Monday, February 5, 2018

Unexpected Sri Lankan History

Today’s Jewish Treat will take a brief look at an unexpected location for Jewish history: Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon).

Located off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka’s Jewish community today is based in a Chabad House in Columbo, Sri Lanka’s capital city. Despite the oral tradition of Sri Lankans that, as recently as World War II, Columbo actually had a synagogue that was referred to as “The Rotunda,” there is no record of its existence.

A Jewish presence in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) has been traced back to the 10th century, when, according to reports from a Muslim correspondent, the king’s council consisted of four Jews among the sixteen advisers. Noted 12th century Jewish travel writer Benjamin of Tudela reported a community of 3,000 there. But the 16th century brought the Portuguese, whose conquest resulted in most of the Jewish community leaving, hiding or assimilating due to fear of the Inquisition.

Some Jews returned with Dutch colonization in the mid-17th century, and many more came when the British took over in 1802. In fact, in 1809, the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, Alexander Johnston, proposed encouraging Jewish emigration to boot the economy. The plan never went into effect, but the success of Jews on the island is demonstrable by stories such as that of the prominent Jewish de Worms family. The de Worms established a coffee plantation near Kandy, named the Rothschild Estate (there was a cousin relationship). When coffee failed, the de Worms were one of the first to change their crop to tea. In 1847, Gabriel de Worms stood for election and won a seat on the Legislative Council. However, he never took is seat because he refused to take the Christian oath and no exceptions were allowed. (The de Worms eventually left Sri Lanka in 1865.)

Unfortunately, after independence in 1948, a long-term civil war erupted. During this time, almost all of the Jews of Sri Lanka left for safer harbors.

Today’s Treat is in honor of Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, which was yesterday, February 4th.

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