Burmese Jew Shoulders Burden of His Heritage
Seth Mydans/The New York Times
Moses Samuels at the grave of his father, Isaac, with
his son, Sammy, in the Jewish cemetery in Yangon.
July 23, 2002
YANGON, Myanmar — The moss-covered tombstones in the Jewish cemetery here present a collective epitaph for a once-thriving population that has shrunk to just eight families and is now on the edge of extinction.
The oldest tomb is dated 1876, a time when Jewish merchants and traders in teak, cotton and rice were pouring into what was then Burma from Iraq, Iran, Europe and India.
The last is dated 1985, when most of a population that once numbered more than 2,500 had already departed, many fleeing the Japanese during World War II and others leaving when their businesses were nationalized in the 1960's.
Of the remaining 20 Jews who live scattered around Myanmar today, only one young man is likely to marry here, but he will have to travel abroad to find a Jewish wife to carry on his family line.
This last hope for the Jews of Myanmar is Sammy Samuels, 22, a bright and talkative student who already carries on his shoulders the burden of his heritage.
He is the son of Moses Samuels, 52, the caretaker of the country's only synagogue, a well-kept, high-domed building whose brightly lighted chamber seems poised to welcome hundreds of worshipers but is now filled mostly by their ghosts.
It is rare that the synagogue gathers a minyan, the minimum of 10 male worshipers required for a service. On many Friday evenings, only two people come to observe the Sabbath — Moses and Sammy Samuels.
Because the father, whose family is from Iraq, cannot read Hebrew, it is the son — who studied for a year in Israel — who reads the prayers, his young voice speaking for all the generations of Jews who have lived and died here.
It is more than 30 years since the synagogue called Musmeah Yeshua — built in wood in 1854 and rebuilt in stone in 1896 — has had a rabbi.
"Sometimes you feel very lonely, you feel very sad," Sammy Samuels said. "Sometimes it's only me, only me in this big synagogue."
Indeed, much of the companionship the synagogue enjoys comes from its close relations with other religious groups that surround it in this largely Buddhist nation.
The synagogue, with a blue Star of David over its gate, is in the heart of the Muslim district of this capital — once called Rangoon — on a bustling one-way lane jammed with open-fronted shops selling paint, fishing nets, textiles and household goods. Like his neighbors, Mr. Samuels is a retailer, juggling businesses that include furniture and glassware.
"There is no problem with religion here," Moses Samuels said, speaking in English, as many people of his generation can.
On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, his Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and Bahai friends join the feast at the synagogue, bringing their own special treats to share.
"Whatever happens in Israel and America doesn't affect you here," Sammy Samuels said. "Since Sept. 11, people are agitated against America but not really against the Jews."
It is not the government but the Jewish population itself that has brought about its decline. Emigration to Israel has continued, and some of the last families here may follow. Moses Samuels said his own two daughters, who are in their 20's, are also likely to leave for Israel soon. In addition to his three children, there are only two other unmarried Jews in Myanmar, both of them older and neither one likely to marry, he said.
"I could emigrate to Israel really easily," his son said. "But if I do that, who is going to take care of the synagogue after my father, and the cemetery and the Jewish community here? It is a great responsibility for me."
Sammy Samuels is planning to go to New York in August to study for the next few years at Yeshiva University and to look for a Jewish wife who is willing to return with him to Myanmar, he said.
While he is gone, his father might sometimes be alone at Friday prayers. "Maybe he'll read in English," the son said.
The cemetery is just a few minutes' drive away, in the heart of the city, but it seems to be lost in a jungle. It is monsoon season now and the tropical vines and vegetation grow thicker every day, burying the 600 moss-covered tombstones deeper beneath them.
When the rains stop this fall, Moses Samuels will hire workers, as he does every year, to slash away the overgrowth and help him whitewash the tombstones.
The stone dated 1985 is the last that will ever be placed here. In 1997, the government ordered a stop to most burials within the city limits and said all the graves in religious cemeteries would have to be moved to new plots a two-hour drive away.
So far, the Jewish cemetery has not been touched, and Mr. Samuels has no idea when the order to move might come. But he is already preparing the 10,000-square-foot plot that has been marked off for Jewish burials outside the city.
There seems to be a lonely optimism in those preparations. Once the 600 old graves are moved, there will still be room for more burials.
Mr. Samuels's hope is that a new, more liberal Myanmar will emerge some day soon and that it will be an inviting magnet once again for Jewish merchants and traders. The synagogue would once again have its minyan, and the cemetery would begin to fill again with Jews who have settled here.
But here in the former Burma, history takes its time to unfold. Until that thriving new community emerges, it will be up to Sammy Samuels and his future wife and their many sons and daughters to keep his heritage alive.
©Copyright 2002, YANGON JOURNAL/The New York Times