After decades of repressive military rule, Burma’s Jewish community has dwindled to about 20 members. Is there hope for its future? A rare look at life inside the isolated country.
As the sun sets in Burma, now known as Myanmar, a small group of Jews descends on the Park Royal Hotel in downtown Yangon, formerly Rangoon. I arrive unfashionably early, hoping to steal some private time with Sammy Samuels, the debonair Burmese-American host of the third annual Myanmar Jewish Community Dinner Reception. But apparently it is fashionable for Burmese Jews to arrive late, and Sammy is nowhere to be found. At 6:30, tuxedoed caterers begin distributing glasses of Israeli and French wines to guests socializing in the lobby. I chat briefly with Cho, the daughter of Myanmar’s foreign minister, who professes her love for Israel, and then with an impeccably dressed British diplomat who is superb at making small talk. When I ask if I should be concerned about reporting from such a public location, he points to secret police lurking in the corners and suggests steering clear of discussing politics. “Once you’ve lived here a while, they’re easy to spot,” he says.
At last, Sammy himself strides in. Short with a wide face, kind eyes and dark hair puffed up in the front, his relaxed demeanor belies the gravity of the task ahead of him. He is one of perhaps 20 Jews—many of them elderly or intermarried—left in the entire country. Back in 2002, The New York Times dubbed him the “last hope for the Jews of Myanmar,” reporting that he would soon set off for Yeshiva University (YU) in New York, where he hoped to find a Jewish wife who would return home with him. Although Sammy graduated from YU with honors in 2006, today, at 29, he is still single, childless and living in New York City. At his side is his father Moses, 60, who resides in central Yangon with his wife and two daughters. Moses is the patriarch of Yangon’s Jewish community: He has looked after the city’s sole synagogue since his father Isaac, Sammy’s grandfather, passed away in 1978.
Myanmar, the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, is bordered by India to the west and China to the east. A British colony until 1948, it has one of the world’s oldest military dictatorships—going on 50 years and ruling over 50 million people. In 1989, the military regime officially renamed Burma, the English colonial-era name, as Myanmar. When Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the 1990 election, the military nullified the results, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for much of the past 20 years. “It is not an army regime sitting on top of an otherwise civilian state,” writes Thant Myint-U, a historian and former Burmese-American U.N. official, in his 2006 book, The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma. “By the 1990s the military was the state. Army officers did everything. Normal government had withered away,” the grandson of U Thant, the third secretary-general of the United Nations, argues in his book.