With a population of less than two dozen Jews, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, seems an unlikely place to go to observe Passover. After all, it no longer even has so much as a practicing rabbi. But when I visited the country and saw some of its breathtaking sites and learned more about the country’s rich Jewish heritage, I became interested in immersing myself a bit more in the culture. And when I learned the story of one of Myanmar’s few remaining Jewish families, and their efforts to maintain and even strengthen Jewish traditions, my impulse grew even more – I want to be there during Passover and participate in a communal Seder in this far-flung and exotic locale.
An Idyllic Countryside
Bordered by China, Bangladesh, India, Laos, and Thailand, Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia. A former British colony, Myanmar combines colonial British charm with the exotic culture of the Far East. Here are just a few of the sights I can personally recommend:
- Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capital, is filled with shady parks, tropical trees, and many lakes, earning it the nickname of “the Garden City of the East.” With beautiful turn-of-the-century British architecture juxtaposed against ancient pagodas, it’s an eclectic, lovely city.
- In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, you’ll find the site of the Mandalay Royal Palace, with its wooden pavilions, high palace walls, and moat. It’s also a great place to shop for handicrafts, such as silk weavings, marble, and kalaga tapestries.
- If you like gorgeous beaches, as I do, the oldest seaside resort in Myanmar, Ngapali, claims the country’s most beautiful beach. With its deep blue sea and long silvery beach lined with coconut trees, it’s a great place to stop at sunset with a camera. Nearby is a fishing village where you can watch the boats return after a day on the water.
- Popa rises against the horizon on the road to Mandalay. The top of the volcanic plug is dotted with numerous shrines and an ancient monastery. Best of all, to reach its top and see the beautiful panoramic view, climb a set of 700 steps, with a crowd of monkeys as your companions! No, I couldn’t make this up.
The list could go on – Myanmar’s natural and cultural sites are quite extraordinary. They include vestiges of a long Jewish tradition — an historic synagogue, an old Jewish cemetery, handmade Burmese Jewish handicrafts. But there’s a poignancy to the Myanmar Jewish heritage, as it nears potential extinction.
A Proud Jewish History
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Burma established a Jewish presence, first when merchants from India settled there, and then when Baghdadi Jews seeking their fortunes from trade stopped en-route and were persuaded by the government to stay. The Baghdadi Jews in particular established an influential presence in the country, and a growing Jewish community thrived for years. At its peak, the population was estimated at around 2,500. With a collection of 126 Sifrei and one Talmud Torah, a Rangoon Committee for the Recognition of Israel, a Zionist organization, and a Jewish school, Jewish community and religious life were productive.
With the advent of World War II, fortunes changed. Felt to be British sympathizers, most of the Jewish population was driven out of then Burma by the Japanese. After a 1962 military coup, additional families fled the country.
Today, old Rangoon’s once proud synagogue sits largely empty. Public prayer requires a minyan, only achieved when visitors or Israeli embassy employees are present. Without Hebrew speakers, seldom will one here chants from the Torah, and the community’s been without a rabbi for over 40 years. There aren’t even any kosher food purveyors in the entire country.
One bright note: anti-Semitism does not appear to be a problem in modern Myanmar, described by one historian as “a tolerant home for the Jews.” Burmese Jews, including those who have left, are known for their fierce defense of the country’s reputation.
The Samuels Family
“Every day, my father sits in the quiet synagogue, waiting to greet Jewish visitors and to share with them this rich and unique history … My father posted this sign on the front door of the synagogue: ‘A tree may be alone in the field, a man alone in the world, but a Jew is never alone on his holy days.’” This quote, from Moses Samuel’s son Sammy, is a tribute to a man who has worked almost singlehandedly to keep the candle of Judaism burning in Myanmar. His story has been widely published in Jewish magazines and newspapers around the world.
Samuels has taken upon himself the care and upkeep of the one remaining synagogue in Myanmar’s Jewish community, the Musmeah Yeshua. Built in 1896, the Sephardic synagogue is quite beautiful, with white and blue tiled pillars rising against a backdrop of green stained glass windows. While the synagogue has few visitors, Samuels intends to maintain the building and honor its traditions.
And his son, with a fresh degree from Yeshiva University, plans to find a Jewish bride and return to Myanmar to continue the traditions his father has maintained.
A Seder in Myanmar
Recently, Sammy participated in the family’s celebration of the Passover Seder for the first time in three years. Without young children available to find the hidden matzo, Sammy pitched in and did the honors. Kosher foods were supplied by the Israeli Embassy, whose employees were invited to the Seder and the synagogue’s religious services. Sammy plans to return to his country and preside at future Seders. He has said that as long as his family remains in Myanmar, “there will be a Jewish community.”
So my fantasies have taken wing, and I imagine myself at a ceremonial meal in Myanmar, joining the faithful observers who hold on to its proud religious and cultural traditions. I’d like to help keep the Jewish spirit alive in Myanmar a little longer, in just a small way.
Yes, it’s time for a trip to old Burma. I also want to drink in the lush scenery—perhaps travel by horse cart through the countryside, or take a boat ride to see floating gardens and enjoy the tranquility of this other world. And I really want to see those monkeys again!