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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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17 Comments »

  • frosh says:

    Hi Sibella,

    I’ve alway enjoyed encountering small Jewish communities in seemingly remote parts of the world; but I’d be interested to hear what led you to Burma?

    Interestingly enough, my first ever martial arts instructor (from when I was a child) was a Burmese Jew. Ah, Ezekiel (‘Zeek’) Daniels, where are you now?

  • eli says:

    Thanks Sibella,
    It great to have some “fresh” writing here. There are many such communities (the lost tribes) all over the world and i always read about them with great interest. Thanks for letting us know about your own personal discovery

  • SBS says:

    dude,
    This is a crazy not-so-coincidence! One day at shul, some guy was telling me about his Burmese Jewish martial arts instructor, and I immediately planned a trip. I also immediately forgot who had told me about his Burmese Jewish martial arts instructor (and i’ve asked every male friend if they were my forgotten source, since.)

    *serious political/human rights bit*
    The decision to ignore Aung San Suu Kyi’s requests for foreign tourists to boycott travel to Burma was a difficult one but as an aid worker, i felt that bearing witness to the extreme poverty and inequality was the best possible contribution i could make to a brighter future for Burma. (Let me at this stage, point out that Burma is ruled by a military junta, who refuses to acknowledge the rightful rule of the democratically elected Aung San. The junta’s stranglehold is crushing; ethnic minorities live in constant fear of military aggression, and the collection of imprisoned so-called political dissidents – including Buddhist Monks and Karen children – swells to a crowd with each passing day. The junta itself bases foreign and domestic policy on mystical flights of fancy; why do Burmese, right-hand-drive vehicles drive on the right of the road? (Apparently) a fortune teller told Than Shwe that the country was “going in the wrong direction”. And, if you believe Saturday’s The Age, Burma will soon have the bomb. Fun times await.

    *less serious bit*
    You’re right. That Jewish communities exist in cities whose names we can’t pronounce is magical. And the fact that i felt so utterly at home there, even more so.

  • cyberjew says:

    Hello to one and all,

    In case anyone isn’t aware, there are a number of families of Burmese Baghdadi Jewish origin in Sydney, who are a part of the broader Iraqi Jewish community (who mostly came from India, but also from Singapore and other parts of South-East Asia, with very few arriving directly from Iraq). The “Baghdadi” communities in India and South-East Asia also included Jews from Persia, Syria (mostly Halab) and the Yemen (‘Aden), but these mostly adopted Baghdadi customs and habits and considered themselves members of that community. Despite the decline of these communities in Asia itself, there are still a number of communities worldwide – mainly in England, Canada and Australia (yes, mainly in Sydney) – that continue the rich traditions of these communities. Often their customs reflect older Baghdadi traditions that were to be forgotten in other Iraqi communities worldwide, particularly in Israel.

    Just a quick word of musar, for which I would like to half-apologise already before spoken, but which I think is necessary: Australian Jewry is both numerically and culturally dominated by Askenazim, and (we – yes, I am a “vus-vus”* myself) Ashkenazim can tend to be rather parochial. I have sometimes been shocked with the parochialism of Ashkenazi Jews in Australia when it comes to those Jews who suprise us with practices and expressions of Jewishness that differ from those of the majority (and yes, that will always be a problem with majorities). Just as we try to learn more about the world in all its wonderful colours, we must also make an effort to know the rich Jewish traditions of non-Ashkenazi Jews who are such an important and active part of our own communities. “Kol hattorah kullah niqreth shirah” – “the whole Torah is called a ‘song'”; Jewish culture has many different voices, and all are deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world, whether those voices sing in an Indian, Polish, Hungarian, North African, Burmese or Yemeni accent.

    Shkoyakh for a thoughtful, interesting and sensitive piece Sibella!

    Brukhes and hatzlukhes,

    Cyberjew.

    *”Vus-vus” is a mildly derogatory, mildly affectionate term used by a lot of Mizrahim to denote Ashkenazim, rather obviously derived from our propensity to respond to statements and questions (particularly when posed with an unfamiliar accent) with the Yiddish “Vus?!”

  • The Hasid says:

    I didn’t know that there were families of Burmese Baghdadi Jewish origin living in Sydney. Or the phrase vus-vus. Two interesting tidbits! Thanks, cyberjew.

  • cyberjew says:

    Anytime, Khusid.

  • Ezra Ezekiel Solomon says:

    I am the son of Ezekiel Solomon who with his brother Ephriam owned the house and factory at Godwin Road, Rangoon, Burma. I am one of 10
    children, my eldest brother killed in the first air raid by the Japanese. He is buried in the Jewish cemetry under the name Solomon Solomon. We fled to India on the last ship out and returned to Burma in 1946. Who is this Israeli who claims her father was the owner of the same property? I would be interest to know more about her claim.

  • Ezra Ezekiel Solomon says:

    …I would add, my memories of attending the magnificent synagogue
    as a boy with my father excells any other experience in my life.

  • SBS says:

    Hi Ezra,

    I’d love to chat more with you about this!

    Drop me a line;

    sibstern@hotmail.com

  • Ezra Ezekiel Solomon says:

    …on the subject of Ashkanazi. There is no doubt that they consider themselves “superior” to the Sephardi (my general reference to Jews other than Ashkenazi)…as such this attitude is a sick joke given that Ashkenazi are said to originate from Khazar converts. The arrogant attitude of Ashkenai is too often swept under the carpet…it cannot be sanitised by platitudes and sweet talk…written in the name of calling a spade a spade…Shalom.

  • Ezra Ezekiel Solomon says:

    to Galus…re your comment on my last post, you say: “your comment is awaiting ‘moderation'”..you gotta be kidding!!..how “nice” does one have to be??..it’s as “clean” as it gets..the”topic” introduced by cyberjew, August 7 2009 is being responded to. Do I detect a snide way to discredit my post..and why publish it anyway?? Shalom.

    [Eds: Your comment was not manually selected to await moderation. Sometimes our filter automatically selects comments (based on an algorithm) to ‘await moderation’. Once your comment was seen by an editor, it was immediately approved].

  • Ezra Ezekiel Solomon says:

    Hi Sibella. I’ve responded to your email by same. I look forward to
    hearing from you. Ezra.

  • Ezra Ezekiel Solomon says:

    to Ed..thank you for the explaination. Strange that it was published
    anyway prior to it being seen. No big deal, just curious..Shalom

  • Ezra Ezekiel Solomon says:

    ….what!! no responses to my posts!! maybe I struck a painful chord
    with Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike….neither side should be bashful,
    it’s what it is….face it, it will “make you free”

  • rosa katan says:

    Hi, I live in London. My dad was born in Rangoon Burma and I want to travel to Burma. What would be the best and safest way to travel to Burma.

  • ezekiel daniel says:

    Frosh above is my email I am still in Perth sayagyi ezekiel Daniel

  • frosh says:

    Great to hear from you after all these years! What a nice surprise! I’ve sent you an email to the address you supplied.

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