Secrets of Ceylon: What Happened to the Jews of Sri Lanka?

Carved wooden secondary entrance to an old merchant’s house; photo credit Andrew Harris

by Andrew Harris

Shabbat at Chabad Colombo. Ceiling fans whoosh languidly overhead, muffling the crowd of us individual daveners; four men – me, a backpacking Israeli father and son, and Rabbi Mendie Crombie – not even half a minyan, working our way through kabbalat shabbat, concluding roughly together. On the other side of the lounge-room mechitzah are the rebbetzin and my wife, Naava. At the only synagogue in the country, this, Rabbi Crombie later tells me, is an above-average turnout.

Rabbi Crombie’s Chabad House is set up to serve the needs of a transient trickle of Israeli backpackers and Jewish businessman who pass through Colombo. It is the only synagogue (and mikvah) in the country. And yet, over many centuries, Sri Lanka has almost certainly had a Jewish presence of some sort – in fact, the southern port of Galle is believed to be the biblical city of Tarshish, from where in 1000BCE King Solomon once shipped elephants, apes, peacocks jewels and spices.

Sri Lanka is an island 432km at its longest, and 224km at its widest. The Sinhalese overwhelmingly Buddhist majority is almost three-quarters of the 20.4-million population, the Tamils – overwhelmingly Hindu; some are Christian – just under a fifth, the Sri Lankan and Indian Moors, who are Muslim, are just under a tenth. About 50,000 Dutch Reform Burghers and 2000 indigenous animist Veddah balance the equation.

Rabbi Crombie, as I, was aware of only one self-identifying Jew, the poetess Anne Ranasinghe, and he couldn’t put me in touch with anyone who could tell me about the synagogue I had heard about in Colombo, long since vanished. He did point me towards a Queensland-based researcher, Dr Fiona Kumari Campbell, whom I’d already tried to contact before going to Sri Lanka.

Tracing Hidden Jewish Roots

A couple of days later I sat down with JB Müller, a journalist during the turbulent ’70s and ’80s, who has devoted himself to researching the history of his own people – The Burghers – many of whom he believes to have Jewish roots.

Over the course of a long afternoon at the Dutch Burgher Union, a social club, central meeting place, and genealogical storehouse for the Sri Lankan Burghers, JB told me that, fleeing persecution in Europe across two centuries of pogroms, from the 16th century to the 18th century, many Jews had ended up in the Netherlands, particularly in Amsterdam. When the Dutch needed labour to send off to far-flung lands with the Dutch East Indies Company, the Jews were only too happy to go – and much earlier, he argues, the same happened with the Portuguese colonisers, and the surfeit of fled Spanish Jews on Portuguese soil.

As a consequence, he argues, a huge number of Burgher families with Portuguese or Dutch ancestry have Jewish roots. As evidenced, he posits, by their surnames – a list of which he has published in his book, The Burghers, which contains a chapter on the subject, ‘Semitic Ancestors’.

Fiona Kumari Campbell’s mother’s maiden name is ‘Van Dort’, one of those on JB’s list – a ‘nonsense’ surname he explains these as ‘Van Dort’ means ‘Over There’.

I caught up with Fiona on my return to Australia. It turns out that an illustrious Jewish ancestor of hers, Leopold Immanuel Jacob Van Dort, was professor of Hebrew at the Christian Theological Seminary in Colombo 1758 to 1760, the year Hebrew was removed from the curriculum. Ultimately forced to convert under Dutch rule in Ceylon, he established a strong relationship with the Cochin Jews, from whom he copied scrolls of communal record.

Jacob Van Dort also translated the Koran into Hebrew (from a Dutch translation of a French translation from the Arabic) – a copy lives in the New York Public library. Although Fiona hasn’t converted to Judaism, she and her daughter keep a kosher home, and live what she describes as a ‘pretty Jewish life’. She hasn’t undergone the process because of the difficulty of obtaining any certifiable proof of descent. “‘Van Dort’ is a well-known Jewish name. Some of the Van Dorts went to a colony in South America; to Suriname, and retained their Jewish identity.” Fiona’s own ancestors ended up in Sri Lanka with the Dutch East Indies Company. They stayed, and apparently lost their Jewishness. Many generations later, Fiona says her daughter doesn’t know any reality other than being a Jew.

Fiona says JB Müller was the first to put Jews and Burghers together in the Sri Lankan media. “He is to be commended,” she says. Although he tends to work not with hard evidence, but with inferences, Fiona freely admits that hard evidence is difficult to come by.

Roadblocks in the Path

As an academic pursuit, uncovering the Jewish history of Sri Lanka has been fraught. From social and political sensitivities, separating unverifiable stories from documented proof, a number of roadblocks have stood in her path.

“Sometimes the stories that people tell, are conflicting and they’re hazy,” she says. “Remember that these recollections are of people who’ve had very little visual and physical exposure to Jews. That’s a problem in itself.”

The legacy of Israeli assistance to the Indian Ocean Tsunami on a T-shirt; photo credit Andrew Harris

The well-known Sri Lankan writer Cecil V Wikramanayake, now in his 80s, published an essay entitled ‘Jews of Old Ceylon’, in which he recalled, “I remember, as a child, seeing many Jews in this country, always dressed in the customary white robe, head covered and kept in place with a phylactery tied around the head.”

Who really knows what he was remembering – both Fiona and the poetess Anne Ranasinghe note that many Sri Lankans think a ‘Jew’ is some kind of Christian. Additionally, an expat Sri Lankan Burgher in Melbourne had told me that what I found later to be a South Indian Muslim sect, the Bohras, were Jews.

The overarching issue with uncovering evidence of Jews in Sri Lanka is the tumultuous history of the island itself, and its successive waves of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisation over hundreds of years, followed by a brief, relatively trouble-free period after independence in 1948, and, most recently, three decades of civil war. Every new administration and new strife meant the destruction of documentation, mass flights and displacements of population. “That’s the whole issue with colonisation. They were there to wipe out religious sentiment that they didn’t agree with,” she says. “People lose their connection, their identity.”

Since Fiona published her article ‘A Historical Appraisal of Jewish Presence in Sri Lanka’ on the Chabad of Sri Lanka website, she’s had a trickle of enquiries from people who think they have Jews in their genealogy. “At least it’s opening up a conversation for people who maybe haven’t thought there was some kind of Jewish descent, to start exploring those issues.”

When Chabad of Colombo was first established, Fiona asked whether or not tourists and businesspeople was the entirety of their mission; whether or not they were looking to reconnect those in Sri Lanka who had lost touch with their Judaism, or if they’d work with the descendents of those who were forced to convert. The answer was not in the positive. “I think it’s a moral responsibility; with colonisation, these people didn’t say, oh, I want to convert to another religion,” she says. “They are the legacy of tyranny.”

“I am the Only Sri Lankan Jew”

The poetess Anne Ranasinghe (born Anneliese Katz in Essen, Germany) was initially concerned about the establishment of the Chabad presence; that it would bringing too much attention to bear on Jews in Sri Lanka.

Over a very crackly phone connection, Anne Ranasinghe was resolute. “I am the only Sri Lankan Jew,” she says. “I am the only Jew with a Sri Lankan passport.” And it’s true.

Anne survived the Holocaust after being sent to England as a child. She grew up in London, where she met her Sri Lankan obstetrician husband. On starting a family in Sri Lanka, she decided to raise her children as Buddhist – not as Jewish. According to an essay published in the Jewish Quarterly, ‘Our Beginnings Never Know Our Ends’, Anne explains she had no option. She was culturally and spiritually isolated.

Meanwhile, Anne kept up contact with the few Jews on the island of whom she was aware. One of her Jewish friends, who had married a Sri Lankan, towards the end of her life made it clear to her that she wanted a Jewish burial. In Sri Lanka, most people are cremated, in accordance with the predominant Buddhist rite; otherwise they’re buried in privately owned Muslim or Christian cemeteries.

The Christian owners of the cemeteries that may have had plots refused to have a Jew buried in the ground. Anne was never able to find a plot for her friend to have a proper Jewish burial.

The Search for Something Concrete

Fiona confirms that there was, indeed, a synagogue in Colombo, as does JB, who mentions that it was known as ‘The Rotunda’, after its rounded architecture, a site now known as Rotunda Gardens, a few hundred metres south of where Fiona believes there was a synagogue. Along with many other historical buildings across the country, it did not survive three decades of civil wars and urban development. “There’s not that kind of archaeological sensibility,” Fiona says. This location also doesn’t corroborate with any other evidence.

In the course of our brief conversation, Anne Ranasinghe though confirms that she remembers a synagogue replete with a mezuzah at the site at which Fiona believes it to have existed, opposite the Cinnamon Grand Hotel on Galle Road, in the upscale Cinnamon Gardens neighbourhood, on the grounds of what is now a Japanese cultural hall. The current Chabad House is an art-deco villa not far away.

“They come, and they disappear”

Magen David carved into a pew in the Anglican Church: photo credit Andrew Harris

Fiona is quick to point out that not only is there no surviving synagogue of the original community, no surviving Portuguese churches and only a few original Dutch sites stand today. “They come, and they disappear.”

In her essay for the Jewish Quarterly, Anne Ranasinghe mentions that Jewish serviceman, in the British army, used the synagogue, and that it was demolished not long after her 1952 arrival in Sri Lanka. She recalls no actual Jewish community, and names in her essay the handful of Jews she was aware of – also mainly the European wives of local men.

Still, despite the question of this vanished synagogue building, there is written evidence of an historical Jewish presence in Sri Lanka – Benjamin of Tudela estimated 3000 Jews in Sri Lanka in 1130; a famously open-minded 9th-century Sinhalese king is recorded as having four Jewish advisers to his court of sixteen in total; a 16th-century Portuguese trader recounts a 50-day trade fair in which he specifies Jews participated; the Jewish de Worms brothers, cousins of the Rothschilds, established the first coffee, and then tea plantations in Sri Lanka; a handful of Jews were senior in the colonial British administration – what happened to their descendents?

“In 1948,” JB Müller tells me, “with the establishment of the State of Israel, they left for Israel, and Singapore.”

Of the permanent, original Singapore Jewish community, only 300 members remain. It’s such a small community, so important in the region; it seemed odd that they wouldn’t know about this. And yet, via email, Rabbi Mordechai Abergel of Singapore’s Jacob Ballas Centre stated clearly, “To the best of my knowledge, there are no Jews in Singapore who migrated from Sri Lanka.”

“I think it is forgotten for those people, it’s gone,” Fiona says of the Singapore Jews. “I think for others, it’s about reawakening the memory.”

Fiona puts the number of self-identifying Jews at about 60, including a Jewish monk of Buddhist descent, and a couple of Sri Lankan writers other than Anne Ranasinghe. No more are willing to be visible, she remarks. “People don’t want their graves dug up because of religious intolerance; people don’t want their houses burned down because of religious intolerance.”

Sri Lanka maintains no diplomatic ties with Israel. An Israeli Legation was set up in 1957, but was expelled by the government in 1971 with the promise of massive Arab aid money as a reward. The Charge de Affairs was dismissed, but no aid arrived. During the initial Israeli tenure, though, Anne Ranasinghe renewed her ties with the Jewish world.

In 1984, needing military hardware to help combat the Tamil insurgency, President Jayawardena established a non-diplomatic Israeli Interest Section at the American Embassy in Colombo. This was later also expelled, at the whim of incoming President Premadasa.

“Eighteen, from memory”

In 2007, Fiona and her daughter spent six months in Colombo. It so happened that the Kanatte (or ‘Borella’) general Christian cemetery was next to the school Fiona’s daughter was attending.

With a hunch that there may be some Jewish graves among the sprawling plots, Fiona, armed with photographs of Jewish graves in lieu of speaking decent Sinhala to explain herself, and images of Hebrew script, marched in, and approached the old caretaker.

“It was like something out of the movies – he went hysterical,” she says. “‘Madam, madam, madam!’ He grabbed the paper, and went off on his bike. He went flying down the middle of the cemetery. ‘Follow me. I have been waiting for someone for years – tell me, what is this writing?'” Fiona told him what the script was, and amid a gathering crowd, the old caretaker took her a scattering of Hebrew- and Yiddish-inscribed Jewish graves, all of which she photographed. “Eighteen, from memory.”

Andrew Harris is a writer and photographer based in Melbourne. You can see his work online at
Copyright Asian Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.

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