Myanmar people celebrate Hanukkah

Florian Guckelsberger
On the trail of lost life

Sammy Samuels is the final steward of Jewish heritage in Myanmar. At the Hanukkah Festival of Lights, he receives visitors from the past and looks into a doubly uncertain future: that of his community and that of his homeland.

By Florian Guckelsberger

Avi Solomon wants to tell his family story, but does not get to it. Sally Tuvel sits next to him in the synagogue, balancing the birth records of Yangon's Jewish community on her knees. "Avi, take a picture of it - this is your grandfather," she interrupts his story and taps an entry. So Avi takes photos before Sally's finger continues to scrutinize the pages of the register.
Half a dozen fans are blowing the humid air around the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, and although it is winter in Myanmar, people are sweating. The warm morning heralds a hot day and the visitors from Australia, Great Britain and the USA are already familiar with the ascent to the Shwedagon Pagoda. But it is also excitement that drives the pulse and tears of emotion mix in the sweat as they walk through the synagogue, exploring their own origins.
Sammy Samuels organized the visit of the eleven-person tour group. The Burmese wears a shirt and delicate glasses, which he pushes up again and again to dab his face. Samuels runs a travel agency and is not only one of the few Jews still living in Myanmar, but also the unofficial spokesman for the small community. Today he has his hands full navigating his guests through Yangon. Pagoda, Synagogue, Cemetery, Downtown and Evening Event. The day is as long as the program is full. And so you have to imagine Samuels as a lonely but also happy person at times. Because although the synagogue attracts around 30 tourists every day, there is only a service on high Jewish holidays - the few dozen Jews still living in Myanmar otherwise rarely come together.
On this Wednesday in December that is forgotten, Samuels in tense high spirits. Because today is not only the highlight of the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, but also a special visit to the city: His eleven guests flipping through the birth register are the children and grandchildren of those Jews who fled Burma in two waves. 1942 for fear of the Japanese occupation and 1962 when the military took power in the country.
“I knew that my mother and some of her siblings were born in Burma,” says Mozelle Friedman, a Jewish woman living in Australia. “But now I've found out that she had two other siblings that my family didn't know about. They died in childhood. ”Later, Friedman's family fled to Calcutta, India, like so many others - illness and malnutrition accompanied the poorer Burmese Jews and one of their aunts died of the privations of escape.

"We are not dying out"

She may never know how Lorna Alexis Ward's parents came to London. She is a special case in the group and grew up without the Jewish faith: It was not until the age of 13 that she found out that her Christian parents had adopted her as a toddler. And it was another 17 years before she asked to see her birth certificate. “The lady in the office wanted to know if I was mentally up to par,” laughs the now 70-year-old. "And then she looks at the paper and says: Your father's name is Brimwin Dennis Sassoon Solomon."
It is only late in life, after the death of her adoptive parents, that Ward sets out to search for traces of her past. “I thought: Now it's okay, now it doesn't bother you anymore. And that's how I found all the clues that brought me here in the end. ”Unlike the family of Mozelle Friedman, whose father made a living as a soap maker, the Sassoon Solomons were one of the most important families of all. "They lived in Grandezza, in the 1920s they drove Rolls Royce and Jaguars, had domestic servants," says Ward and looks as if she couldn't believe it herself: "My ancestors were rich."

But most of the memories of old Burma have become more of fragments over the decades than of such grand narratives. “My mother talked about that narrow wooden walkway over the railroad tracks. She had to cross it on the way to school. She was so scared that her brother had to hold his hand, ”Friedman remembers with a smile on a story her mother told her who died last year. Later, in Yangon's Jewish cemetery, she will discover her great-grandmother's grave, say a prayer and cry.Visitors to Yangon's weathered Jewish cemetery search for the graves of their ancestors. | Photo: © Rajiv Raman It is a quiet spot in the tumult of the big city. The noise of crowded streets, hawkers and cars announcing their horns is only muffled here. Hundreds of stone sarcophagi are the weathered key witnesses of the heyday of Jewish life in Yangon. Avi Solomon uses the opportunity and gets his father, who is too frail for the trip, via Facebook video switch and shows him the rows of graves on his smartphone. The cemetery shows the former size of the community: More than 2500 Jews lived here before the Japanese occupied the country. There was a Jewish quarter, a Jewish school, and a Jewish mayor. Today there is Sammy Samuel. The last entries in the birth register bear his name and that of his sisters.
“We're not dying out,” he says. The hope in this sentence sounds stronger than reality and then Sammy speaks of being alone and his father Moses, who said that true strength lies in faith and not in numbers. Unlike many others, the Samuels have never left the country since they, like most Jews, immigrated from Iraq during the British colonial rule. Even under Japanese occupation and later under the rule of the military, they unlocked the synagogue doors every morning: first Sammy's grandfather, then Sammy's father, and now he himself. And so there is a solemn seriousness in his gaze when he has 200 guests of all in the evening Faiths Welcomed to the Chatrium Hotel. The community celebrates Hanukkah and the fact that it still exists. The new Israeli ambassador, Ronen Gilor, and Yangon's chief minister, Phyo Min Thein, address a few words to the audience. Food and dance follow.
Avi Salomon, Mozelle Friedman, Lorna Ward and the others are right in the middle. The mood is relaxed. In the evening, Ambassador Gilor will say in a conversation that he considers the rehabilitation of the dilapidated and partially overgrown Jewish cemetery to be an absolutely solvable question - despite different plans by the city administration to relocate the graves like those of other cemeteries. "Myanmar is the only country where there is ethnic cleansing and we are doing well," a Jewish guest at the event later commented sarcastically on the situation.

Myanmar society is frayed at its edges

Indeed, the tour group comes to Myanmar in leaden times. The forcible expulsion of the Rohingya from the western provinces of the country to neighboring Bangladesh and the corresponding reporting has thrown the tourism sector of the economically weak country back by years - some of Samuel's Jewish guests were also concerned about whether it was the right time to travel to Myanmar. Because the social networks are riddled with anti-Muslim propaganda that risks peaceful coexistence. The ethnically and religiously diverse society of Myanmar is frayed at its fringes, resentment and the desire for self-determination persist despite the partial political and economic opening of the country.
“It's a tragedy. Not just for us Jews, for the whole country, ”says Samuels. “I was recently asked why I keep talking about freedom of religion, because we Jews are only a small community. As if I were doing this for myself, I mean Muslims, Christians and Baha'i. If we don't talk, things will get worse. ”But even words have spikes. Like the Israeli ambassador Ronen Gilor and other members of the Jewish community, Samuels does not speak of the Rohingya, but of the "Rakhine Affair" - this is how a delicate problem can be avoided in Myanmar: supporters of the government line hold the Rohingya, who have been driven away by hundreds of thousands namely for ethnic Bengali and call them that. Anyone who only talks about their place of residence, the Rakhine State in western Myanmar, cleverly avoids positioning themselves in the conflict. And so it is rather small gestures, not big words, that make clear the unifying activities of the Jewish community.
Like Mohamed Esat. On the morning before Shabbat, the Indian-born Muslim climbs the few steps to the entrance of the synagogue. Careful, because Esat is as old as his lean stature and the wrinkles that play around his shaggy beard would suggest. He reaches for his broom and begins to sweep up the dust of the big city that has collected between the rows of chairs in the house of God. Esat sweeps the synagogue. Has he heard of the Middle East conflict? Esat waves it away. Yes, that will tell him something. But it doesn't interest him. Israel and Palestine are equidistant from Yangon's only synagogue.
Like so many minorities, the Jews of Burma seem to have internalized that the price of their undisturbed existence is the promise of political neutrality. Samuels knows and adheres to the unspoken rules and instead relies on his own concept. He calls it peace through tourism and says: “We need an economy in which people can make a living and work together. Then we forget what makes us different. Regardless of which religion we belong, we then work together towards one goal: That our community is doing well. ”As the owner of a travel agency, he sets a good example, so to speak. That life in the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue comes back to life is more than just a nice side effect for Samuels. In this way he keeps alive his hope that one day there could be a flourishing Jewish community in Myanmar again.
Until then, he keeps the place together.
  • Print article