mardi 25 mars 2014
NAT IN THE SYNAGOGUE AT RANGOON, BURMA
UNEXPECTED PLEASURES OF AN ENCOUNTER AT THE SYNGAGOUE IN RANGOON!
Burma, or its modern name, Myanmar, had offered welcome to Iraqi Jewish merchants. At that time, much of the British administration of “India” (later to become India, Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, as well as Penang, Malacca and Singapore) was based in Calcutta. It was only natural that Iraqi Jews who had settled in Calcutta were attracted to this beautiful, bountiful, golden land. The number of Jewish souls had always been small but the dramatic turn in the politics of this once fertile country post independence from Britain guaranteed an exodus of freedom loving, entrepreneurial subjects among them Jews.
I visited the synagogue for the first time in 2003 and made the acquaintance of Mr Moshe Samuels whose son Sammy was studying at Yeshiva University in New York at that time. The father was the gabbai, the caretaker and de facto leader of the dwindling number of souls.
It was 10 am, I was supposed to be at the airport by 11 30 am to check in for a flight to Bangkok on my way to Siem Reap. My heart told me that I must visit the synagogue, at least to say a prayer for those close to me, and say Kaddish for Cecil Hellman and Joel Glaser.
The taxi parked on the 23rd street and I made my way through the crowded pavements towards 25th street, along Mahabandoola street which remains unchanged ever since my first visit, one could buy anything and everything, camphor balls, locks, screwdrivers to tighten your spectacles, to give some examples, this is one of the last streets selling merchandise like this in this part of the world or anywhere else for that matter. As I managed my way past teeming bodies, the chanting from the nearby pagoda was soothing.
Visiting a Jewish community in the throes of becoming a memory is never easy for me, even though it has my life long interest. I am sure in the years to come, some Burmese would begin claiming to be Jewish or of Jewish descent , such as we see in Kaifeng in China or Iquitos in Peru among other places. It is a phenomenon of modern times, claiming identity from vanished or vanishing groups of people, by those who have more than spiritual reasons to do so. Along with the Research Dean of the School of International Affairs in Havana, we have published a long article on the False Tainos of Cuba, people who claim to be Taino Indians, insulting the memory of the Tainos who all but disappeared few years after the arrival of the Spaniards in their land.
When it takes courage to declare ones identity publicly (Inquision and the Nazi era for us), that is when your identity becomes culturally associated. No outsider claims to be Quiche in Guatemala or Quechua in Peru, there is no selfish cultural advantage in such claims as both Quiche and Quechua are marginalized groups. But it is not the case with Ayamaras (Evo Morales of Bolivia is an Ayamara) or Mapuche of southern Chile, and of course many, in Easter Island, would like to identity themselves as Rapa Nui even if they have no claims to do so. Hawaii is full of people claiming to be native heritage, as Native Hawaiians are a disappearing race and culture. This only emphasizes my claim that Cultural Identity and its quest is a strong one, and as my favourite poet Pablo Neruda would say:
Un alma sin raices es una injusticia
A soul without roots is an injustice.
I was glad to see Moshe Samuels, a warm greeting was exchanged. I disappeared in to the synagogue wearing my kippah made by Sarah Cohen of Cochin. I noticed there were a group of tourists, but this group was showing more than a cursory interest. I said my rememberances, and decided to take photographs of the synagogue which is a good example of Asian jewish architecture, in the sefardic tradition. The ark was open and I prayed for the Little ones and the weak ones who need protection.
An asian lady approaches me , asks me my favourite complimentary question:
I am very happy when people ask me that question: are you from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia or Singapore and it is always good to be mistaken for a local in so many different countries! In Latin America, I am mistaken for a Brasilian, because of my Portuguese tinged accent when I speak Spanish!! I love it.
No, I am from Cuba. But I am a Jew. (remembering that line from Marcel Aymee: I, said the man, am a Jew)
The question came from a lady, a certain curiosity etched into her face, was from Malaysia. She is interested in raising general awareness about minorities living in South East Asia. Of course an average Malaysian is ignorant about the Jews because of the government sponsored propaganda, including vitriolic statements from the former Prime Minister Mahathir (about blood drinking Jews) and a politics dictated more by frivolity than knowledge. Malaysian citizens are not allowed to travel to Israel, Moslems under no conditions but Christians under group travel for religious pilgrimage are allowed to visit the Holy Places. It would be nice for these descendants of comverted moslems in south east asia to know that the only in Israel, dissent is right of the arab speaking populations and also that the freest Arabic press in the world is in Israel. Moslems living in Israel are welcome to criticize the government , publish their opinions whereas Malaysia was recently enacting rules about Sedition, Sodomy and exclusive rights to the word Allah! Malaysian Moslem politicians are well known to avoid answering questions, the Malaysian citizen especially those who are erudite among the Chinese and Indians have resigned themselves to not getting any answers to their questions.
For the next few minutes, this curious and knowledgeable lady, in conversation, we covered a whole array of subjects, Jewish and Minority history in south east Asia , including the Hindu Cham in Mae Son in Vietnam, the Moslem Cham in Cambodia and its resurgence as a strong religious community and their identification with Malays of Malaysia! and the turbulent Muslim population of Burma.
The entire group now had gathered, a Burmese man, possibly a guide; two very sweet Filipinas, a northern European who reminded me of the Hospitality Interns at Double Tree Hotel in KL (of Dutch nationality)
I was genuinely exhilarated by talking to them, especially to NAT. In Asia, discourses are not encouraged (It is a pleasure in Europe, USA, Cuba or Argentina) and when you meet curious people, one is indeed excited. Curiosity is the sign of intelligence , I remember a Rabbi telling me years ago.
So it was a great moment for me, the synagogue, Moshe Samuels, a new friend NAT, from Malaysia a country that I am fond of, two sweet Filipinas. The patient taxi driver, U Zaw Zaw, waiting for me at the 23rd street !
I thought of all other encounters at this very same synagogue, the American lady who wrote the book on Burmese Jews, NO from Takoaka, my brother Eliyahu, my then good friend MC from Seri Kembangan and how can I forget the sweet giggling faces of the hat selles of Chaungtha beach when they visited the synagogue with me, they were intrigued that this was the pagoda of their Dr Aung Khant.
I will write to Sammy Samuels , to ask about his father and offer any help he may need.
Are you socialists, asked NAT