Nov

11

 I discovered the shul in Rangoon tucked tightly between two Non-descript office buildings in a nondescript road in Yangon (authentic old and renewed name of Rangoon, for native Myanmarese/Burmese).

The shul I find is a lovely gem, gated archway with iron scrollwork name and black paint announcing its provenance. Aside from the wrought iron lamps from decades ago, on the front benches, anterior to the main sanctuary, are a dozen commemorative blow-up B/W photos of great Jewish heroes meeting Burmese greats or UN personages. Moshe Dayan. Ben Gurion. U Thant. Golda Meir. The script at the bottom bears the names of the people shown, the date, and the occasion.

They are good photos, 15" by 15", framed in simple black wooden frames of convenience.

I took pictures of the pictures, and included their legends, beneath. The shul is an old-style European-style synagogue, with lovely bima center, benches parenthetical to the bima, all solid wood, probably teak—the country is famed for its vast teak reservoir forests. There is a small room behind the 'sanctuary' with some lovely old sifrei Torah. The shul seats perhaps 100, but whenI asked the [very dark-skinned] gabbai or caretaker if there were any minyanim, he gently shrugged.

Did he speak Hebrew? I ask. He shook his head from side to side, No. Did he speak Yiddish? No, again.

He said to me that he is indeed Jewish, but like many out of the way ancient synagogues, the story told by the designated watchman is often at variance with the fierce emes. He said there are only [either] 20 Jews–or families– in Rangoon. There is of course no rabbi, though the shul is in overall good repair, overall–not like the hulking lost loveliness of the Cairo synagogue, which soliloquises its glory past of 70 years ago, before Nasser expelled nearly all Jews on the assumption of Israel to the world's yawning yet bristling stage and attentions.

Did they have holiday services? I persisted. Again, he lifted his shoulder blades slightly, universal symbol of "Well, not exactly…".

There is, in all these out of the mainstream synagogues that cry for a dusting and a good morning minyan, a vast mournful melancholia. Here were Jews in a bustling community, those keeping company, perhaps, with the mid-career George Orwell–though he was not a member of the tribe, he lived in Rangoon among the corrupt British foreign-affairs officers and the nearly equally corrupt Burmese officialdom.

One leaves slowly, aware that if one ever wends this way again, the synagogue will be still less peopled, perhaps overgrown with vines or incursive foliage from the humid, heavy air and the rain that falls sheetingly in monsoon months, rains that demand constant pushing away and wiping to remind people that mildew does not inhere as by right.

We met no Jewish Burmese, coming or going.

It is common when one finds such gems that one respectfully wanders about the wooden benches and the clear, clean aisles, the tiled floors, and pokes at the photographs noting its heyday. Distancing oneself from the sadness of the truth that here is a living relic of the Diaspora, when thousands of Jews may have passed en route to sureness of habitation, employment and safety to limb and family.

As in Shanghai's remaining shuls, this is more museum artifact than living totem of the force of Judaism as a sinewy observance.

But a sensitive being catches a persistent lump in the throat. Of loss. Of regret and sadness.

The thought only of a throbbing lively culture in robust Israel, with festive shuls and all manner of observances, redeems one from the forlorn pangs of regret and loss.


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