Full circle

This is a story of Jewish survival and renewal that spans the world.   It is a true story that happened to some friends of mine, but I won’t mention all their names.

Two of my school friends in London married Indian Jewish sisters from Calcutta back in the 1960’s.   They were beautiful girls whose surname was Cohen (no relation to me, it’s a common Jewish name meaning “priest”).  Although they came from Calcutta, India, they had originated from Rangoon (now Yangon) in Burma (now Myanmar), and were part of the dispersion of Baghdadi Jews, mostly merchants who moved eastwards as far as China.  Some famous names from this diaspora were Sassoon and Kadoorie as well as many other lesser known mercantile families.

The Cohen family moved to Rangoon in 1880 to leave the persecution of Baghdad and live in a British colony where they were protected and where they were able to thrive.  Before and during WWII most of the Jewish inhabitants of Burma, who identified with the British, moved to British India, and the Cohen family left for Calcutta in 1942.  When India became independent in 1947 most British citizens were given the choice of staying or moving to England and the Cohen family moved to London in the 1950s.

After living in England for a few years, one of my friends moved to Los Angeles, CA, where the husband started a computer company.   Then the other couple followed so that the sisters could live near each other.   There is a large expatriate Indian Jewish community in Los Angeles.  The husband of the second couple was a lawyer who unfortunately found on arrival that he could not practise law in CA with his British solicitor’s license as he had been informed.  There followed several years of hardship, while the husband qualified for the California bar, and the two sons were bussed to a predominantly Spanish-speaking school in East Los Angeles.   The oldest of the sons was Stuart Spencer (the family had changed their German surname in England a generation before).

Stuart was a very bright fellow who went to Brandeis, Tufts and Harvard Business School and became an executive in an international company that sent him to Hong Kong.  There he thrived and ultimately became the Head of world-wide activities (excluding the US and Europe) for a large Swiss insurance company.  He has lived in Hong Kong for many years.

This story relates to the fact that Stuart went with his cousin Diane Cohen, who was the last member of the Cohen family to leave Rangoon, Burma, in 1951, and went back to see Yangon, Myanmar last year, soon after Myanmar opened up after years of military dictatorship.   A main focus of their visit was the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon that is now in fragile condition, of which Stuart’s great-grandfather Abraham Cohen was one of the founders and President  when it was established in 1896.   Stuart found his mother’s birth recorded in the archives of the synagogue and he gave a donation to help the restoration of the building that is crumbling.   Note that Stuart is a member of the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong that was built in the same period and founded by the Sassoon family.

So the story went full circle in four generations from Baghdad to Rangoon to Calcutta to London to Los Angeles to Hong Kong and back to Rangoon, a familiar Jewish story.    This story was taken from an article in the Jewish Times Asia (http://www.jewishtimesasia.org/rangoon/268-rangoon-communities/1302-return-to-rangoon-and-the-race-to-restore) and  the restoration of the Yangon synagogue is now a project of the US-ASEAN organization to which individuals may contribute (contact 202-416-6721 or 6705).

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