Jewish woman in Sri Lanka

In the 1870s only one woman identified as Jewish in Sri Lanka, but there were likely others who identified their nationalities as the countries in which they were born, rather than by religion.

Sri Lanka (also known as Ceylon and Taprobanê) is an island off the Indian coast.  Islamic and Samaritan legends tell about how Adam came to the island after he was expelled from Eden.  They also tell that Noah’s Ark came to rest there.  In truth, however, it was long speculated that there were no Jews or Jewish community in Sri Lanka, but the true history of the country has come to light in recent years.

The truth of Jewish history in Sri Lanka is that Jews have been present there since at least the 9th century.  In the 10th century Persian traveler, Abu Zeid al Hasan, observed a great number of Jews in Sri Lanka.  This community was a Sephardic community.  In the 12th century, Rabbi Benjamin de Tudela, a Spanish Jewish adventurer, reported a 3,000-person community in Sri Lanka in his book Sefer Hamasot (Book of Travel).  In the 16th century, a Portuguese captain stationed in Ceylon reported a fair where all members of the population, including “Christians, Jews, Moors and gentiles – they can all obtain the food to which they are accustomed.”  The Portuguese were not, however, wholly supportive of a Jewish community and historical accounts reveal numerous conversions. An 1871 census famously reveals that one woman identified as Jewish, although recent research shows that there are several other contemporary grave sites with Hebrew inscriptions.  Although one historian states that Sri Lankan Jews reverted to their true faith under later British occupation, evidence suggests otherwise, as the British strongly supported American missionaries.  The most famous recent Jewish residents of Ceylon were the de Worms brothers, cousins of the Rothschilds, who owned many acres of cultivated plantations on the island, although they later abandoned them.

Unfortunately, intermarriage seemed to be common in Sri Lanka and the Jewish population eventually seems to have disappeared completely.  Today, the Sri Lanka Chabad House reports that it has had no contact with any Sri Lankan Jews, in spite of attempts to locate them.

Jewish sites in Sri Lanka are very difficult to locate, if it is possible at all.  The main Jewish sites consist of gravestones with Hebrew engravings.  There is also a building rumored to be a synagogue, as Dr. Fiona Kumari Campbell reports in her Historical Appraisal of Jewish Presence in Sri Lanka:

“According to Cecil V. Wikramanayake the Jews had a thriving community in Sri Lanka till the beginning of World War II. Reflecting upon his childhood, Wikramanayake remarks:

“I remember, as a child, seeing many Jews in this country, always dressed in the customary long white robe, head covered and kept in place with a phylactery tied round the head. Also, till recent times, there was a Jewish Synagogue at Steuart Place, Kollupitiya (as that part of the Galle Road was called). The low parapet wall of the synagogue, almost opposite where the Hotel Oberoi [now called The Cinnamon Grand] now stands, had a stone built into the wall with the words “THE SYNAGOGUE” carved on it. … Then came World War II and I lost sight and trace of the Jews. Perhaps they returned to Israel with the formation of that country in 1948.

“The “house” known as “The Synagogue” was occupied for many years by Peter de Saram, a Retired Korale Mudaliyar. This building is also referenced in a 2004 publication, Colonial Kollupitiya and Its Environs. The stone inscription according to Gunaratne vanished in the 1960’s either due to the widening of Galle Road or the renovation of the brick wall. Was the building named The Synagogue because its style was believed to resemble such a building? Was it previously used for religious purposes? Walter Fischel again suggests in the Indian situation only very large Jewish communities had synagogues – most did not. It follows then that the non-existence of a religious building does not mean that there was not an observant community in Sri Lanka.”

In 2005, Chabad established a Chabad House in Sri Lanka.  The House is now located in Colombo and serves the Jewish expat community, businesspeople, and (of course) Israeli travelers.  Its services include a synagogue, mikvah, library, kosher restaurant, and a dormitory.

I spent a few weeks in Sri Lanka and did spend a Shabbat at the Chabad House. When I was there, there was quite a bit of fighting going on between the Tamil Tigers and the government. I had to avoid places like major cities. The good news is that the county is now fairly safe to travel around. The government won their fight against the Tamil Tigers.

I went there mostly for Scuba diving and also did all the tourist hot spots like Adam’s Peak, the elephant nursery, and the game parks. One highlight was that I got to see a leopard in the wild. It was also sobering to see some of the damage left by the tsunami on December 26, 2004.

There did not appear to be many Israeli travelers around when I was there.

Chabad of Sri Lanka
No. 70 Green Path, Colombo 03
Tel: +94-77-3409048; +972-3-9155698; +1-718-3558449

(The Chabad House is located in the center of Colombo city, in Colombo 03 area, near Liberty Plaza shopping center and is walking distance from Colombo Plaza – Cinnamon Grand and Galle Face Hotels.)

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