May 6, 2004
A Piece of Familiarity
Myanmar, tucked in the middle of Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh, has had a rather turbulent history that continues today. Travel there would not appeal to those less inclined toward adventure, but my husband and I prefer such destinations. So, we boarded Myanmar Airways International in Bangkok and flew into Yangon International Airport, where we deplaned to find members of the national military waiting to "greet" us. Their job, among other things, was to make sure that we exchanged the obligatory $200 for their local currency before we could retrieve our luggage.
After finding our guide -- a very intelligent, educated and charming young man -- we loaded up and set out for our hotel. He began to tell us a bit about his country, formerly called Burma. About 90 percent of the population is Buddhist, and Myanmar is home to one of the greatest man-made wonders of the world, the Shwedagon Pagoda. But we were amazed to learn that in Yangon (formerly called Rangoon), a city of 4 million people, there is a synagogue.
I was compelled to find this place and, before we went any farther, I asked our guide to please take us there. We parked a block away and walked through a bustling Islamic neighborhood. Then we came upon the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue. We wanted to go inside, but the gate was locked. With that, our guide walked back down the street, somehow found the Islamic shamas, or caretaker, who helps to maintain the synagogue, and he gladly came to let us in. He then asked in Burmese if we would like to meet Mr. Samuels, who manages the congregation. We of course said yes, and were asked to wait in a small open side office.
Now this was amazing. As we looked around and saw all things familiar, including pictures of their last Chanukah celebration, we realized that in this far away land, we were anxiously waiting to meet one of our own. Within five minutes Moses Samuels walked through the gate. Dressed in the typical longyi, or wrapped fabric "skirt" worn by all men and women in Myanmar, he also donned a small kippah on his head. He invited us to sit down in his office and we told each other a bit about ourselves.
Thank heavens his English was very good. We came to learn that the Jewish community of Yangon (and all of Myanmar, for that matter) consisted of eight families whose combined numbers equal 23. We found it most interesting that this Sephardic Jew was third-generation Burmese. Although there is no longer a rabbi, Samuels told us that he and his 20-year-old son (now the fourth-generation Jew to be born here) open the circa-1854 synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning "in case a Jew should come and want to pray." He proudly told us that with the addition of tourists and some embassy personnel, there were 45 people in attendance during last year's High Holiday services.
We then stood up and walked to the entrance of the synagogue.
With one motion, the doors swung open revealing the magical interiors of this sacred space. The central bimah platform was draped in beautifully embroidered cloths. Samuels proudly pointed out the special front seating for the Koheins and walked us right up to the ark so that we could see the silver encased Torah scrolls. There were tables with many different prayer books that had been left by visitors, but the one that surprised us the most was the copy of the old black-covered Union Prayer Book, that has been long out of print from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union of Reform Judaism). There was a chest in the corner where they kept their fine antique Hebrew prayer books and, realizing that they had not been stored properly, I said that I would send information from a friend of mine who works with rare books so that he could lend some advice to better preserve these treasures. It was a wonderful visit and we left a donation to help him support the perpetuation of this once thriving synagogue.
Myanmar is kept isolated from the rest of the world by a strong and controlling military regime. It also holds the distinction of being one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Later that day, as we stood at the base of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important shrine in all of Myanmar, I was taken with the idea that "poor" was not a word that I would ever use to describe this place. There is a richness of spirit that words cannot express. Although this was an afternoon of disparate history, we were surprised to be left feeling a small connection to part of it.
If you would like to send greetings to the Jewish community of Yangon, write to Moses Samuels, Trustee, Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, No. 85 26th St., Yangon, Myanmar.