HOUSE OF THE WEEKmore
Last Jews seek salvation in tourism
(Volume 26, No. 512)
Top: Inside the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue. Above: A man walks past the synagogue – the only one in Myanmar – on 26th Street in downtown Yangon. The US-ASEAN Business Council is providing funds to restore and maintain the synagogue. Pics: Christopher Davy
THE story of Sally Joseph’s family would be familiar to anyone in Yangon’s dwindling Jewish community. Her parents were Iraqi Jews, born in Myanmar to second- and third-generation Jewish families, who fled to India after the outbreak of World War II and returned in 1947, quickly settling into the thriving, 3000-member community.
They had three children; Ms Joseph, the eldest, was born in 1948. When she was nine, her father died and was buried in Yangon’s Jewish cemetery, leaving a 26-year-old widow.
And then, like most of Myanmar’s Jews, the Josephs left.
“We all left for London, England in 1960,” Ms Joseph, 61, told The Myanmar Times.
“Ten years later, we emigrated to the United States,” she said. “My mother is 78 years old now. She is a very strong, independent and remarkable human being.”
In December, Ms Joseph returned to Myanmar for the first time in 50 years.
“I decided to return to Myanmar because the Jewish cemetery in Yangon will be moved and I wanted to visit my father’s grave before that happens. I was also hopeful that I would find my other ancestors there,” said Ms Joseph, whose tour was organised by local company Myanmar Shalom Travels and Tours.
“I took the opportunity to see some of the country, which I was too young to do when I was living here.”
“It was exciting and a little surreal to be back. There was a sense of familiarity even though I had been away for 50 years,” said Ms Joseph, who visited Yangon, Inle Lake, Kalaw, Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin, and Bagan on her 13-day trip.
“Unaware of what to expect on this trip, I kept an open mind. I discovered that being among the Myanmar people makes me feel happy because they are always smiling.”
At the conclusion of Ms Joseph’s trip, a dinner reception was held at Parkroyal Hotel Yangon to discuss the future of the Myanmar Synagogue Project and other issues facing Yangon’s Jewish community, which today has less than 20 members.
The Myanmar Synagogue Project, funded by the US-ASEAN Business Council and private Jewish donors, will oversee maintenance and restoration of the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in downtown Yangon.
In attendance at the January 6 reception were Israel’s ambassador to Myanmar, Mr Yaron Mayer; US-ASEAN Business Council counsellor, Ms Frances Zwenig; and Yangon synagogue trustee and caretaker, Mr Moses Samuels. There were also other Jewish travellers, including Mr Stuart Spencer, whose family left Myanmar during WWII, and Myanmar enthusiast Ms Ellen Mayer.
Ms Zwenig is the driving force behind the synagogue project. After visiting Myanmar in October 2006, she applied to the US Treasury to establish a fund to help maintain the synagogue, the only one in the country.
“When we returned to Washington from our visit we decided to do something to help. We faced difficulties trying to get through the financial systems to get money in to the country for the project. Around that time, the now-deceased Professor Ruth Cernea had written a book about the community and the synagogue, and word got out, and thanks to that we have had many contributions for the fund,” Ms Zwenig said.
Another aspect of the project will be the relocation of Yangon’s Jewish cemetery, in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township, which will be carried out according to religious law.
“The synagogue is a glorious building that requires constant attention, and we are very concerned that the existence of the cemetery is in jeopardy, so we are going ahead and constructing a new one. Although, we do not expect anybody to be buried in it, which is strange,” said Mr Spencer, an American citizen who lives and works in Hong Kong and is a donor to the project.
Mr Sammy Samuels, marketing director of Myanmar Shalom Travels and Tours Company and Mr Moses Samuels’s son, said that while it was unlikely there would be a large-scale revival of Yangon’s Jewish community, interest from foreign travellers could ensure its legacy is not forgotten.
“Being such a small community makes it very difficult to get together to celebrate holidays and do so many other things,” Mr Samuels said.
“In 2005 we started Myanmar Shalom Travels and Tours to try to get more Jews and also gentiles to come and see the synagogue and the community in Myanmar,” he said.
The Jewish community in Myanmar numbered more than 3000 before WWII, with most members originally hailing from Iran, Iraq and England, he said. Most left when Japan invaded in 1941 and although many returned after the war, they soon realised business opportunities were scant and emigrated permanently, often to newly established Israel.
“The Myanmar Jewish community was of great value for the society in Yangon. The community donated local schools, libraries, hospitals and health for [Myanmar people] and contributed to society in many different ways,” he said.
“The synagogue in downtown in Yangon, the Jewish cemetery with over 600 gravestones, and Jewish schools with over 200 students – this shows that Jews were very comfortable in Myanmar for many years,” he said.
Ms Mayer, a professor of psychology and counselling at California State University in the United States, was making her fourth visit to Myanmar since 2004 and came as part of a nine-person tour group.
“I have become fascinated by the history and culture of Myanmar and that is why I keep returning, to experience the sites, the beauty of the land,” said Ms Mayer.
“I felt such awe when I arrived – my first stop was the Shwedagon Pagoda and I could not believe the majesty of what I was seeing. There is nothing like it in the US, nor in other places that I have been. I felt that we could wander among the buildings forever,” she said.
“As a Jewish person, I have read about and studied the Jews of Myanmar and visiting the synagogue was a wonderful and enriching experience,” she added.
Ms Mayer said a real draw for tourists was the ease of travel and the beautiful and luxurious hotels. However, people outside Myanmar often do not realise how alluring the country can be, she said.
“Often people are afraid to visit here, they do not know if they will be safe. The country really needs an excellent public relations and marketing campaign to advertise what it has to offer, it would attract tourists and help the tourism industry grow,” she said.
Mr Spencer, who was making his second trip to Myanmar and came as part of the synagogue preservation project, agreed the country had a great deal of tourism potential.
“My first impression was of the warm people and storied history in Myanmar,” he said. “And, of course, Bagan is just amazing.”