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The last Jew of Burma?

by: Gal Beckerman - Last updated: 2003-10-02

Last Jew of Burma?

Sammy Samuals

Sammy Samuels is bashful on the subject of finding a Jewish bride. A freshman at Yeshiva University in New York, he says he hasn’t started looking yet. Maybe he should. The future of his dwindling Burmese Jewish community depends on it.

Over coffee at a Greenwich Village café, Samuels talks passionately about Burma (now known as Myanmar), a country to which he longs to return. Besides himself and his two sisters—both in their 20s—Samuels says the eight-family Jewish community consists only of elderly people.

Samuels, 23, who also goes by the name of Aung Soe Lwin, grew up in the capital city of Rangoon (now known as Yangon). In his backpack, he keeps glossy postcards he made of the Rangoon synagogue and cemetery. The synagogue’s interior is cavernous and whitewashed, with wooden pews and a protruding bimah at its center. The cemetery is a jumbled collection of crooked tombstones overgrown with grass. Sammy’s father, Moses Samuels, serves as caretaker of the synagogue and the cemetery’s 700 graves.

When the day came for Samuels to attend college, going abroad was his best option. The universities in Myanmar are controlled, as is everything, by the military dictatorship that has ruled the country since the 1960s. An American Jewish tourist who visited the synagogue e-mailed Samuels an application to Yeshiva University in New York. Samuels applied and won a scholarship.

"I had to do what I had to do," said Samuels, whose dark features and narrow eyes mark him out as Southeast Asian, but whose speech is already sprinkled with Hebrew words and New York expressions. "It was also important for the community. We need someone who is educated in Jewish studies."

Sephardic Jews first settled in Burma in the early 18th century. They came from various spots along the spice route—particularly Iraq, Iran, and India—first as itinerant merchants and traders, and later, finding Burma friendly to their economic activities, as settlers. When the Japanese occupied Burma during World War II, many of the country’s 2,500 Jews fled for the United States, India, and Australia. After the war, the already-depleted community suffered from further immigration to Israel and intermarriage. The military dictatorship that later took power was tolerant of minorities but nationalized most businesses, further compelling Jews to leave.

"It’s really hard being in such a small community," Samuels says about Rangoon. "Every Shabbat here [at Yeshiva], everybody eats together, all your friends. And you feel like a Shabbat feeling. But when I am in Burma, in a big synagogue where it’s only me and my father, it is really sad, difficult to get used to. Here there are hundreds of people and in Burma it is only me and my father."

By all accounts, the precedent set by other small Jewish communities in Southeast Asia does not bode well for Burma’s Jews. According to Nathan Katz, a religious studies professor at Florida International University and an authority on Jews in Asia, Sammy’s dreams of returning to Burma and building up the community are "sentiment more than anything else, because there is really nothing left there." Katz adds that, "Unless there is serious intervention from outside to shore up crucial community institutions like Jewish newspapers or community centers, there is not much hope."

But according to Ruth Cernea, an anthropologist who is writing a book about the Rangoon Jewish community, Samuels provides some hope of preserving the community’s rich tradition. "It is an act of extreme fortune for this wonderful tradition and for Jews in general that Sammy is the one to inherit all this," Cernea said. "He is very bright, capable and emotionally attached to the place."

Samuels is indeed committed to making sure that the Burmese Jewish community doesn’t go down without a fight. "People say it’s going to die out. But I am sure it is never going to die out," he says. "As long as my generation—me—wants it, it will continue."

First published in New Voices
Gal Beckerman is a student at Columbia University School of Journalism.