Bangkok, THAILAND (Oct. 30)
Myron is unequivocal about what it is like to be living here.
“It’s terrific to be a Jew in Thailand,” he says, noting that his is the oldest Jewish family living permanently here.
A successful engineer in his mid-50s, Myron agreed to talk about Thailand’s Jewish community as long as his real name was not used.
He says he has nothing but praise for the Thai people and their government, but his fear of being publicly identified as a Jew goes back to the mid-1970s, when members of the Palestinian terrorist Black September Movement seized the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok.
The Thai government successfully negotiated the terrorists out of the embassy, but 20 years later, Myron, who serves as the leader to the tiny Jewish community here, still fears being targeted by extremists.
There are now fewer than 20 Jewish families living here permanently, he says. Most came here from Iran by way of Israel; there are also a couple of Jewish families from Syria and Lebanon.
These Sephardi Jews began settling in Thailand in the 1950s and work as gem dealers, trading in the rubies, sapphires and jade that are mined in Thailand and Burma.
Myron’s family is Ashkenazi. He relates how his father fled Russia in 1920, made his way to Italy and managed for a few months to make ends meet there.
Then an English engineering firm offered his father a permanent job if he would relocate either to Argentina or Thailand. A few months after he moved to Bangkok, his wife followed him.
Both of Myron’s parents became naturalized citizens of Thailand, and all four of the couple’s children were born in Bangkok and are Thai citizens.
Thai citizenship was a huge advantage during World War II, when the Japanese occupied Thailand, he says.
“New Zealanders, Australians, American and British men, women and children were interned, but we were not troubled,” Myron says.
Myron can look forward to his family’s continued presence here. Both his sons, who studied overseas, married Jewish women and brought them back to Thailand.
Myron, who earned a graduate degree in engineering from Yale University, says there are about 250 Jews living here, including expatriates from Europe, the United States and Israel who work in the country.
Many more Jews pass through Thailand each year, including businessmen and tourists — among them some 50,000 from Israel alone, according to Thai government records.
Bangkok has three synagogues. The oldest is Beth Elisheva, started in 1966 and named in honor of Elizabeth Zerner.
Hers was the first recorded European Jewish family to settle in Thailand. Her father came here from Romania in 1890; her mother arrived in 1900.
Elizabeth Zerner, who spent all her life in Thailand, died childless in Bangkok and left her considerable fortune to the Jewish Association of Thailand.
Beth Elisheva is located in Bangkok’s upscale Sukhumvit section. A large Star of David on the face of the 3-story building is clearly visible from the street.
The building houses the synagogue, a mikveh, a meeting and recreation room and the office and living quarters of the resident rabbi, Yosef Kantor.
The rabbi, a member of the Lubavitch movement who came here three years ago, is trained as a poultry shochet, enabling him to slaughter and provide kosher chickens to members of the community.
During the past two years, two Bar Mitzvah ceremonies were held at Beth Elisheva for the sons of an American expatriate family.
The second synagogue, Even Chen — Hebrew for “precious stone” — is located in the center of Bangkok and serves the city’s gem traders, along with the tourists who stay in the high-priced hotels nearby.
The third synagogue, Ohr Menacham in Chabad House, is in the city’s Banglampoo section and caters to the thousands of backpackers who stay in the inexpensive hostels in that area.
Christianity is a recognized religion but Judaism is not, according to Israeli Ambassador Mordechai Levy.
To the majority Buddhist population of Thailand, “Jews are irrelevant, and Judaism is of interest only as the origin of Christianity,” he says.
But Myron, who describes himself as a historian of Thai Jewry, says, “All religions can function here. There is no animosity.”
Myron identifies himself as Thai, but hastens to add that it has always been easy to be a Jew in Thailand.
“Ever since I was a child, I remember that you could walk into our house and you knew it was a Jewish home.
“You could smell my mother’s Jewish cooking. Her dining room was Jewish and the candles dominated the Sabbath table.”