near the Indian border) live a people, who legend has it, are descendants of the Tribe of Menashe. However, in the capital, Rangoon, the dwindling population largely descends from Jews who first immigrated from India in the 18th century (Baghdadi Jews, as well as other Jewish Indian ethnic groups).

Once a wealthy, influential and booming community whose resources boasted the exquisitely oriental Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, a Jewish school, and a cemetery of 700 graves; the community sits now on the precipice of extinction.

At the outbreak of World War Two, the population of over 2000 became weary. Fearing the invasion on Germany’s ally Japan, and the rumors they’d heard from the other side of the world, a slow but steady exodus began. Today, there are four families who remain.

When I arrived at the synagogue to meet its devoted caretaker Moses Samuels, a couple from Israel was undertaking a roots tour. We visited the cemetery first. When I try to describe the cemetery, I have to delete and re-write, delete and re-write; and the word I keep typing is “decay”.

I traced my finger across the head stones, painstaking inscribed with scrawling Hebrew text; I traced the gradual replacement of Hebrew text with English, presumably marking the moment in history when the last Hebrew writer left the community. Moses battled a ramble of aggressive hedge, working its way stealthily across the graves of the Israeli family’s loved ones.

Down the road, we found the house where the Israeli woman was born. A sprawling property, the building hadn’t changed a day from the tattered photo in her hand. The front is a residential area; the back was once her father’s ice factory. Now a primary school, the guard got antsy when we tried to take photos. “The government doesn’t like it much” he told us.

I met Moses’ daughter: a beautiful, Burmese 20-something and wondered about her future. For one thing, it made me stop whingeing about the “Jewish gene-pool” in Melbourne.

Sibella is a deeply restless global citizen with an interest in sexual slavery (an academic interest of course), music, writing and quizzing people about difficult or definitive moments in their lives. In her spare time, she daydreams about which of her family members would make the ultimate Amazing Race partner. Today it’s her sister.

* Photo courtesty of HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library © Jono David Media

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