WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka



The 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 ó Judah.

The news really shook me. Why? Iíll 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. Thatís 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 fatherís 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 ó the first book in the Bible as well as in the Torah, the Jewish Bible ó 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.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka