About death and departure. Visiting a synagogue, a market, and two more giants. Saying goodbye to Ted and Rowena.

Ted and Rowena are moving on today and had to take care of travel business. But they outfitted me with a companion for the day they had met over breakfast: Lily from Taiwan. She had just arrived in Yangon, her first stop on a 6 months trek half around the world. She was up for one of the more unusual destinations in Yangon: the Moseah Yeshua, the one and only synagogue in Myanmar, and one of the oldest synagogues in all of Southeast Asia.

More than a month before I left I had sent an inquiry to the synagogue to find out if perhaps a Shabbat service would be held while I was in town and about the prospects of attending one. I still have an email response in my mailbox by a man who is now dead. My first attempt of visiting the synagogue coincided with the day of the funeral of Moses Samuel.   That was a very strange feeling. The synagogue was closed that day, of course, and I was not sure if it would be open to visitors again soon.

In a community of less than 20 Jews total, every death is a disaster and one huge step towards extinction. It wasn’t just anyone who died but the long-term keeper, representative, board of trustee member, and guide of the synagogue, the grandson of one of the founding members more than 150 years ago. He was only 65.

Shalom Shabbat. It was Saturday but there was no service. There is no minyan. Less than two dozen Jews live in all of Myanmar.  Joel, who is filling in now was still visibly in mourning. He kept pointing to the billboards covered with photos, numerous obituaries and letters of condolences by high Myanmar officials. This indeed was a blow not just to a family, but to a close-knit, tiny community.

If you don’t know what you are looking for, you will easily overlook this ultimately impressive 19th Century colonial style mansion as it is hidden nearly completely behind a street market and a wall obscuring more than 4/5 of the building. Only the Star of David gives it away. And once you know what building you are looking for, you will eventually come by the side door with a more clearly marked entrance gate. Even though the synagogue is located in the center of an obviously Muslim quarter, there was no security posted at the entrance; a good indicator for the still peaceful coexistence of these two religious groups in Yangon.

Once you enter through the gate, go up a few steps and pass a big white board blocking the immediate view into the interior, you are almost unprepared for the big, impressive, and tall room that is hiding behind all these obstacles. This is not a small little synagogue but an impressive, full-scale sanctuary; testimony to a once thriving, large community.

Bima and Arc are decorated with bright red and white textiles. Two full-scale Torahs have survived the once 185. What happened to the others? There is a woman’s balcony — sign of an Orthodox Jewish Community. Hardly anyone was there. But those who venture into this building seem to be visitors from abroad, judging by the guest book (which I forgot to sign, darn!).

Well, this was a somber visit but it was one of the must-do things on my list in Yangon and I am glad that my second effort at visiting this place was successful. I can only hope that somehow this community will grow again. Perhaps now, that Myanmar is opening to foreign investment and business, there is a chance?

No day in Myanmar is complete without a Buddha though, and there are two giants in Yangon I have missed so far. Lily and I hired a taxi driver to take us from one to the other after we had spent an hour at the Bogyoke Aung San Market. I wanted to see what I could find in Yangon so that I would not have to cart my souvenirs around the country in one big circle. The market has several wonderful stalls full of handicrafts from Myanmar. I had a list: marionettes and lacquer ware, and if possible some contemporary art. Done!

The Nga Htat Kyi Pagoda and the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda are located on adjacent hills and both house giant Buddhas, a seated and a reclining one respectively. The seated one was particularly striking, framed by a square teak shrine emphasizing the gold and gems of the figure against a dark wooden, beautifully carved backdrop. The image would be old if it had not been for World War II. Only a small portion of the temple area is original and of all the Buddhas seated around the big one in small shrines only one is old, meaning over 100 years old. It surprises me that this in Burma is considered ‘old’. For European standards old often means 1000 years old and older. Even though recorded history in this country too, goes way back: the first Rakhine Kingdom to 850 BC, and the first Mon Kingdom to the 3rd CBC, old seems to have a different meaning.

At the Nga Htat Kyi I had a strange encounter. A young man approached me in perfect English, explaining some of the things I was looking at. That was very much appreciated. He soon was joined by an older man with thick glasses who was introduced to me as his teacher. The teacher then turned into the founder of an orphanage and the explanatory approach into a serious request for money. When I stated that I cannot give money to all the needy in the country but that I prefer to give money to global relief organizations, the pressure went up a notch. And the orphanage in need turned into the need for an eye operation… It was hard to get away from these two. I do feel bad for not just handing out money but there literally would be no end to it if you look around for people in need. And these two well-fed and educated people would probably not be at the top of my list if I would start handing out cash. This was uncomfortable on several levels. But it was a first.

Head over heels Ted and Rowena had to leave as they found out their bus was only going on alternate days. We had time for one last beer and one last conversation. I so hope that someday I will cross paths with them again and that someday they will meet David. I felt like I have known them for a long, long time. I will miss them dearly!

But now, that the bad beer-drinking influence is out of my life, I can get back to good working habits and turn my attention to blog and photos. And so I did. 😉

Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. So glad that you found the synagogue and that it shows a little community that can live in peace in spite of its differences. Where does the gold come from? Are there mines near by? It never seems right to have so many gold decorated statues surrounded by such poverty but perhaps that is the only bright spot in their lives and they can step out of their humble surroundings into something beautiful, if only for a moment or two.

  2. Hi ET, just checking in and assuring you that I’m following you blog faithfully every day even though I rarly comment. Again, I feel am with you on your journey because you make every experience come to life. Very interesting – about the Burma Jews. Who new?