Saturday, June 17, 2006
"How come there are no Jews in Sri Lanka": A Beginning
I am often asked "how come there are no Jews in Sri Lanka, when every other faith tradition is represented"? So began my search into the Jews of Taprobane ..... We know that Ceylon (as the country was called before 1972) has experienced waves of colonial invasions - the Portuguese, Dutch and later the Brits. There must have been Jews on board the imperialist's ships - in the service of the VOC or indeed fleeing persecution in Europe. We may want to consider if there was any contact with Jews in India given that the countries are close by?? Did Jews come to our shores in World War I and II? What do observant ex-pats do - for festivals, shabbat and kosher supplies? What about Jews who came to Sri Lanka - fell in love with the Isle and their prospective marriage partners and stayed. The poet and short story writer Anne Ranasinghe (Anneliese Katz) is one publically known Jew.
One of my descendants - Leopold Immanuel Jacob van Dort was a Jew (he converted to Christianity). He was appointed professor of Hebrew at the Christian Theological Seminary at Colombo in 1758 (he studied at the University of Leipzig in 1744 Hebrew and oriental languages) and although he was converted, he was still interested in his Jewish background. He had contact with the Jewish community of Cochin in India and copied some scrolls from the patriarch there, unknown to European Jews. He translated them and gave them in 1757 to Marcellus Bless who worked as a clerk for the VOC in Sri Lanka. He also translated one of 3 existing Hebrew language editions of the Islamic Koran.
I understand that there was (or is?) a synagogue on Galle Rd, opposite the Cinnamon Gardens Hotel.
In my day job I am an academic based at a university (in Brisbane Australia). I also have identified (but not properly verified) Jewish descendants in my family tree on my mother's side. I identify Jewishly and have started using my research skills and interests to pull together the missing Jews in Sri Lankan history - but this is very hard to do. So in true Jewish style, let's make this task a communal one. At this stage to am hoping to come to Colombo for 7 months as a visiting scholar from January 2007. But let's not wait till then, this is a global project! On the Blog I will post any findings (as I get used to the technology) and 'cut and paste' snippets from web pages etc.
Posted by Fiona Kumari Campbell at 1:39 pm