November 20, 2018

‘Miss Burma’ Is All Too Relevant to Myanmar’s Modern Violence

For the entire 15 years that Charmaine Craig was writing “Miss Burma,” tensions seethed between the Burmese majority and the ethnic minorities that make up Myanmar. It is a dark coincidence that as she published the book last year, those tensions were boiling over into appalling displays of violence against the ethnic Rohingya in western Myanmar. Set within its current political context, “Miss Burma” (Grove Press) can be read as a textbook on the plight of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, told by a daughter of that dark history.

The book opens on Craig’s fictionalized version of her mother, Louisa, striding onto the stage at the 1956 Miss Burma pageant, adeptly wielding the beauty that is at once her weapon and her prison. “How strange to be dubbed ‘the image of unity and integration,’ when she has wanted only to go unremarked — she, the mixed breed, who is embarrassed by mention of beauty and race,” Craig writes.

Told through the eyes of her grandmother and grandfather — respectively, a member of the indigenous Karen people and a Burmese Jew of Indian and Sephardic descent — as well as her mother, “Miss Burma” fuses the political and personal, demonstrating through deep characterization and intense background research how othering and exclusion are precursors for violence and exile.

READ MORE: Charmaine Craig Ponders Her Mixed Jewish and Karen Heritage in ‘Miss Burma’

Like the Rohingya, who presently face ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Myanmar Army, Craig’s Karen forebears have long been made to exist at the fringe of the country once known as Burma. “Miss Burma” brings to life not only the means and causes of their persecution, but its devastating personal impacts.

After raising the curtain on Louisa, the story starts in earnest with Louisa’s father, Benny, the descendant of rabbis in the Burmese capital of Rangoon. Orphaned young and taken in by his aunts, his quarrelsome behavior soon lands young Benny in an Anglican boarding school. Later, while working as an English customs officer in the port city of Akyab, he spots Khin, a raven-haired provincial beauty, on a busy dock. He decides on the spot to marry her. Her assent lends Benny the belonging he lacks, as her community unquestioningly takes him in. But it also ensnares him in the Karen revolutionary struggle, introducing him to a different kind of estrangement: an alienation from his country and government.

Can nationalism be both the cause of genocide and its answer?

In an interview, Craig admitted that “a lot of failure and, even, you might say, prayer” had to take place before she was able to bring her ancestors to life. The personal anguish it took for Craig to write the book manifests in her characters, whose internal contradictions and tortured inertia give them depth and verisimilitude. Moreover, her painstaking efforts to set the characters accurately within their physical and historical context lends the book a rare richness and ambitious scope.

Louisa Benson Craig as Miss Burma, a title she won in 1956. Photo courtesy of Charmaine Craig.

The systemic rape, murder and dispossession of the already-impoverish Rohingya in recent months is not a new phenomenon, historically speaking, but it lends a feverish importance to Craig’s work. Whether she intended it or not, the novel demonstrates how racial othering is the foundation on which exile, genocide and dispossession are built — and is all too relevant to the present situation.

Crucially though, the book shies from prescribing antidotes to these ills. Throughout, Craig skillfully resists the temptation toward a full-throated endorsement of Karen nationalism. Instead, she attempts to “trouble the question” of whether national revolution is the answer to persecution, she said.

“It was important for me to have characters who didn’t stand for a fixed idea, or whose initial ideas about, let’s say, ethnic nationalism were troubled by the history they continued to confront,” she said.


It may go without saying that questions of ethnic nationalism bear as much on Craig’s Jewish ancestry as her Karen parentage. In the 20th century, the Jewish people endorsed nationhood as a response to the mechanized mass slaughter of one-third of its population. But that choice is haunted by the German nationalism that fueled the Holocaust. Can nationalism be both the cause of genocide and its answer?

Craig’s novel provides no solution to this paradox — it doesn’t set out to — but if it raises the question in peoples’ minds, and points them to modern Myanmar as a place to focus their pondering and attention, then, at least from a political perspective, it will have been a success.

Letters to the Editor: Kotel Clash, Sprituality, Anti-Semitism and Rohingya


‘The Dazzling Idea of Hanukkah’ (Dec. 8)

If parents want children to believe in the Jewish religion, it must be made fun. The games, treats and gifts are all part of the holiday. They see Santa everywhere and fun and gifts for all the Christian children, so if they don’t get a celebration, they will end up leaving the religion.

Dani Lester

Happy Hanukkah to all. Light up the darkness and rejoice.

Lauri Garber

‘Stronger Together’ (Dec. 8)

I am not Jewish but I wish so strongly that I had been in that hotel lobby that night celebrating Hanukkah. I am moved by the sense of community shared. Thank you for making this story available to me. It lifts my spirit.

Anne Kelly

‘The Light We Create’ (Dec. 8)

I loved this piece. It costs us nothing to be kind. Thank you for the gentle reminder.

Deidre Duke

Kindness as an everyday reminder of holy light. Beautiful essay, Karen Lehrman Bloch. Your best yet for the Journal.

Harold Henkel

Clash at Kotel Was Misrepresented

I was disappointed to read Jay Geller’s account of the Nov. 16 protest at the Kotel, which we attended together as governors of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (“Are the Kotel Clashes Worth It?” Dec. 1).

Geller mischaracterized the event by alleging students were subjected to “physical violence” and that the protesters “risked bodily harm.” Yes, it was physical, and there was pushing, shoving, grabbing and an attempted theft (of a Torah scroll), but no one was hurt, no punches were thrown, and not once did I feel in any serious danger.

That’s in part because police arrived to protect us after a confrontation with ultra-Orthodox civilians. Thus the conflict was not, as alleged, between “our group and the police.” Geller is confusing the “police” with security guards employed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

I do not recall the guards confronting students. Physical contact was limited to individuals holding Torah scrolls, and those were Reform movement leaders in Israel and the United States. (This is confirmed by video I recorded during this event.) While the planning of the protest may have been “unbeknownst to [Geller],” the rest of the board was advised  in advance and that morning of the risks, and that it was entirely optional.

Matthew Louchheim via email

When Faced With Anti-Semitism, Take Action

Kylie Ora Lobell wrote a hair-raising description of an Uber ride with an anti-Semitic driver (“That Time My Uber Driver Was Anti-Semitic,” Dec. 8). She and her husband didn’t object to his hate-filled diatribe or reveal that they were Jewish. Lobell concluded: “Some part of me wishes I were fearless, that I would have spoken up from that backseat.” But she said she was “shocked” and scared that the driver would harm them.

My first encounter with anti-Semitism was shocking, too: I was one of only three Jewish children in an elementary school on the outskirts of Seattle in the ’50s. One afternoon as I was walking home with my best friend, Bonnie, she suddenly shoved me down to the ground and yelled, “My grandmother said you killed Christ!” When later I told my father, he explained the whole, “It was the Romans, not the Jews who killed Christ” thing, and said if anyone ever said something anti-Semitic around me, I should point out that I was Jewish and a good person, and that people shouldn’t say hateful and false things about Jews — or anyone.

If I had been in that Uber with Lobell, I would have said just that from the back seat — softly, not with any anger in my voice. Then I would have opened my Uber app and given that driver a “no-stars” rating, and checked the “the driver was unprofessional” box and explained why.

Sharon Boorstin via email

Reporter Too Quick to Judge Spiritual Seekers

Danielle Berrin’s column (“Spiritual, Not Religious,” Dec. 1) is rife with judgment — judgment about people and judgment about practice.

More than 20 years ago, I had the great good fortune to meet Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man, and to study with him. Of British descent, Rabbi Omer-man was brought to Los Angeles by Hillel to work with Jews who had joined cults — which was a serious issue at the time.

A brilliant scholar, mystic, teacher and pastoral guide, Rabbi Omer-man gained a following of hundreds of Jews. Many had been in cults, or practiced Hinduism or Buddhism or, like me, were drawn to his particular spiritual teaching. Bottom line: He illuminated Jewish theology, text and practice to help so many rediscover and enhance their Judaism and Jewish practice.

One of the core principles that I observed in his leadership was his nonjudgment. He gave everyone the space to explore and evolve as Jews, and as human beings searching for God.

Unfortunately, judgment is woven into our psyches, pretty much from birth. Judgment is born of fear, with the singular purpose of creating separation. The last thing we Jews need right now is more separation.

Evelyn Baran via email

Portrait of the Holy Land

I am a 15-year-old freshman at YULA Boys High School. I totally agree with “Israel Loved the Sinai That Is Now a Killing Field” (Dec. 1) because this is the same way I feel. When tourists visit the Holy Land, they don’t want to see a killing field. The author writes: “For some time, and especially now, the view from the Israeli side has been somber and painful.”  This hurts me to know that all the Jews — especially the people who live in Israel — have to live in a time surrounded by such darkness.

Adam Kirschenbaum via email

Why a Couple Made Aliyah

It’s been four months since Lida and I made aliyah to Jerusalem from Los Angeles. People ask either, “How is your aliyah going?” or “Why did you move to Israel?” I now have a new answer.

While riding the crowded No. 78 Jerusalem bus this morning, a partially sighted woman with a white and red cane exited the bus. She waited to cross the street. The bus driver asked a 12-year-old boy to help her. The boy got off the bus and helped the woman to cross the street. The bus driver waited for the boy to return to the bus.

Hanukkah sameach.

Pesach Nisenbaum and Lida Baker, Jerusalem

Muslim Wants to Dispel Distortions About Rohingya

I have been and am a regular and faithful reader of the Jewish Journal for more than a decade.

In the Dec. 8 issue, a Richard Friedman from Culver City wrote a letter commenting on Stephen D. Smith’s story, and then goes on talking about how Muslims have killed “80 million non-Muslims” in the past millennium, etc. (“Plight of the Rohingya Has Many Facets.”) He then lumps Nazis and Muslims in the same breath and, to top it off, he then cites a scholar named Andrew Bostom from Brown University as a history scholar and his subsequent writing as the historical truth.

I, Usman Madha, a native of Burma/Myanmar, present resident of 40-plus years in Culver City, a practicing non-Jihadist, pluralistic Muslim, would like to extend Mr. Friedman an open invitation to share (my treat) a kosher-halal meal where we can discuss and dispel the wrong information he has about the Rohingya situation (historical and present) in my old country, in particular, and Muslims, in general.

Furthermore, Mr. Friedman also can read “Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness Between Islam and Judaism” by Rabbi Allen Maller. He can order it from Amazon and MoreBooks. If he would like, I will gladly purchase this book for Mr. Friedman as a Hanukkah gift.


Usman Madha, Culver City

Letters to the editor: Yeshiva grad apologizes, Rohingya Muslims, BDS and more

Drop the Equivocation

Rob Eshman (“Sheldon: Improve Israel’s Odds,” June 12), Obama, J Street, New Israel Fund, Peace Now and other Israel critics who pretend to support Israel, would be listened to, and possibly believed more, if they would only at least once support Israel without the equivocating “but” or the false moral equivalency of “on the other hand.”

If they would only criticize our enemies in equal amounts as they find faults with Israel.

Betzalel “Bitzy” N. Eichenbaum via email

The Letter to Obama

What a pleasure to read Rob Eshman’s sane, balanced and insightful response to Obama’s speech and the Jewish responses. (Dear Obama: He Had a Hat, June 5) Bravo.

Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, The Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles

Thank you, Rob Eshman. Your perspective is ever more needed after the vicious behavior of the Jerusalem Post Conference audience toward Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew.

Michael Berenbaum, Director, Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, American Jewish University, Los Angeles

A Stand Against BDS

I would like to thank Gary Wexler for his column (“Making Ourselves Vulnerable to BDS — Again,” June  12) for articulating a message that seems to have eluded the Jewish community. Why are we sitting idly by while the BDS movement and those of their ilk are spinning their story so successfully? After all, don’t we control the media? Surely there are voices and minds out there that can counter this offensive.

Sherry Appleby via email

Insider’s Point of View

Regarding the recent cover story on the plight of the Rohingya (“The World’s ‘Least Wanted’ People,” June 5): My father was born in Rangoon, Burma, part of the Baghdadi-Jewish Diaspora that fled Islamic-Ottoman oppression from the same folks who brought us the Armenian genocide.

Adding much-needed context will do wonders in any discussion of the alleged persecution of the Rohingya. The great Samuel Huntington, in his masterwork “Clash of Civilizations,” noted in 1996 that a casual survey of intercivilizational conflicts, not to mention quantitative evidence from every disinterested source, conclusively demonstrates that “Islam has bloody borders.” Proof is daily found in the world news, where one is assailed with quotidian accounts of Islamic terrorism (aka jihad) against infidels in such far-flung places as Thailand, the Philippines, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan and Western Europe. Now one can add Myanmar to the doleful list of kafir polities under attack by Islamist supremacism. Just because some Buddhists wisely choose to cease being tolerant of the intolerant, they are the bad guys. Such is the inverted morality of our era.

George Aaron, Tarzana

Grad Apologizes to Yeshiva University

I am one of the featured Schreiber triplets in the article (“Family Legacy Continues at Yeshiva, Times Five,” May 29) and I want to apologize to Yeshiva University and President Richard M. Joel for calling the university “unethical” during my interview. After personally speaking with President Joel for more than 45 minutes, I realized that I was gravely mistaken in my assumptions of the policies carried out by the school and in branding the university “unethical.” At our meeting, the president outlined and clearly presented to me how ethical, legal and scrupulous this amazing institution is in both secular law and halachah. I am truly honored and proud to claim that my alma mater does everything out of care and compassion, with only the best of intentions for the students and greater Modern Orthodox community.

Daniel Schreiber via email

Words From the Wise

A hearty yiyasher kohakha (congratulations) to Dr. Yona Sabar on his “Hebrew Word of the Week” feature. From Arabic to Aramaic, from French to Turkish and beyond, the breadth and depth of Dr. Sabar’s knowledge are stunning, his linguistic and cultural insights always informative and entertaining.

Lewis Van Gelder, Los Angeles


A photo caption of Ruthie Shavit from the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center misspelled the name of Gily Hynes (“The ‘Heart and Soul’ of Silver Lake JCC Moves on,” June 12).