the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center
No.14, Autumn 2003
IRAQI JEWS IN THE DIASPORA
A VISIT TO "MUSMEAH YESHUA" SYNAGOGUE
IN YANGON (RANGOON)
Dr. Zvi Gabay
During a visit to Yangon, Capital of Maynamar (formerly Rangoon, Burma), I accompanied the Israeli Ambassador there, (Mr. Yaacov Abrahami) on a visit to "Musmeah Yeshua" Synagogue. Compared to synagogues in Israel, it was of medium size, located in an alley leading to the central market place of the city. It can be reached after braving the pressing throngs of pedestrians, shoppers and tourists.
At the gate of the synagogue, which is surrounded by a tiny courtyard, we were greeted by the custodian of the synagogue and the small Jewish Community, Mr. Moses Samuels, "Blessed are the visitors to 'Musmeah Yeshua' Synagogue". He led us to the Ark of Law, which reminded us of the Ark of a typical Baghdadi synagogue, finished in a delicate antique style. It was well preserved and aroused our emotional admiration. At the center of the synagogue, there was a raised stage, where to the right and left were benches for the worshippers and above them a women's gallery.
The climax of the visit was the Torah Scrolls. I saw 2 scrolls embedded in wooden boxes, covered with beaten silver, designed in the style of the Torah Scrolls familiar to Babylonian Jews. Mr. Moses Samuels told us that to the best of his knowledge, these Torah Scrolls were brought from Baghdad over a hundred years before.
The Jewish community was firmly established there during the occupation of Burma by the British, i.e. in the mid Nineteenth Century. It is said that it began when two Jews accompanied the British occupation army into Burma. Later, along the years, a steady trickle of Iraqi Jews joined them during the peak period. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the community numbered 2,500 persons, who led an active community life.
The names of well known Jews in the community: Sassoon, Solomon and Khadoury decorate the synagogue's walls and attest to the glorious days of the community, which, today, number 20 members of 8 families who still live in the city.
Moses Samuels informed us that originally the synagogue was built of wood in 1854. During the years 1893-1896 it was replaced by a permanent building, erected in Street No. 26, Yangon, the synagogue's present location.
Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue
Originally, the synagogue, like all Baghdadi synagogues, was an Orthodox one. However, after a number of years, especially as the number of the community members dwindled, the synagogue became a mixed one.
Before the Second World War broke out, when the community was at the peak of its existence, marriage and Bar-Mitzvah ceremonies were held there with the participation of most of the community members.
Nowadays, the synagogue is open daily from 9:00 until 12:00 noon. On Saturdays and other holy days the synagogue is open from morning until evening. Since 1969, the community has had no rabbi. The Israeli Ambassador and the Embassy Personnel go to pray there on holy days, lending an Israeli presence to the Maynamar Community. In addition, passing Jewish tourists sometimes join the community in prayer at the synagogue, thus practically helping this small community, who are doing their best to preserve the synagogue, to practice the traditions of Israel away from the homeland.
Many Jews and Israelis who reached Yangon have visited the synagogue, among them President Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan. Their portraits hang on the synagogue's walls.
The Jewish community of Maynamar has also maintained the Jewish cemetery there, which contains about 700 graves. The oldest date carved on one of the tombs is 18.3.1876, indicating that the cemetery existed long before the synagogue was built.
This synagogue is a historical Jewish site, which attests to the magnificent past of a glorious Jewish community in an Asiatic country, which was one of the first states to recognize the State of Israel and establish full diplomatic relations with it, including the opening of embassies in both countries since 1949.
* Dr. Zvi Gabay is Deputy Director in charge of Asia and the Pacific at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.