| The Great Beyond |

Destination: Myanmar 

A Southeast Asian country currently in the midst of a civil war whose Jewish population can be counted on just one hand

Man on a Mission

One can’t help but wonder what motivates Moshe Klein to devote time and resources to visiting countries that are on few people’s bucket lists. Surely most other members of Williamsburg’s Satmar community don’t dream of visiting Eritrea, Azerbaijan, or Uzbekistan — but Klein, a 29-year-old educator, has always been fascinated by different Jewish communities.

Learning the seforim of Rav Chaim Palagi, a Turkish halachist and kabbalist who died in the mid-1800s, had Klein wondering if Torah still prevailed in his hometown of Izmir. Studying the halachos of the Ben Ish Chai had Klein trying to imagine what Jewish life looks like in the Baghdad of today. He’s developed a keen interest in global Jewish communities, particularly those on the verge of Judaic extinction. Driven to memorialize those rich histories before they disappeared completely, Klein renewed his passport in 2015, invested in a good suitcase, and started making airline reservations.

“I don’t just take a few photos of the synagogue,” Klein clarifies. “When I go, I delve into the community, spending time there, and conducting exclusive interviews to learn about the current Jewish life as well as the community’s rich history.”

Over time this passion has evolved into a mission. Over the past eight years, Klein has visited more than 100 countries, striving to connect with remarkable individuals in each one. He also focuses on developing diplomatic relationships with influential people, including heads of state, an effort that has given him the ability to advocate for the communities he visits, and to build bridges with American Jewry. Given this extensive research, Klein is often invited to lecture about his travels in North American schools, yeshivos, and shuls.

“Yidden today are mostly concentrated within large and established Jewish communities that have a vibrant infrastructure, business opportunities, and frum schooling for the younger generation, but rich historical communities whose stories should be told are being left behind,” observes Klein. “We need to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

Getting There Is Half the Fun

The fact that Klein knew almost nothing about Myanmar, other than that it had a Jewish community of some sort, was one of the main reasons that he wanted to visit the place that had been known as Burma until 1989. Actually getting there, however, is no small task, thanks to the one-two punch of Covid in 2020 and a 2021 military coup that has left Myanmar mired in an ongoing civil war. But at the tail end of a November 2022 trip to India, Klein realized that visiting nearby Myanmar was potentially doable.

His plan was that he and his wife would vacation in Thailand for a few days, enjoying the comfortable Chabad houses there, and they’d catch a flight from Phuket in Southern Thailand to Myanmar.

“I was planning to be in a more established Jewish community for Chanukah, but Hashem wanted something else,” he recalls.

Even under optimal circumstances, getting to Myanmar involves multiple flights with stopovers, but the military conflict complicated matters. The only airline operating in Myanmar at the time, Myanmar Airlines International, flew sporadically, repeatedly cancelling passengers and rebooking them until it had enough travelers to justify the cost of a flight. Klein was bumped multiple times until he finally got onto a flight that landed in Myanmar on December 18th, just hours before the onset of Chanukah.

If you thought getting through customs at your local airport is a hassle, it pales by comparison next to Myanmar’s security measures. While Klein had filled out nearly a dozen forms to enter the country, the AK-47-toting soldiers on border patrol duty at the airport spent two hours attempting to deny him entrance into the country.

“It was interrogation upon interrogation upon interrogation, but that’s what happens when you go to a country in the middle of a civil war,” muses Klein. “At first, I thought I might have done something wrong, but when I saw the British guy I sat next to on the plane, the only other foreigner on my flight, getting the same wonderful treatment, I understood it wasn’t personal.”

Hundreds of soldiers were guarding an airport that received only one flight every few days, giving Klein the impression that the ones he met were simply bored.

“When I stopped trying to argue with them, and they saw that whatever they told me would be okay with me, they just handed me my visa and welcomed me to the country,” says Klein. “It was their way of making me as meshugeh as possible, and since it didn’t, they let me go.”


Lighting Up the Night

By the time Klein made it out of Yangon International Airport and over to his hotel, it was already time to light the first Chanukah candle. Klein headed to the home of Rabbi Shneur Raitport, the Chabad shaliach in Yangon. He’d seen pictures of previous Chanukah celebrations and was excited to join in a Myanmar-style party, a festive affair replete with doughnuts and prominent guests. But when he arrived, he was more than a little surprised to discover that aside from the Raitport family, there was no one else.

“It turns out that my wife and I were the choshuve guests,” jokes Klein.

The Raitport kids were thrilled to have frum visitors, something they hadn’t had in years, while the Kleins were grateful for the opportunity to light Chanukah candles 8,000 miles from home — and to enjoy a home-cooked kosher meal. As they shared dinner, Rabbi Raitport explained how Myanmar’s February 2021 military coup had dried up the steady stream of tourists, diplomats, and business people that flocked to his three-story Chabad House. The family downsized to a modest apartment, where they witnessed Covid and the civil war literally dissolve the Yangon’s Jewish community. Rabbi Raitport acknowledged that he was contemplating his options, because with almost no Jews left in the country, there was nothing for him to do.

Despite the heaviness of their discussion, Klein found his visit to be an uplifting experience.

“It was a wonderful feeling to be in a country of 55 million Buddhists and have a couple of Yidden getting together to celebrate Chanukah in the midst of a civil war,” recalls Klein.

With a military curfew in place extending from midnight to six a.m., the Kleins returned relatively early to their hotel, where staffers asked if they had everything they needed for the night. They explained they were locking the doors until morning, and no one was allowed in or out.  Klein’s was the only occupied room that night at the high-end property, which had been booking rooms for $300 a day pre-Covid and the coup. Now, prices were slashed by 75 percent because of the dearth of visitors.

“I heard some shooting during the night, but there were no signs of war in the city,” says Klein. “Things were happening outside the city, and sometimes there were misunderstandings at night.”


What’s in a Name?

The 39th largest country in the world, Myanmar was known for centuries as Burma, a name taken after its dominant ethnic group, the Burmans. While the 1989 change may seem significant to outsiders, Myanmar is simply the more formal version of Burma in the country’s native tongue. Home to over 130 ethnic groups with dozens of languages spoken, Myanmar shares borders with China, India, Thailand, Laos, and Bangladesh, and is known for its magnificent landscape.

Myanmar’s centuries-long history has been short on peace, and the country has changed hands numerous times. In colonial times, Burma, as it was then known, fell under British rule, and was eventually annexed into India, becoming a British colony in 1937. After a short period of Japanese occupation during World War II, Burma became an independent nation in 1948, with military coups over the next few decades ultimately giving way to a military dictatorship. A ten-year brush with limited democracy ended after the 2021 military coup that sparked Myanmar’s ongoing civil war, leaving the country in its current state of unrest.

Klein saw a heavy police presence during his 12-day stay in Myanmar, but other than his long exchange with the soldiers in the airport, he had no other interactions with law enforcement and had no reason to suspect he would be targeted in any way.


Like a Local

Klein noted that in his travels, he saw both men and women in Myanmar dressed in the traditional longyi, a sarong-like cloth worn to the ankle. Men’s longyis usually feature geometric or striped designs and are knotted in front, while women wear a variety of patterns and colors and tie their longyis at the side.

Natives of Myanmar are typically seen with assorted yellow shapes and designs painted on their faces. The thick paste adorning their cheeks and foreheads is actually an effective sunscreen made from the ground bark of the thanaka tree, which is also believed to have antibacterial, antifungal, antiaging, and antioxidant properties. Reddish-hued teeth are also common as many residents of Myanmar enjoy chewing on addictive betel nuts, which are mildly intoxicating, carcinogenic, and are anything but tooth-friendly, leaving red stains and even causing tooth loss.

While clearly an outsider in his white shirt, black pants, and dangling peyos, Klein didn’t feel any hostility directed at him, and if anything, he was treated with respect. A request on their first morning at the hotel for a suitable place to daven had Klein escorted to the property’s wedding hall, a beautiful facility that hadn’t been used in quite some time.


More on Myanmar

Sea gypsies known as Moken spend the majority of their time living in boats amid the 800-plus islands of the Andaman Sea’s Mergui Archipelago. Moken forage for food in the water, and their attunement to the ocean is said to have spurred them to move inland just before a massive tsunami struck the Indian Ocean in 2004, one of the deadliest national disasters ever recorded.

Don’t even think about driving in Myanmar, where motorists traveled on the left side of the road until 1970, until General Ne Win made the switch to the right on the advice of an astrologer. Unfortunately, even 50 years later, many still drive cars with right-side steering wheels, creating endless woes, and giving Myanmar the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world where drivers with right-side steering wheels drive on the right side of the road.

While the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar are the only countries in the world that haven’t adopted the metric system, Myanmar has its own units of measurements, although it does make occasional use of both the imperial and metric systems.

The kyat is Myanmar’s official currency, but dollars are welcome in Myanmar, as long as they are in near perfect condition. Crumpled bills, as well as those with marks or ink of any kind, will likely be rejected by money changers, who also offer higher exchange rates for bills of larger denominations.

Chinlone, or caneball, is Myanmar’s national sport. An acrobatic mashup of soccer, juggling, and the old-fashioned hacky sack, chinlone has players passing a rattan ball around a large circle, without using their hands, relying instead on their heads, knees, and feet.


The Last Jew in Town

Klein has had success finding internationally-branded kosher items on many of his trips to places  off the beaten path, but that wasn’t the case in Myanmar. Food that he saw in local groceries was typically imported from Thailand, not the United States or Europe, making hechsherim scarce, with a few notable exceptions when he visited more upscale groceries. Those realities were made very clear to Klein in his initial phone call with Rabbi Raitport as he planned his trip.

“I had reached out to ask about Shabbos and Jewish life in Myanmar, and Rabbi Raitport suggested I go to a different country,” says Klein.

While many Chabad houses have meals available for the general public, or at least for Shabbos, that ship had long sailed in Myanmar, where there are simply no visitors. Klein ate several meals with the Raitports in their home, enjoying chicken that was personally shechted by the Chabad shaliach.

Klein also ate several meals with Sammy Samuels, the man he describes as “the last Jew in Myanmar.” Samuels hails from an Iraqi family that, like many others, came to do business while it was under British rule, opening a cheder and shul and establishing a sizable Jewish community. His father, Moshe Samuels, served as president of the Jewish community for many years, and before his 2015 passing, he asked Sammy to look after the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue and the rest of the community’s Jewish needs.

Educated in both Israel and at New York’s Yeshiva University, the younger Samuels easily slipped Yiddish words and other cultural references into his conversations with Klein.

“He’d ask me if I ever went to selichos at Lincoln Square Synagogue or if I had ever eaten at Reserve Cut,” notes Klein. “You meet a Yid in Myanmar, and he knows what is going on!”

The operator of Myanmar Shalom Tours, Samuels donates a portion of the proceeds from his Jewish heritage tours to local Jewish institutions and to Myanmar’s only shul. Kosher food is offered on some of the tours, with Samuels supplying the group with ingredients and cooking utensils. Currently, he operates a restaurant with a Jewish vibe, serving kosher-style food.

“It is actually very upscale and I saw a Qatari diplomat seated there, enjoying his hummus with ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav’ playing in the background,” recalls Klein.

Klein shared some meals with Samuels, who has a double-locked area near his office where he keeps kosher pans and spices with a hechsher. The two prepared hummus and vegetables, with Klein electing to pass on the fish that Samuels prepared.

“From a kashrus perspective I had no problem with it,” notes Klein. “I just wasn’t familiar with it and didn’t feel like trying it.”


A Spark Rekindled

As much as his visit to Myanmar was a fascinating experience, there is no doubt that the highlight of Klein’s trip was his visit to the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue. Built 127 years ago, the shul is nestled amid a row of Muslim shops, and it reminded Klein of shuls he has visited in Hong Kong and India. Just two of the 126 Torahs that were once kept in the shul remain, each one more than a century old, the others taken back by their owners as they departed Myanmar for more stable locales.

Overwhelmed by emotion, Klein picked up one of the sifrei Torah in his hands and began dancing with Samuels. The two sang “Ki Mitzion” together, spontaneously creating a moment that brought Simchas Torah alive in their hearts in a shul that had once seen so many Yamim Tovim but now stood silent.

“Sammy had tears in his eyes,” remembers Klein. “He told me he was so moved because for years there were happy Chanukah celebrations in the shul, but no one has come on Chanukah in a very long time.”

Samuels showed Klein many of the shul’s artifacts, including a menorah they lit together.

“We started singing and dancing as we sang the brachos,” says Klein. “It was an amazing moment because the doors were open when we lit the menorah, and there were hundreds of Muslims looking in, cheering and clapping as we sang. Just imagine — in Myanmar, between hundreds of Muslims, two Yidden lit the menorah together, one Burmese and one Satmar.”

A Burmese caretaker attends to Musmeah Yeshua, but Samuels doesn’t find security to be a significant concern. In fact, multiple Muslim shopkeepers came to say hello to Samuels while Klein was there.

“They were so excited to see the menorah being lit,” reports Klein.

Klein also paid a visit to the local Jewish cemetery, where he saw many Iraqi names engraved on the tombstones. While he saw many respected names, the one that appeared to be missing was that of the local rav.

“I asked if they ever had a rav, and it turned out they didn’t,” notes Klein. “There was a chazzan, a shochet, and a mussar zogger, but never a full-fledged rav. Any questions they had went to the Ben Ish Chai, who wrote many teshuvos for the Yidden in Rangoon, the former name of Yangon. When you read them, you see they had a special place in his heart.”

Before leaving the cemetery, Klein made a Keil Malei Rachamim for those who were buried there, including one for Samuels’ father.

“He said ‘Amen’ and it shattered my heart,” observes Klein. “I asked myself, when was the last time someone came here and made a Keil Malei Rachamim?”


It Takes a Village

While Myanmar spans over 260,000 square miles, the ongoing war limited Klein’s travels, at least to a degree.

“There are interesting tribes that live in caves that I would have loved to see, but a lot of them are in areas where there was fighting going on, while others could only be accessed by plane, and since they cancel flights without any notice, it just didn’t make sense to go exploring deep into the country,” explains Klein.

Still, he did manage to venture out into different areas, taking daily tours, including one to a fishing village located approximately half an hour from his hotel that was accessible only by boat. Klein was steered to what he was told was the vessel’s VIP section, but his expectations for a more luxurious ride were quickly dashed.

“The difference between the two sections was that we had plastic chairs instead of having to stand like everyone else,” laughs Klein. “The only VIPs were us and some guys dressed in purple clothing who were probably some kind of priests.”

It didn’t take long for Klein to decide that the fishing village might not be the best place to spend a few hours. While it was interesting to see women sewing fishing nets, children manning rods, and people making copper pots to cook the daily catch, the smell was unbearable. Instead, Klein made his way to a nearby fruit village where produce was brought from all over Myanmar to be sold in the larger cities. All of the work was done by hand, with Klein taking part in a human chain that unloaded coconuts from a truck, each one tossed from person to person until it reached the hut where it was being stored.

“They work really hard there,” observes Klein. “I saw people unloading sacks of rice that must have weighed 50 pounds each from the truck to the boat, which was 50 feet down on a hill. For every sack of rice, they got a small stick that they tucked into their waistband, and at the end up the day, they give in all their sticks and get paid for every sack they carried.”

While work in the villages is hard, people fight for those jobs because there are no other employment opportunities. Klein saw many people sleeping on the street simply because they have no money.

Given his passion for teaching, Klein’s visit to Myanmar also included an educational stop, with a visit to a large boarding school for gifted children ages six to 17. While he described the students as “the kind of kids you see the future in,” the conditions in the school were far from ideal, with 50 children in each classroom, and nary a chair in sight.

“They sit on the floor, and the table where they write is a plastic on the floor,” says Klein.

In keeping with local culture, students eat their twice-daily meals on the floor as well.  The school day starts at six a.m., with three languages taught, and while students didn’t appear to know much about the outside world, they did speak fluent English. Much like in other schools that Klein has visited in Asia, the students were exceptionally polite.

“In many places when someone comes in from another country, the kids come to you to ask questions,” says Klein. “Here they waited for the teacher to see how he responds, and only then did they raise their hands to respectfully ask me questions.”


All’s Well that Ends Well

Much like it took several flights for Klein to get into Myanmar, it took several canceled bookings for him to leave as well, and he was delayed a day getting out of the country. Not long after Klein left Myanmar, Rabbi Raitport closed up shop as well. Chabad of Myanmar’s website currently has a banner that reads, “The Chabad house is closed until further notice.”

“I heard that he went to pursue a shlichus in a different country, which means that Sammy is now the last Jew in Myanmar,” observes Klein. “It’s a nice country and a nice culture, but unfortunately, very harsh days are there for now. I hope that one day things will get easier.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 989)

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