In the period before World War II, Myanmar was home to 2,500 Jews, most of whose forefathers had arrived in the country from India and the Middle East. But after that, their numbers shrank. They left Myanmar because of, firstly, the Japanese occupation; and then because of the military seizing power in the 1960s, which soon led to nearly all the country’s businesses being nationalised.
Now very few Jews remain. According to one estimate I saw, the country has ‘fewer than 20’.
There’s still, however, a synagogue in Myanmar. Located in a back-street in central Yangon, the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is a charming monument to the country’s once-thriving Jewish community and it’s now listed as one of the capital city’s ‘Heritage Buildings’. It was built between 1893 and 1896, to replace a wooden synagogue that’d been erected on the site 40 years previously. Small, tidy and strangely serene (given the bustle of the street outside), visiting it is a pleasant way to spend a half-hour. And, as you read the information on display about the community that the building served and that has now all-but-disappeared, it’s a rather moving way to spend the time as well.
I read on Wikipedia that at one time Myanmar’s Jews possessed 129 Sifrei Torah, i.e. copies of the Torah that are written on scrolls and used during services in Torah-reading rituals. Now only two of these seem to be left. They’re kept in a curtained-off section at the back of the synagogue, which is presumably the end of the building that faces Jerusalem.
As though to underline the sense of decline and loss that the synagogue can’t help but evoke, I read later that Moses Samuels, the man who for 35 years had acted both as the synagogue’s caretaker and as the leader of the tiny remaining Jewish population in Myanmar, had died on May 29th, 2015 – just a week before I made my visit. Still, on a more positive note, his son Sammy has now taken on the role of synagogue caretaker from his late father. Let’s hope that this is one family tradition that continues to survive.