A Morning with the Monks of Myanmar

Monks, Yangon, Myanmar

I recently had the opportunity to spend a morning with the monks of Myanmar and, as you would imagine, it was an unforgettable experience.

Spending a morning with the monks of Myanmar is a must when traveling through the Golden Land. I headed near the Kabar Aye Pagoda for a morning walk with the monks.

For all the high-resolution photos from this part of my journey: Click Here

Monks
Fresh shaves and burgundy robes

Well, it’s good to be back folks! I’ve been away for awhile handling a few things (parenthood, that sorta thing), however I’m back and hoping to be posting quite regularly from now on. I actually had these photos loaded up and ready to post (you can check out the full high-res gallery on Facebook here) however I just never had the opportunity and then, of course, completely forgot about them after I flew out to Vietnam and then on to Israel. But I digress…

Monks
Squad

The morning started with a ride out to the junior monks’ monastery at around 7:15am.  As a quick lesson in Myanmar Buddhism – Southeast Asia’s second-largest country is about 90%-plus Buddhist and they practice a very ancient form of the faith called Theravada. This type of Buddhism is a bit different than the more familiar Tibetan Buddhism most commonly depicted in Western movies and film.  The primary focus of Theravada Buddhism is on practicing strict personal meditation and finding the monastic path to Enlightenment. This branch of Buddhism uses the oldest recorded teachings of the Buddha and is found throughout Thailand and Sri Lanka with its total number of followers estimated at over 100 million. In Myanmar, monks are venerated and given the title of “U”, as in “U Phil” if I were a monk. They are treated with the utmost respect and live solely off alms and donations from the community. OK, now that  you’re familiar with Myanmar Buddhism, back to the story….

Monks

So it’s pouring rain all morning and when I arrive at the monastery everyone is taking cover and enjoying the cool, brisk air – a rarity in Myanmar. The break in the humidity and punishing heat was a great respite for the junior monks who live here at the compound. The monastery, located just north/northeast of Yangon’s largest lake, Inya Lake, has around 60 novice monks. Every morning before they set out for their alms collecting, they usually get their laundry and places sorted for the day. Myanmar monks have a custom of not eating food or drinking water after 12pm noon so they are on a different schedule than most of us, as you can imagine.

Monks

The purpose of this visit was to film a TV show for Israeli television on the history of sport around the world. Serving as a bit of a guide/translator, my role was support and snapping some photos of the whole process and experience. Accompanied by staff from the Embassy of Israel, we got to take in some local games from the monks and local schoolchildren before the procession. One of the most striking things you’ll notice when visiting the monks is their lack of shoes… and I’m not referring to just being inside buildings as is Asian custom, but the entire procession down the streets are bare-footed occasions. It’s really quite a thing to witness.

Monks

Monks

The following daily march is actually quite a straightforward process – a lead junior monk walks in the front tolling a bell to alert the neighborhood residents the monks are passing by. The narrow roads of Myanmar are nothing new to those that frequent the country but feel especially claustrophobic when you have about 60 children walking through the street, dozens upon dozens of residents passing them food and charity all while cars and trucks pass in both directions.

Monks

Monks
The burgundy robes of Myanmar’s monks are iconic for travelers in Southeast Asia. Orange robes are usually worn in Thailand while the Vietnamese wear brown.

Monks

Monks

Monks

Monks

Monks

Monks

Monks

For all the high-resolution photos from this part of my journey: Click Here

Walking the History of the Jews of Burma

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Yangon, Myanmar, Burma

The Jews of Burma have a long and interesting history

The history of the Jews of Burma is linked to that of Myanmar’s largest cities and grandest institutions.

To read the Travel Guide about the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue: Click Here

For all my High-Resolution images of the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue: Click Here

Jews of Burma
Baghdadi Jews

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and the Jews have an incredible albeit little-known history together. The first recorded Jew in the country of Burma came in with a bang and left a lasting legacy – Solomon Gabriol was a commander in the army of King Alaungpaya, responsible for founding he Konbaung Dynasty and its much-storied and famed capital which stands to this day, Rangoon (Yangon) in 1755.

The history of Jews of Burma is mainly tied to that of the Jews in India and the development of the British Empire. In the 19th century, Jewish merchants from India and Baghdad began establishing sizable communities in Rangoon and Mandalay trading cotton and rice. At its height the community of Jews of Burma stood at 2,500 members. Jews were so established that Rangoon had a Jewish mayor in the early 20th century!

Jews of Burma
U Nu and David Ben-Gurion

With the Japanese invasion in 1942, many Jews fled to India due to fears of being seen as British spies or sympathizers. The Jews kept tight relations within Burma however, and those manifested in Burma becoming the first country in Southeast Asia to recognize the State of Israel. The two countries and leaders were so close that David Ben-Gurion visited Burma and struck up a lasting friendship with U Nu, Burma’s first Prime Minister. Israel opened its first Diplomatic mission in Yangon in 1953, and in 1957 it became an embassy. Both nations shared a Socialist outlook in their early years and until today cooperate in many different fields, such as agriculture, health and education.

Jews of Burma
Moshe Samuels Z”L (Photo courtesy of the Israeli MFA)

In 1962, the Burmese military toppled the government and nationalized businesses. Most of the remaining Jews left, however one man and his family stayed – Moses Samuels. The Samuels family has looked over the Mesmuah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon for generations. Moses Samuels inherited the task of synagogue caretaker from his father Isaac Samuels and before that his grandfather. After his recent passing at the age of 65 from throat cancer, his son Sammy Samuels, a graduate of New York’s Yeshiva University, will assume the role of keeping the synagogue open. Sammy Samuels (Aung Soe Lwin) has already made a bit of modern history in the state as he and his wife Zahava Elfhady (Ei Ei Phyo) were recently married, marking the first Jewish wedding in Myanmar in 27 years.

Jews of Burma

I recently visited the Mesmuah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon and was blown away not only by its beauty but its sheer size. Immaculately kept, the 2-story temple which was built in 1896 and once housed 126 Torah scrolls still maintains its presence amongst the street market outside. Most of the electronic, food and clothing vendors each carry signs adorned with a Magen David (Star of David) which mean that first, you are close to the synagogue, and second, that tourists should visit their shops!

Jews of Burma
Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, Israel, or… downtown Yangon, Myanmar…


Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

The synagogue, located down the road from the famous Sule Pagoda, is built with blue and white tile, blends a British Colonial-era feel with the warmth of a small-town American synagogue like Piqua or Ashtabula, Ohio. Knowing that you are now part of a small remnant of a once-thriving community is a strange feeling in and of itself, but the history, the location in the heart of the city and the distinction for which it’s held and appreciation of what it stands for is, quite frankly, a feeling I won’t soon forget and a privilege that I’m proud to now be part of.

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

Jews of Burma

To read the Travel Guide about the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue: Click Here

For all my High-Resolution images of the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue: Click Here

 

Sources: Wikipedia, JewishTimesAsia