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Secret Yangon II: The Lost Tribe

 

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In the wild hills of western Burma, along the border where Bangladesh and India meet, lives the Lost Tribe of Menashe. Until a generation ago they were animists, placating (it would be wrong to say worshipping) the spirits of their ancestors, with whom they remained closely linked through their shamans. The shamans had dreams and visions, and passed on to the people the wishes of the ancestors. Then the shamans started having dreams and visions of a new sort, and from these it emerged that the Kuki Chin were not, despite appearances, a people of Tibeto-Burmese descent with origins somewhere in southern China, but Jews, descendants of the tribe of Menashe, one of the Ten Tribes of Israel carried off into captivity over two and a half thousand years ago and lost ever since. For this the Kuki had the word of the ancestors, and the ancestors should know. This makes them the first of Myanmar's Jews, and the group about whom least is known, for the hills of Chin State are wild and rugged and definitely out of bounds to visitors.

The first recorded Jew in Myanmar was Solomon Gabirol. He became Commissar to the army of King Alaungpaya in the 18th century, and may have been present when his royal master conquered Dagon, down in the delta of the Ayeyarwady, in 1755. Renamed Yangon, meaning End of Strife, it was destined to become the main city of Burma, and the centre of a thriving Jewish community.

In the 19th century the English conquered Yangon and made it the commercial centre of Burma, attracting Jews of the Baghdadi, Bene Israel, and Cochinese communities from Calcutta, capital of the British Empire in the East and one of the great commercial cities of the world at that time. From Calcutta the trade routes stretched westward to Basra, Istanbul, Cairo, the Mediterranean and Europe; to the east the Pax Britannica opened the way to all the ports of the Orient from Singapore to Shanghai. In the early half of the 20th century the Jews of Rangoon (which is Yangon with a British accent) numbered between two and three thousand, with 126 Sifrei Torah, a Talmud Torah, and numerous charitable and communal organisations, as well as a synagogue, a school, and a cemetery on 91st Street.

The Jews occupied a respected position under the English, providing mayors to both Rangoon and to the important city of Bassein. But this very closeness counted against them when the next conquerors arrived in 1942. The Japanese regarded the Jews as identical to the English, and most of Burma's Jews fled to Calcutta. Only a few hundred came back after the war. The reduced community enjoyed a late flowering in the early years of Burmese independence, nurtured by the close personal friendship between Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and his Burmese counterpart, U Nu. But in 1962 a military coup brought Burma under the control of the xenophobic, socialist regime of General Ne Win, which was to last until 1988. While there was no persecution of Jews under Ne Win, life for everyone in Burma became increasingly difficult, and their numbers rapidly dwindled.

A handful of Jews remain in Yangon today. The Musmeah Yeshua synagogue still stands on 26th Street, near the city's main market. I went there one hot and humid morning, asking the Burmese merchants in their stalls if they knew where this place was. "Ah yes," said a man puffing on a Chinese cigarette as he waited for customers to express interest in his selection of sarongs and shirts. "I know it. It's the Indian mosque, isn't it?" His neighbour, an older man offering identical sarongs to an apparently uninterested public, set him right. "No, these people are not looking for the Indian mosque. But, it is near the mosque. Yes. Quite near."

It was indeed quite near, although easily overlooked in the crowed streets. The gates were closed, but not locked. A boy with a broom was sweeping the steps. He motioned me to wait inside the small yard off the street. After half an hour Mr Moses Samuels, caretaker of the synagogue and leader of today's Jewish community in Yangon, arrived with the keys and welcomed me inside.

We looked over the beautifully kept place of worship and its fascinating little museum, hung with sepia photographs of classes from the Jewish school, street scenes from the time when Rangoon streets featured kosher butchers and pukka sahibs wore solar topees. Afterwards, we sat and drank tea in Moses Samuels's office, and he explained to me the problems of the tiny community. It's simply a question of numbers. A minyan (the quorum required for a religious service) can only be obtained with assistance from the Israeli Embassy and Jewish staff from other embassies, and it has been many years since the last regular Shabbat service was held. The community is dying out. The synagogue is located in a predominantly Muslim part of the city, with a number of mosques nearby. These Muslims are of Pakistani or Indian descent, and relations between them and the Jews of Yangon are good. The synagogue receives a trickle of foreign visitors, particularly American Jews visiting Myanmar. Their contributions, plus the support of the Israeli Embassy and some Jewish groups abroad, serve to ensure the continued existence of the little building. But I could not help but feel that I just witnessed the last twilight of an age.

The Lost Tribe of Menashe, on the other hand, are thriving. They want to go to Israel, and their cause has supporters. Since 1993 the Gush Emunim Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip - Kiryat Arba, Ofra, Beit El, Elon Moreh - have sponsored their arrival and placed them on the farms, where they replace Palestinians. Efforts are being made in Israel to assist with the construction of synagogues and instruction in correct Jewish practice. "It is written", says the right-wing Rabbi, who stands behind this movement, " "He will gather the dispersed of Israel and assemble the scattered of Judah" ". Quite a trip for the ancestors.

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Published on 3/16/04

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