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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Jews of Old Ceylon

© The Island by Cecil V. Wikramanayake

I read in some newspaper recently the startling announcement that Father Abraham, from whom the Jews and the followers of Islam claim descent, was not a Jew: that his name was Abram and not Abraham; and that the Jews came to be so called from the tribe from which they originated — Judah. The news really shook me. Why? I’ll tell you why. A maternal ancestor bore the maiden name Schneider, which is Jewish.

My eldest daughter is married to an Englishman whose father was a Jewish pawnbroker settled in London, within the sound of the Bow Bells. He bore the name Scarfe, which is also Jewish. That’s why. Adrian Scarfe, when he was courting my daughter in Kandy, where we had taken up residence, positively refused to buy any souvenir in this country made of brass. Because, as he told me, he had, as a child, to polish all the brass in his father’s pawnshop!

The Jews were a thriving community in this country till the beginning of World War II. We had a Justice of the Supreme Court in the colonial days who was a Jew, name of Schneider. The story goes that once, when on the bench, a lawyer of Dutch-Burgher origin made a rather uncalled for remark, referring to His Lordship as a "Wandering Jew". Pat came the retort from the Jewish Judge "Or like the Flying Dutchman!"

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 stands, had a stone built into the wall with the words "THE SYNAGOGUE" carved on it.

The Jews who lived in Ceylon observed the Sabbath as all Jews do around the world, from Friday evening till Saturday evening, while the Christians called Sunday the Sabbath day. I learnt that the Jews observed the Sabbath from Friday evening because the book of Genesis — the first book in the Bible as well as in the Torah, the Jewish Bible — states, whether in English or in Hebrew, that when God created the Earth in six days, each day was "the evening and the morning" It did not say "Morning and the evening".

I also learnt that on the seventh day God rested. And then He made man (Adam) and gave him a companion (Eve). And ever since neither God nor man has rested. In parenthesis I must apologise to my female readers for this joke, in poor taste doubtless. But to get back to the Jews of Ceylon. They were, as I said before, a familiar sight in Colombo, in Kandy, in Galle and perhaps elsewhere. But they were a rather close society, rarely fraternising with the Gentiles of this country, nevertheless contributing to the common weal.

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. But more recently, in 1973 I was able to renew contact with the Jews. Or rather with a Jewish couple, settled in Australia, who were budget-travelling to England. Danny Kidron, born in Telaviv and Jeannette his pretty wife were our guests in Kandy for a couple of months before they moved on to get to England eventually. The last I heard from them was a few years later, when they sent us the good news that "Unto us a son is born. Unto us a child is given" for they had been married for several years without children.

Source: http://www.lankalibrary.com/cul/jews.htm

Blog Owners comments: This is the first piece I came across that mentions a Synagogue. The information needs to be verified. Any takers or additions welcomed! P.S. I have not changed the author's spelling or grammar, but have extracted the piece verbatim.


Anonymous said...

Like De Fonseka, Warnakula what are the other names or surnames for Jews?

Sujeewa Kokawala said...


Lovely article and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am currently living in SL [born here too] and very interested in its history especially the undocumented recent history. I go to the distance of reading the tombstones when I get a chance [if I visit a church]. It is very interesting.

You seem to be not only interested but also possessing a good knowledge. Will keep on looking at your blog for more such articles.

For few leads on notable things have a look at the development of Colombo. In 1800s Slave Island was a jungle as I hear. Also ppl like Maduwanwela Dissawe. Also Zoyza of Moratuwa who represents an undocumented episode of SL history. Around 1900s, this man has owned the stretch from Town Hall to Moratuwa sandwitched by Attidiya/Weressa marsh lands and sea. And his tax alone was some 30laks [3 mill] rupees at that time. This is what I heard. Nothing confirmed.

For the moment for sharing my own write up with you, see my two-cents worth here in my blog on a similar topic:


Note that my knowledge is vague and sporadic. Maybe I can learn a lot from your detailed analysis.

Keep up the good work.


Chris A said...

An ancient Jewish community in Sri Lanka isn't such a surprising prospect. There is a long established Jewish community in southern India since pre-Christian times. The Apostle Thomas who, like Jesus Christ, was a Jew also preached Christianity in southern India and died there. The Christian community established in India by Paul survives to this day. By the way all Jews trace their descent to Abraham but followers of Islam don't unless they are descendants of Jewish converts to Islam or descendants of the ancient tribes of Arabia. While Jews are a race, Islam isn't.