At a time when Jewish communities from Paris to New York City to Manchester, England, are facing increasing threats, a rebirth is happening in Yangon and a host of other cities — such as Oporto, Portugal; Palermo, Sicily; Brighton, England; and Kraków, Poland — where they had almost disappeared.
A key reason behind the shift is technology: The internet has allowed people to move and start a new life while continuing to hold down a job, oftentimes by working online, says rabbi Michael Paley, a former scholar-in-residence at the philanthropic organization UJA-Federation of New York. International Jewish tourists are increasingly visiting newer destinations because of terror threats in France and Spain — and leaving an economic footprint that sustains local Jewish communities year-round.
The State of Israel and the Union of Myanmar both achieved their Independence in 1948 and Myanmar was also the first country in South East Asia to recognise Israel as an Independent State.Â Diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in the beginning of the 1950s.
The first record of a Jew in Myanmar was Solomon Gabirol. In 1755 he was a Commissar to the army of King Alaungpaya and it is believed that he may have been present when King Alaungpaya conquered Dagon.
The start of the presence of a semi-permanent Jewish community dates back to the early nineteenth century when Baghdadi Jews stopped in Rangoon while en-route to other destinations seeking fortunes from trade. They were encouraged by the British government to settle there. Many of these families are counted amongst the most prominent early founders of other great communities in places throughout the Far East like Hong Kong and Singapore.
The permanent community was established later and comprised of Baghdadi and Bene Moshe Jews, though these groups internally were in conflict with one another. The Baghdadi Jews enjoyed a position on the top of the social strata withinÂ the Jewish community. Rules were enacted to bar participation by the Bene Moshe in various aspects of Jewish communal life. Overall, in 1881, local census results list the number of Jews as 172; 219 in the 1891 census and 508 by 1901.
Estimates of the community in its heyday range from between 1,200 to a high estimate of 2,500. The Jewish population was concentrated in Rangoon though smaller communities grew throughout the country.
One Friday evening in summer, Moses went to the synagogue alone. Sammy wasn’t feeling well, but 45 minutes later Sammy got a call from his dad begging him to come. “He sounded as if he won the lottery,” Sammy says.
Before he even got there that night, he heard the singing. About 40 American tourists had showed up for Friday night services.
“My father was so happy, he opened all the kosher wines that he had,” Sammy says.
Sammy, who was looking for a way to connect his homeland with his adopted country, got a brilliant idea. If those 40 tourists would come for Friday night services, maybe others would come, too. He started a travel agency called Myanmar Shalom, to — as he puts it — “keep the Jewish spirit alive in Burma.”
In 2011, Burma became nominally democratic, and tourists began to pour in, relatively-speaking. And Myanmar Shalom, which does group and personal tours for Jews and non-Jews, has gone from two employees to 20.
Set apart from the abhorrent anti-Semitism of 20th century Europe, and Islam-phobic politics of post 9/11, this context requires a different vocabulary of multiculturalism. Migrant communities are not mainly the vectors along which oppression has been structured, but their inclusion in a new era could help break up the ethnic politics that have obstructed change for so long, as well as re-join Yangon with the global economy. The small Jewish communities provide a positive continuity with the past, and are eager to revive the connected, liberated, and wealthy aspects of Myanmar that they travelled to become part of and helped create.
Jews of more limited means fled across the Mediterranean to Morocco, while others elected to remain behind as secret Jews. Ostensibly converts to Catholicism, these crypto-Jews were subject to death if their religious “backsliding” was discovered by the Inquisition.
The descendants of these crypto-Jews were first rediscovered in Belmonte in 1927 by a Jewish engineer named Samuel Schwartz who was working at a local mine. He found it strange to see candles burning behind drawn curtains on Friday nights. He eventually realized that these crypto-Jewish families were secretly celebrating Jewish rituals transmitted orally by their ancestors. Today Belmonte has its own synagogue, museum and rabbi.
After the Inquisition ended in the early 19th century a small number of Sephardic Jews began to return to Portugal. They established the first post-Inquisition synagogue, Ponta Delgada’s Har Hashamaim Synagogue, in 1836. They were joined a century later by Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the Russian Revolution, and in the decades that followed, the rise of Nazism. Between 1940–1943, Aristides Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux -acting alone and against government orders- issued over 30,000 visas to refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe.
A law was passed by the Portuguese Government in 2013 and enacted in 2015 enabling Jews of Sephardic descent whose ancestors had been persecuted and exiled during the Spanish Inquisition and/or subsequent Portuguese Inquisition to acquire Portuguese citizenship. According to Portuguese officials, nearly 1,800 such descendants acquired Portuguese nationality in 2017, with another 12,000 still in the application process. Applying for membership in Lisbon and Porto’s official Jewish community is a required step for a Jew to become a Portuguese citizen under the 2013 law, however unlike the criteria a similar measure in Spain, knowledge of the national language is not required.