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Hanukkah with spirit in Yangon

Moses and Sammy Samuels in their synagogue in Yangon, 2001 Image copyright AP

All next week, Jews around the world will light candles to celebrate Hanukkah - and it will be the same in Yangon, Myanmar, where Jewish traditions have been kept alive largely by two men, Sammy Samuels and his late father, Moses (pictured above). For years there were just a handful of Jews in Yangon, but now the community is growing again, as Sammy explains.

We have a very small Jewish community here in Yangon.

When I was growing up, there were only about 50 of us, and when it came to our holidays we felt a little depressed. I had Muslim friends, Christian friends, and Buddhist friends - they all celebrated their festivals with so many people but at Hanukkah and the other Jewish holidays, just 15 or 20 people would come to the synagogue.

Every year I would moan about this to my father, who was head of the community, and he always said the same thing. "The number does not mean anything. It doesn't matter if you have a big community or if you have a small community. What matters is whether you have the spirit."

Image copyright Getty Images

My father, Moses Samuels, wasn't a rabbi, but he looked after the synagogue and acted as a representative of the Jews of Myanmar. Every morning except Sundays, rain or shine, he went to the synagogue and unlocked it, in case visitors wanted to see the beautiful building. My sisters and I would go along in the evening. It was our own Jerusalem. We would pray there, but also play among the blue-and-white pillars while the grown-ups drank tea.

The building, which was designed by an architect from Baghdad in the 1850s, is so large that more than 500 people can sit in it comfortably. It has three storeys, and since we used to be an orthodox community, the women would sit upstairs and the men downstairs. But now if we do that, there's only going to be two women upstairs and three men downstairs, so we all just sit together.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature is the Torah room, which in most synagogues is a small room or cabinet where the holy scrolls are kept. In our temple it is a large room, with three doors. People always ask why it so big, and I have to tell them that it used to contain 126 beautifully designed Torah scrolls, but as Jewish families left Myanmar they took their scrolls with them. Now it has just two.

Image copyright Sammy Samuels
Image caption Moses Samuels with the two remaining Torah scrolls

Jewish people came here in the 19th Century from Iraq and Iran. They traded goods such as coffee and teak between Burma, as Myanmar was known then, India and the Middle East.

By World War Two, when Burma was a British colony, there were about 2,500 Jews here, enjoying a wonderful life. We had a Jewish school with more than 200 students and there were dozens of Jewish-owned stores in downtown Rangoon (now Yangon). In 1910, the city even had a Jewish mayor.

But when the Japanese came in 1942, they gave the Jews of Rangoon a hard time. My grandfather was interrogated and the synagogue was closed for two months while they searched for evidence that we were collaborating with the British. They found nothing and left us alone. But it was enough to make us afraid, and many Jewish families left.

Then, in 1962, the military took over and nationalised many businesses. This led to a second exodus of Jews. Incidentally, as well as taking their Torah scrolls with them, they left the country without Coca-Cola. The drink was sold by the Solomon family, which owned a bottling plant in Rangoon. After they left, Coca-Cola didn't go on sale again officially until 2012.

Image copyright Coca-Cola
Image caption Coca-Cola was available in Yangon in 1927, but it was later to disappear from the country

But through all this, my family - and just seven others - stayed. My grandfather Isaac Samuels felt very strongly that Jews should remain in Burma and that if we left, the synagogue would be taken over by the government. So in 1978, as my grandfather lay on his deathbed, my father promised him that the Samuels would stay as long as we could.

I was born two years later, the youngest Jew in the country. I'm 35 now, and I am still the youngest.


Image copyright Sammy Samuels

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In 2002, I went to study in New York. The week before I went, I was enjoying a Friday night dinner with just five people, my family. One week later, I was eating with 500 other young Jews at Yeshiva University. We were all praying, talking, dancing together.

It's fair to say that I experienced culture shock - never had I been among so many Jewish friends. But while I felt a new kind of happiness, at the same time, strangely, I felt less Jewish. In New York, if I didn't go to synagogue, nobody really cared or even noticed. But if I don't go to temple here on a Friday, that's a big problem. Who's going to open the building? Who's going to read the prayers?

While I was living in New York, I came back to Myanmar every summer for three weeks. During those holidays, I would accompany my father to the synagogue every Friday, where we would wait and hope enough people showed up for us to have a full service, because Jewish law says that to say all the prayers you need at least 10 men. Very often though, it was just my dad and me.

Image copyright Monkey Images

One of these Fridays, I was not feeling well and my father went without me. But an hour later, he called and said, "Sammy, come! Come to the synagogue right away!" I declined, saying I still felt ill, but he was so insistent that in the end I put on my jacket and went along.

The synagogue is situated right in the middle of the Muslim neighbourhood of Yangon. Usually when you go there about 18:00 you can hear the muezzin calling from the mosque or Buddhist chanting from the monastery right next to the synagogue. But on that day, I heard a different sound, a strange sound that caught at my emotions immediately - and it came from our synagogue. It was the sound of raised voices singing Lekhah Dodi, a song reserved for Fridays.

As I went into the synagogue I saw 40 or 50 Jewish people, all singing, and in the middle of them my father smiling and holding a bottle of kosher wine.

Image copyright Alamy

They were tourists from the United States, who had been wandering through Yangon and spotted the Star of David on our building. My father was so emotional, he was opening all the bottles of kosher wine that we had been keeping for years without knowing when we would have a reason to drink them.

In the years since then, tourism here has increased enormously. While we used to get just three or four visitors a day to the synagogue, we now have 40 or 50. It is one of the heritage buildings listed by the government and has lots of good reviews on tourist blogs and websites.

Image copyright Monkey Images

Right now is an exciting time in Myanmar. Last month, I voted for the very first time. I love this country so much, but that was the moment when I really felt like a citizen.

Through all the years of military rule, however, our community has not suffered too much. That might be because Myanmar and Israel have a long shared history. Both countries got independence from Britain in 1948. Then, in 1955, Burma's Prime Minister U Nu became the first foreign dignitary to visit his Israeli counterpart David Ben-Gurion. The two men became friends, and Ben-Gurion returned the visit, staying an extra week at U Nu's suggestion, to learn meditation.

While there are now only about 20 Jews in Yangon that were born here, as the country continues to open up we are welcoming a growing community of foreign Jews - there are about 80 to 100. Ex-pats from around the world, including diplomats from the US and Israeli embassies, come to the synagogue on festivals, so we are always able to offer a service on those days - though we still have to make do without a rabbi.

Image copyright Getty Images

Some visitors from Israel and the US remark on the fact that the synagogue is in a busy Muslim neighbourhood. They ask me, "Sammy are you safe? Because I saw so many Muslims around here!"

And I tell them that our Muslim neighbours are really very nice. In fact, some of them run businesses on premises owned by the synagogue. Before festivals like Hanukkah they help us clean the building, and they keep their shops open late to make sure we have everything we need. Many Muslim friends came to my bar mitzvah, the traditional coming-of-age ceremony. And they invite us to their festivals, such as Eid.

The truth is, our community is so tiny we are a threat to no-one. What's more, even though we are Jewish and they are Muslim, we were all born here. I think we have all been affected by a Buddhist sense of mutual respect.

Image copyright Sammy Samuels
Image caption An Israeli rabbi conducted Sammy's wedding - the first Jewish marriage in Myanmar for 27 years

For most of my life, as I have said, Hanukkah was a small, low-key event for us here in Yangon. But in 2011, the year the military junta was dissolved, my father said we ought to do something. Unlike other Jewish celebrations, non-Jewish people can take part, making it a great opportunity for us to reach out to other communities.

So we arranged a big event at a hotel in Yangon, and 120 people showed up. The Israeli and US ambassadors came, and representatives of all the religious communities - Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindu. Most miraculous of all, we had the Minister of Religious Affairs sitting on one side, and General Tin Oo from the National League of Democracy - a trusted ally of Aung San Suu Kyi - sitting right next to him, both lighting Jewish holiday candles.

Image copyright Sammy Samuels
Image caption Hanukkah in Myanmar in 2014. Left to Right: General Tin Oo, Sammy Samuels, Moses Samuels, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy, the US ambassador and the director general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs

We've held similar events every year since. This year, though, it won't be the same because my father is no longer with us. He died in the spring.

He was the archetypal "people person". That walk from our apartment to the synagogue - which he did every day for 35 years - takes about seven minutes. But for him, it took 45 minutes because he stopped to greet every person in the street, to chat to every street vendor. Everybody knew him and loved him. And he was really the driving force behind the idea of celebrating Hanukkah in Myanmar.

As he lay in the hospital I made the same promise to him that he had made to his father - that I would keep the Jewish spirit alive in Myanmar, and keep the door to our synagogue open.

For that reason, I try to be there every morning except Sunday, just like him. And when visitors say to me, "You have such a small community, how can you continue to live here?" I tell them exactly what he said to me: "The number does not mean anything."


Image copyright Thinkstock

Hanukkah

  • Hanukkah marks the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks in the Second Century BC and the recapture of Jerusalem
  • When the Maccabees re-dedicated their temple, they found they had only enough oil to light the menorah(candelabrum) for one day, but miraculously it stayed lit for eight days
  • During Hanukkah, Jews light candles on a nine-branch menorah every day for eight days - one candle on the first night, two on the second, and so on.
  • The flame from the central candle is used to light the others
  • Hanukkah is also marked with special food and games, and the distribution of coins to children

Find out more (BBC Religions)

As told to William Kremer. Sammy Samuels spoke to Outlook on the BBC World Service - listen again on iPlayer or get the Outlook podcast. Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.