Letter from Myanmar
For most of their history in the country, Burma has been, as Ruth Cernea once wrote, “a tolerant home for the Jews.” To this day, Burmese Jews and their descendants zealously protect Burma’s reputation, stressing that any wrongs done to the country’s Jews were either perpetrated by the Japanese or stemmed from the Jews’ perceived Britishness. For the most part, anti-Semitism has been absent here. Even the looters who targeted the synagogue and other Jewish sites during World War II and then again in the aftermath of Israel’s Suez War of 1956 seem to have been forgiven. “Life in Burma as Jews was never threatened,” says Sally Joseph. “Everyone co-existed peacefully.” And Mayer claims in his speech at the Park Royal that “the term anti-Semitism is unknown here.”
Relations are cordial with Yangon’s Muslim community, which makes up five percent of Myanmar’s population. There is no security at the synagogue, which sits peacefully in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood and is surrounded by mosques and Muslim-owned shops, many of whose proprietors rent from Moses Samuels. Hundreds of Muslims attended Sammy Samuels’ bar mitzvah, conducted by then-Israeli Ambassador Ori Noy almost 17 years ago, and Mayer, tagging along with the elder Samuels, says he recently attended—and felt welcomed at—a Shi’ite festival.
For the time being, the most pressing issue for the descendants of the Baghdadi Jews of Burma—and one that has helped bring the Jewish diaspora back together—is the fate of the cemetery. The city of Yangon first attempted to relocate the Jewish cemetery back in 1997, when it moved to prohibit most burials inside the city limits. Up north in Mandalay, the Muslim and Jewish cemeteries have both been bulldozed, according to Cernea. But there is hope that the Yangon cemetery will be moved. “The authorities have come to every community in Rangoon and offered plots of land outside the city to build new cemeteries,” explains Spencer, who is working with Moses and Sammy to raise funds for the new cemetery.
Over mohinga, a spicy fish soup, at the luxurious Strand Hotel, Spencer—who is related to Sally Joseph—tells me that he also wants to renovate the mikveh, which is just outside the synagogue. “Moses showed it to me yesterday, and when the light came on, I saw it was decrepit,” he says. “It was a dark, wet hole.” He worries that if the Burmese Jews and their descendents don’t take action quickly, the task of preservation will fall to outsiders. “Chabad came here, as well as a few other groups, and wanted to put a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the synagogue, but Sammy said no way.” When I ask Sammy about this, he replies, “Whatever changes, I want to pray the way we pray. It is a Sephardic synagogue, and we will keep our tradition.”
Later Sammy and I meet at the western-style Café 365 beside the Park Royal Hotel. He will be traveling back to New York soon but explains that his work for Myanmar Shalom allows him to stay connected to Burma while he remains in the U.S. “I want to do tourism,” Sammy tells me. He thinks that Myanmar will begin to open up in four or five years. “With my education and being Burmese I think I am in a good position to help bring that change.”
Sammy has stayed remarkably calm under tremendous social pressure to personally repopulate the Jewish community. He stays mum about his private life but assures me that Burma is his home. “I’m definitely planning to come back to Burma after I get my M.A.,” in business. Whether or not he has offspring, he believes there can be a Jewish revival in Myanmar. “When the country opens up, many businesses and Jews might settle here, and our community could actually grow.”
Jeremy Gillick is a graduate student in history at the University of California, Davis. His work has appeared appeared in The Forward, Tablet and London’s The Jewish Chronicle. He was Moment’s 2008-09 Harold S. White Fellow.