Surprisingly, Yangon has a synagogue. An active synagogue! Right in downtown Yangon! We had walked past it on our first day, noticing the large blue star of David on the upper floor of a building full of small shops at street level. Later, we learned this was the side of the Musmeah Yeshuah Synagogue of Yangon - so Wednesday we visited.
So how does a synagogue end up in SE Asia? And in Myanmar, of all places? First, keep in mind that there are Jewish congregations in various parts of India, and that Myanmar has a sizable border with India. Second, after Rome captured Jerusalem in 60 CE, Jews fled all over the world, including to other areas of the Middle East. And then, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, more Jews fled to the Middle East, India, China, as well as more tolerant countries in Europe.
The original synagogue was built in 1854, but was replaced by the current building which was completed in 1896. During the colonial years, when Britain was in power, people came from other British colonies; in Yangon, Jews from Baghdad and Cochin (India) arrived in increasing numbers, predominantly as merchants at first. Over time, Jewish men became customs officials, and eventually the mayor of Yangon was one of the Jewish men from this population. The Jews numbered roughly 2500 during the late 1890s through to WWII, when the Japanese occupied Myanmar and the Jewish Burmese began to flee. Later, when the Burmese army seized power in 1962 and nationalized many businesses, more Jews left, leaving only a handful of congregants in Yangon. Their descendants comprise the small congregation still in the city today, a congregation without a rabbi. (The synagogue is located in the part of Yangon called "New Delhi" by local people - surrounded by Hindu temples and Islamic mosques, the neighborhood is full of apartments, shops, and restaurants owned by other people descended from Indian and Middle Eastern immigrants who chose to stay in Myanmar.)
The synagogue interior is beautiful, all serene white with greyish-blue woodwork and trim, soaring ceilings, and graceful columns. The upstairs section for women as well as the downstairs have lovely stained class windows, so the sunlight shines in jewel-like colors. Rattan benches speak to the tropical location of this synagogue, and the centrally-located bimah shows that this was, and still is, a Sephardic synagogue. (I know, technically it probably should be referred to as Mizrachi, meaning the Jews came from the Middle East and other parts of Asia. Sephardic usually means Mediterranean Jews. But we of Ashkenazi, or European, origin tend to speak of solely Sephardim and Ashkenazim, leaving out the Mizrachim. So my information sources refer to this congregation as Sephardic.)
We also peeked at the Torah scrolls, which were in the lovely silver cases that are typical of Sephardic and Mizrachi style. Beautiful in worked silver with interlocking and repeating abstract patterns, and with the little bell ornaments on top (called rimmonim, translated as pomegranates - and these really looked like pomegranates!).
While the current congregation is small, the synagogue has hosted various interfaith religious and cultural events. They are working to maintain this historic building as well as become an integral part of the Yangon faith community.
We spoke briefly with the caretake, a member of the congregation, and will try to come back for the Friday evening service (Erev Shabbat, the eve of the Sabbath). Should be interesting - I'm sure the prayers and music, even some of the practices will be different than what we're used to. Plus I'll be relegated to the upstairs, since women and men are still divided. But this should be an interesting experience!
For more information about the synagogue, here are a few links:
We walked around the neighborhood of the synagogue a bit, much of the area being a market. Really, streets are full of merchandise from stores, little stands are put up, maybe a food cart surrounded by stacks of low stools for seating, and baskets of produce are spread around. People can walk up and down the street, buying fish and vegs for dinner, or sit by a cart and enjoy a bowl of soup. Or have freshly squeezed sugar can juice. There were even baskets of live chickens, waiting to be taken home to live in someone's yard and produce eggs. Or maybe to be dinner, I don't know.
I preferred the colorful mosaic displays of vegetables and fruits, mostly set up in the center of the street. I'm assuming drivers know which streets are closed to traffic during daylight hours. Just one more dimension of the crazy driving in this vibrant and jam-packed city.