In July 2002, New York Times journalist Seth Mydans introduced the only synagogue in Myanmar, which is located in Yangon, as 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.”
The temple is called Musmeah Yeshua, and “lies nestled between Indian paint shops and Muslim traders on a small street near the city center.” The structure is nearly 120 years old, and at one point had 126 scrolls before World War II.
Nearby is a Jewish cemetery that’s becomes covered in lush vegetation, especially during monsoon season. Of the 600 tombs there, the oldest dates to 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.” And when the Times article was written in 2002, the most recent tomb dated to 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 1960s.”
But there are not many Jews left in Myanmar—in 2002 the Times estimated the number to be around 20. Yet for 35 years, Moses Samuels, who presided over the synagogue and the cemetery, like his father and grandfather before him, has made sure the Jewish population and spirit has remained a part of the Burmese cultural fabric, however small. Samuels died on Friday, May 29 after a battle with cancer. He was 65. He is survived by his wife, Nelly, daughters, Dina and Kaznah, and his son, Sammy, who released the following statement:
“For over 35 years he has been taken care [sic] of Yangon Synagogue and the Jewish community. And he made sure [of] keeping the Jewish Spirit alive in Myanmar. He is great person with very good heart. His legacy will continue to live in the hearts and minds of everyone who came across to know him. May Hashem [the Lord] bless his Soul.”
One of the more striking images of Moses Samuels, an Iraqi Jew, comes from Mydans’s article, in which he describes the struggle to form a minyan, let alone house a rabbi:
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.
Tourists used to flock to Myanmar, which is mostly Buddhist, but a repressive junta has led to a drastic fall in the number of visitors of any faith.
Members of the Jewish community are now taking steps to revive tourism to the site.
Moses Samuels and his son, Sammy Samuels, a graduate of Yeshiva University in New York, are among those who hope tourism will be a key to saving the community. Father and son have set up a travel company, Myanmar Shalom, which begins operating in November.
Now, Sammy Samuels—like his father before him, and his grandfather before him, and his great-grandfather before him— will continue to preserve Jewry in Myanmar.
In 2013, he said: “It is the main reason we stick here. We could have closed, we could have moved to other countries. I used to play around here, I had my bar mitzvah here, I had my Shabbat dinner here, I had, most importantly, my wedding here, and that was the first Chuppah in 27 years.”
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Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.