Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Shalom, Myanmar: A Jewish Culture Guide

This week we travel to Myanmar, where Jews have settled since the early 18th century

By: Sarah Bauder

Published: July 1st, 2014 in Culture » Society » News

And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.

For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.

It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.

Shalom, Myanmar (Burma)


The first Jew to settle in Burma (present day Myanmar) was one Solomon Gabirol, who served as military commander under King Alaungpaya in the 18th century. By the early 19th century, Jewish merchants from India and Persia settled throughout the region. However, according to Jewish Virtual Library there wasn’t an influx of Jewish settlement, until after the Britain conquered the capital, Rangoon (modern day Yangon) in 1852. The first synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua, was constructed in Rangoon, the 1890’s according to Myanmar Shalom. The Jewish community throughout Burma flourished during this period. In fact, Jews had become so influential, that in the early 20th century both Rangoon and Bassein had Jewish mayors. In this “Golden Age”, the Burmese community had a cemetery, Jewish school, and a second synagogue, Beth El, which was constructed in 1932. The population was estimated to have peaked at roughly 2,500.

Everything changed, however, when Japan invaded Burma in 1941. Most Jews, and members of the British colonial population fled the country after the invasion. Post-World War II, some 500 Burmese Jews (according to Jewish Virtual Library) returned to their homeland for a short period. Upon realizing the community’s “Golden Age” would be no more, said Jews settled in other countries.


In 1948, Burma gained its independence, the same year as the creation of the State of Israel. A year later, it became the first Asian nation to recognize Israel. Thereafter, both countries enjoyed amicable relations until 1962, when a military coup d’état under General Ne Win seized power of the government. The military dictatorship formally ended in 2011.

Today, there are only a handful of Jews (estimates range under 50) residing in Myanmar. Although the community is small, they are strong and proud of their history and traditions. Tourism has played a major role in reviving the Burmese Jewish community. Myanmar Shalom Travels & Tours, for instance, offers a 9 day/8 night “Burma Experience Jewish Heritage Tour”. Some highlights of said tour include: visiting the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, exploring the ancient capitals of Amarapura, Ava, and Sagaing, and traveling by traditional horse-drawn cart throughout the countryside.

Now that the military dictatorship in Myanmar has formally ended, the nation that Rudyard Kipling once described as “quite unlike any land you know” is definitely worth the visit.


Links:

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/myanmar.html

http://myanmarshalom.com/new/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Jewish-Heritage-Tour.pdf

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