The Forgotten Resort Town of Burmese Jewry

February 10, 2015 | Joe Freeman
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During the period of British rule, Burma (now Myanmar) became home to small but thriving Jewish community, of which now little remains. Joe Freeman looks for traces of Jewish life in the mountain town of Maymyo, where well-to-do Burmese Jews and British colonists once vacationed:

The Jewish presence in Maymyo included a few full-time residents and dozens of vacationers in the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Apart from an even smaller community with roots in India, the majority of Burmese Jews came from Iraq, spoke Arabic at home, were fair-skinned, prized learning English over Burmese, and, in public, aspired to suits, not sarongs. . . . Most came to Rangoon, establishing a synagogue that is now more than 100 years old. Other arrivals spread out across the country, especially in the north, or Upper Burma. Although Burma’s Jewish community prospered, living in some cases with mansions and retinues of servants, it never numbered more than a few thousand. Most left during World War II. Today, by some estimates there are only about twenty Jews in Yangon [formerly Rangoon, Burma’s largest city].

But in Maymyo, their old villas still stand. This elite colonial destination in the far north of the country also had something to say about the Burmese Jews’ standing in the British Raj: a complicated system of social castes with the British at the top and the Jews grasping upwards.

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