Letter from Myanmar

By | Oct 07, 2011
2010 July-August, International

Joseph’s family eventually moved to the United States, and she never planned to return to the country where she was born. But a few years ago, she learned from Moses Samuels’ cousin, who lives in Australia and is one of her closest friends, that Yangon’s municipal authorities were threatening to move the cemetery where her father and nearly 700 other Jews are buried. “I felt compelled to visit my father’s grave before that happened,” she tells me. This past January, as part of a tour organized by Myanmar Shalom Travels & Tours, Joseph went to Burma for the first time since she fled 50 years ago. While many large commercial enterprises have been nationalized, small private businesses such as Myanmar Shalom, founded in 2005 by Sammy and Moses, are allowed to operate. Moses is the nominal director, but Sammy is the real force behind the company’s dual mission: to preserve Myanmar’s Jewish legacy and to help open up the insular country through tourism.

I meet Joseph at the reception at the Park Royal, where she reports that she has located her father’s grave. She has also found the house where she and her family once lived. “I am happy to be back amongst the Burmese people,” she tells me. “Their kindness and generosity are as I remember them, and I admire their resilience so much.”

Both the Joseph and Samuels families are descendants of Baghdadi merchants who migrated to India and across Southeast Asia in the 19th century. Although some Bene Israel and Cochini Jews from India made it to Burma in the early 1800s, serious Jewish settlement didn’t begin until after the British conquered Rangoon in 1852. It was then that a wealthy Baghdad-born merchant, David Sassoon, set up trading empires in Bombay, Shanghai and Singapore and sent a mission to Burma in search of teak.
According to the late Ruth Fredman Cernea, an anthropologist and author of Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma, the Sassoons probably underwrote Rangoon’s first small synagogue. Built in the 1850s, it stood near the Sule Pagoda, an ancient temple that is said to contain a strand of the Buddha’s hair.

By the turn of the century, more than 500 Baghdadi Jews had settled in Burma, mostly in Rangoon. They lived primarily on Dalhousie and Mogul streets, near the synagogue, trading in coffee, alcohol, timber, teak and other goods, and serving as customs officials. Arabic, Judeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew characters) and English were the primary languages, though it was not uncommon for Jews to learn Hindi or Burmese. Hebrew was generally reserved for the synagogue. Life was good for most Jews, writes Cernea, with the rich supporting the poor through the charitable funds of the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, which replaced the original synagogue in the mid-1890s. Some Jews became notable public figures: Judah Ezekiel, an employee of the British East India Company and philanthropist, had a street named for him, and David Sophaer was Rangoon’s mayor in the 1930s.

Descendants of the Burmese Jews look back fondly on their families’ years here. “My mom talked about Burma all of the time,” says Stuart Spencer, a U.S. expatriate living in Hong Kong, where he serves as senior vice president of the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. “The Jews flourished under British rule. She said those were the glory days. It was safe, the community was tight, there were good interreligious and ethnic relations, and there was freedom.”

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