This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
It was a hot day in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital. I was there to attend the city’s annual Photo Festival in 2019. Wandering through the busy, sweltering streets of one of the city’s Muslim neighbourhoods, I was surprised to stumble across a synagogue.
The country’s most recent census, conducted in 2014 and published two years later, states that there are 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, with Buddhists making up for nearly 90 percent of the population. In recent years, Myanmar has become a global concern due to the ongoing mistreatment of the Rohingya people, the stateless Muslim minority group. A campaign of what Doctors Without Borders describe as “targeted violence launched by the Myanmar military” began in 2017 and the genocide continues to this day, despite mass migration across the border to Bangladesh.
A sign points the way to Yangon's only synagogue.
Myanmar’s Jewish community has never been great in size, reaching its apex in 1940 when there were around 2,500 Jews in what was then known as Burma. The population consisted largely of the descendants of Iraqi and Indian migrants who moved to Myanmar in the mid-19th century. The Japanese invasion of the country in 1942 led to the reserve happening, with the Jewish population dwindling as a result of Jews fleeing to countries like India as the conflict escalated.
One of them is Sammy Samuels, 40, the caretaker of the Yeshua synagogue, located in downtown Yangon, close to one of the city’s busiest markets. The synagogue has been in here in some form since it was first built in 1857. Samuels is helped by his sisters, and the three of them are following in their father’s footsteps as they attempt to save what’s left of Myanmar’s Jewish heritage and identity. It plays a central role in sustaining that feeling of identity because it consolidates the notion of community, keeping hope alive, surviving all the political turmoil that the country has experienced for decades on end.
The Yeshua synagogue has been on this site since 1857.
Opposite the synagogue, Mohammed Rachid, 67, spends his days sitting outside his shop. He’s one of the figures of the Muslim community in Yangon. “I’ve been here for almost 40 years and I’ve never had a problem”, he said, “This synagogue is like my second home.”
Sammy Samuels, the synagogue caretaker and one of the few Jews in Myanmar.
Mohammed Rachid, a Muslim leader who works opposite Samuels' place of worship.
Sammy Samuels wasn’t the only Jewish person I met with in Yangon. I also met Christina Adi, 50, who might be the only person from a Burmese Buddhist family to convert to Judaism. The unusual theological decision is made even more unique by the fact getting hold of information about the religion was difficult at the time: Myanmar didn’t get internet access until 2000. She was reliant on older means of research, conducting whatever books she could get hold of and talking to any Jew she could chat with.
Myanmar, despite its incredibly small Jewish population, has had diplomatic ties with Israel since the early 1950s when it became the first Asian state to officially recognise Israel. It was for perhaps that reason that Adi decided to visit the country. “I didn’t understand Judaism very well, but I had an inexplicable feeling that I could love it,” she said.
Christina, ex-Buddhist, Jewish convert.
She made the trip in 1999. What was initially a three-month holiday turned into two and a half year spent volunteering, taking on odd jobs, and studying Hebrew. “That’s when I really realised what Judaism was.”
In Israel, she had to follow the rules of orthodox conversion. She studied the Hebrew Bible and had to take on the strict teachings, which include things like women having to cover their hair as per the Torah. Adi spent two years living with a religious family in an attempt to prove that she really did want to be Jewish and that she was totally committed to her adopted faith.
The Jewish population has shrunk since the 1940s.
The local Chief Rabbi was somewhat suspicious of her intentions. “I went to see him maybe eight times before giving up. It was always the same thing. ‘Do you want to be Jewish because your partner is? Are you looking for Israeli citizenship?’ No, I just believe in the Jewish faith,” she said when we spoke to her at home in Yangon.
Adi returned to Myanmar. For her, as seems to be the case for Samuels, Jewishness goes beyond theological affiliation. She describes it as a kind of society, not as purely a religious group. Not everyone can get their head around why someone raised as a Buddhist would want to convert to Judaism. Even family members and close friends question her decision. “It is difficult for them to understand it. But they don’t really understand what Judaism is about.”
Inside the synagogue.
“The situation in the community hasn’t really changed, but with Covid and the military coup, everything is different for Myanmar as a whole,” Samuels wrote to me recently when I ask for news. These two events have driven part of the Jewish community, made up of expats, to leave the country, but the Samuels family has always had the tools needed to develop and re-establish all the traditions that have been lost over the years. “We hope that this military regime will soon come to an end and democracy will be restored.”
Check out more of Marchi’s photos from Yangon below.
A street scene from Yangor, the ex-capital.
Christina and her dog.
Sammy Samuels took over synagogue duties from his father, Moses.