Vernon Corea lived in Maha Nuge Gardens in Kollupitiya, Colombo-3 in Sri Lanka from the 1960s to the 1970s. At the time very few people realized that there was a Jewish presence in Colpetty in Colombo, although Vernon was very much aware of the presence of the Synagogue it is known whether he personally knew Jewish Sri Lankans.
Vernon who used to walk down to Colpetty from Maha Nuge Gardens has passed down The Synagogue (which was on the seaside and known as The Rotunda) time and time again. Vernon’s children remember the Synagogue in Colombo very well. It was in their neighborhood, in Steuart Place – there used to be a petrol garage, a tailor’s shop, a small lane on the seaside and then there was the Synagogue – they recollect that it was in a dilapidated condition – the building looked very much like an old house set within some land with coconut trees. A pathway ran from the gates at the front entrance to half way down the property – possibly leading to the back of the Synagogue. The property was very close to the sea. Just near the Tailor’s Shop down a small lane was a shanty area of a few wooden houses.
Jewish people coming to worship at the Synagogue used to drive in and park their cars on the grass on the left hand side. There were two short walls that led to the entrance to the property. The sign ‘The Synagogue’ was on one of the walls at the entrance to the property. The people who walked into the building were of Sri Lankan appearance. It looked as if the property was in decay and some time in the early 1970s it may have been demolished. Vernon left Sri Lanka in 1975.
If you walk by Steuart Place you will not find any trace of The Synagogue – Sassekawa Hall is now on that property. People should erect a plaque on that property because it was a historic building in Colombo.
In his article ‘The Jews of Old Ceylon,’ published in The Island Newspaper, Cecil Wickramanayake refers to The Synagogue in Colpetty:
The Jews of old Ceylon
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.
There are some interesting articles about the Jewish presence in Colpetty:
Sri Lanka – Travelling Rabbi
The Jewish Presence in Sri Lanka by Dr. Sanjiva Wijeysinha
The Synagogue by Fiona Kumari Campbell