This is my first blog post regarding my great Myanmar Road Trip adventure that I undertook last year from India to Yangon without availing a flight. I took a car, bus, bicycle, motorbike, train, boat everything possible to complete this challenge. Even though my journey originated from Tamu and the first stopover was Mandalay, yet Yangon stole my heart away. It felt like a home away from home, it was like a mini Kolkata in Myanmar.
When I was noting down the places that I wanted to visit during this road trip, I had stumbled upon the lone standing Synagogue of Myanmar located in Yangon. Similar to that of Kolkata the Jewish population of Myanmar steadily declined after its independence and of course by the formation of the Jewish state of Israel after WWII. Most like that in India started relocating in Israel and slowly over the years, the population was reduced to such an extent that there are now not enough adult male members to have a full service at the Synagogue.
It was my last day in Yangon before I make the journey back to India and I had to visit this Synagogue somehow. In Myanmar, the mobile connection surprisingly is quite good with steady data 4G network connectivity thus locating this place on Google Maps was not that difficult. It was around a 20-minute walk from my hostel and the walk was very memorable as I had to cross-different ethnic sections of the city. The aroma of the food changing from one lane to the other.
Finally, my GPS showed that I was standing at the very lane that the synagogue was located and the only issue was that I was standing on the opposite end of the street. The narrow street looked very old and most of the buildings were clearly pre-independence era. Both sides of the lane were mostly occupied by paint and hardware shops owned by Indian Muslim traders. The lane is quite a long one was without any signage that showed the direction towards the synagogue this is when a long-bearded Muslim paint shop owner came out of his shop and pointed me towards the end of the lane where the synagogue was located. He did not speak a word and neither did he ask me what I was searching for but he knew somehow. Right amongst two paint and hardware shops was a small gate and finally, I had located the last and the only Jewish synagogue in Myanmar.
History of Jews in Myanmar
India and Myanmar had once a long colonial history, which has forever bounded the two countries together. Especially Calcutta (Kolkata) which was once the capital city of undivided India and was a city from where much of the control over Burma was enforced.
In Kolkata, the Jews were primarily Baghdadi Jews who spoke Arabic and were mainly business merchants so it was natural for them to expand their footprints to Burma. On my recent trip to Yangon (Rangoon), I found buildings, which were owned by the Jewish traders similar to that which I had seen in Kolkata while I was doing my research about the Jewish Synagogues of Kolkata.
The majority of the influx of these Baghdadi Jews in Myanmar was during the mid-19th century when there was a vast opportunity for business out here. Most of these merchants and business owners were already working with the colonial British masters in India thus it was very easy for them to work with the same British rulers in Burma also. Apart from the Baghdadi Jews, there was also another section of the Jews known as Bene Israel who were the Jews from the Indian state of Kerala (Cochin) who also moved to Burma in search for an expansion of the busines
Burma was famous for its timber and was a business of choice for these Jewish businesspersons along with this they were also into export of textiles. The local business included that of Icehouses which was a thriving business considering the increasing of shipping channels, which required ice for storage and shipment of perishable goods.
At one point there were nearly 2,500 of Jewish settlers in Burma thus there was an obvious reason why there were not one but two synagogues in the city.
The reduction of the population in Myanmar was primarily due to two reason one being the Japanese occupation of Burma and secondly the formation of the Jewish state of Israel after WWII.
During the Japanese occupation of Burma, the majority of the Jewish population were not trusted and often thought to be allies of the British thus, it became difficult for them to continue with their business. Most of them shifted to Australia, USA, India, etc. since there was still opportunity out here.
After WWII was over and the Jewish state of Israel was formed and for most Jews from India as well as from Burma shifted to Israel as it became more of religious duty for them to be settled in their holy promised land.
The population slowly started dwindling and out of the two synagogues one had to be shut and the remaining one continued to function. Post-independence of Burma there were around 200 to 150 remaining Jews in the city and over the years, that population also declined drastically. So much so that now the only remaining Synagogue does not have a full service since as per Jewish tradition (Minyan) for a full service one would need 10 adult Jews and these 10 adult Jews need to be male over the age of 13 thus in Yangon the service cannot be done due to lack of adult male members. The synagogue has no Rabbi as the last one left in the year 1969.
Now the total Jewish population in Yangon is less than 20 but due to the presence of many expats British and American Jewish, there are quite a few times when services do take place at this Synagogue.
Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue
Musmeah Yeshua (House of Worship) Synagogue is the last and the only remaining of the two synagogues that were once present in Burma (Myanmar). This one is located in the heart of the capital city of Yangon and even though the main entrance is almost lost amongst the paint and hardware shops it’s quite a popular tourist attractions especially for foreign tourists. The other now non-existent synagogue was Beth- El Synagogue opened in the year 1932 but later shut down due to the reduction of the population.
The synagogue is open all days except Sunday thus plan your trip accordingly. There is no entry fee to visit this place but if you wish to contribute then there is a donation box located inside.
I found the architecture very similar to that of Beth- El Synagogue here in Kolkata but in terms of size, it’s a bit smaller. Contrary to the belief, this is not the first synagogue but there was a smaller wooden structure (1854), this was built by an Iraqi architect but this structure was destroyed in a fire and a new one was constructed in the same spot. The present synagogue was inaugurated in the year 1896 the construction of the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue started in 1893 and was completed in 1986 after three years.
Location of Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue
26th Street, (Near Maha Bandula Road Side)
Far from Zion : in search of a global Jewish community by Charles London
The menorah is still lit in Yangon
14th Blue Plaque (Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue)
Myanmar Virtual Jewish History Tour
Yangon Time Machine