YANGON, Myanmar — Although I studied Burmese as an undergraduate in my birthplace, Japan, I did not have the opportunity to visit Burma until 1998. During that first time in what is now known as Myanmar, I spent four days in Yangon, a former capital of the country. I was astonished by the people’s friendliness, politeness, and positive attitude despite the repressive military government and harsh living standards.
I also found a beautiful 19th-century Sephardi synagogue in the city’s downtown, the country’s only Jewish house of worship. Since then, I have visited Myanmar three more times.
In Yangon, I became friends with the family of Moses Samuels, the president of the Jewish community, who runs Myanmar Shalom, a travel agency with offices in New York and Yangon. This year, he extended an invitation to me to the community’s second annual Hanukka party, which I happily accepted.
Today, 20 Jews from eight families live in all of Myanmar — most descendants of Iraqi traders who arrived during the British colonial age. The center of Jewish life is Musmeah Yeshua, the Sephardi synagogue erected in Yangon by the Iraqis in 1893-96 to replace a smaller wooden structure that was built in 1854. On Dec. 13, close to 150 guests, including government officials, foreign diplomats, and visiting Israeli and American-Jewish businessmen, gathered at the Hanukka reception at Yangon’s Park Royal Hotel. The hope and optimism that are currently spreading though Myanmar made the Hanukka lights on the sixth night of the holiday seem to burn more brightly.
In his remarks at the gathering, Israel’s ambassador to Myanmar, Hagay Moshe Behar, connected the holiday’s universal values with the positive developments in Myanmar since a quasi-civilian regime took power in 2011. He also emphasized the long-lasting friendly relations between the Jewish community, the people of Israel, and the Republic of Myanmar.
Also in attendance were representatives from other nations, the European Union mission, and the United Nations Development Program and religious leaders from the Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i, and Hindu communities.
“We always celebrated Hanukka in Myanmar, but not on this scale,” Sammy Samuels, Moses’s son, told me. “Did you see the deputy minister of religious affairs sitting next to the chairman of the NLD?” The National League for Democracy is the opposition party led by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Deputy Minister U Soe Win, NLD vice chair U Tin Oo, and four others lit the candles. “This was impossible two years ago,” said Sammy, “when it was even dangerous to have contact with the NLD.”
Two years ago, the Myanmar government was transformed from a military to a civilian regime and released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. At the interim parliamentary elections last April, her party won 43 seats.
“The Myanmar Jewish community welcomes the changes and subsequent increase in business opportunities,” said Sammy.
His father established his travel agency in 2002, and Sammy has been representing its New York branch since his graduation from Yeshiva University in 2006. The Samuels family also maintains the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue.
“Until 2010, few people visited this Heritage Building in Yangon,” said Sammy, “but now at least 20 tourists visit the synagogue every day.”
There were 3,000 Jews in the country before World War II but most left by 1969 when General Ne Win nationalized most businesses. Moses Samuels said the Jewish community hopes the positive changes in Myanmar taking place today — which have resulted in an increase in tourism and foreign business visitors — will bring Jews back to the country again.
“There is no anti-Semitism here,” said Moses, “but Jews left after World War II” because most were businessmen and professionals and found they were better off in the United States, Israel, and other places. Moses added that while 89 percent of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist, religious minorities live among them in peaceful coexistence. The synagogue is in the midst of a Muslim neighborhood and its employees are mostly of the Islamic faith. “Without politics, Jews and Muslims can live together,” said Moses.
Although Moses and his family consider themselves Orthodox Jews, it is impossible to strictly follow the laws of kashrut in Myanmar. The cuts of meat closest to being kosher are halal, which the Samuels family buys from local Muslim butchers. When the synagogue hosted 40 Orthodox tourists from New York City in December, Moses flew in sealed kosher food from Bangkok.
Musmeah Yeshua has not had a permanent rabbi for many years, although a Chabad rabbi living in Bangkok visits Yangon several times a year. Fewer than 10 Jews live in Yangon, including the families attached to the Israeli embassy.
Moses and his family, however, are committed to staying and maintaining the synagogue and the tiny Jewish community. He said he hoped that his son and two daughters would find Jewish spouses. “I will arrange marriages for my two daughters,” he said. “Their husbands don’t have to be necessarily Orthodox but they have to be Jewish.”
Israel has had good relations with Myanmar since 1948, when both countries achieved independence. Twelve Israeli businessmen attended the Hanukka reception, and photos documenting the two countries’ relationship, including pictures of David Ben-Gurion’s visit to Myanmar in 1961, were on exhibit at the reception. Israel invites approximately 150 Burmese engineers, businessmen, and students every year under various programs, including some supported by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.