The Jewish Cemetery of Penang, Malaysia
This short essay, the first one written in English for me, deals with the Jewish cemetery in Penang, Malaysia. I spent a year in the beautiful Asian country of peninsula Malaysia. For a better understanding of the topic it is useful to know a few things about Malaysia: The country is embedded between Thailand in the north and Singapore in the south. The state of Penang is an island and is located in the northwest of the Malaysian mainland. Malaysia’s population is estimated around 30 billion people and consists of three major ethnicities: 50% Malay, 24% Chinese, 11% Orang Asli (indigenous tribes), 7% Indian and 7,8% misc. The fact that the population of Malaysia is divided by three major ethnics is important for the religious life of the people. The most practiced religion in Malaysia is the Islam, as the religion of the state, (60% of the population), followed by Buddhism (20%), Christianity (9%) and Hinduism (6,5%). Besides that, there are different minorities which practice either Confucianism, Taoism or follow animist beliefs.¹
This text is about the Jewish cemetery – but there’s no Judaism in Malaysia, so how is that even possible? The history of this country can offer some answers to the question. Malaysia, especially Penang, is located on the strait of malacca, an important stretch of water. Nowadays more then 20% of the world ship’s trade is passing the narrow strait. The trade was followed by migration of different cultures and faiths. Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Portuguese, Netherlands and Britons had a long lasting impact on the Malaysian Culture.
The First Jews
The first Jews came from India -the so called Baghdadi Jew. They were expellees from Persia. Firstly they were driven first to India. After this Malaysia and Singapore were the destinations of their longing to successfully attend the upcoming trading business. Ezekiel Aaron Menasseh was the name of the “first Jew” who settled down in Penang in 1895. It is said that he was the first one who practiced Judaism and was following the religious rituals.²
The numbers of how many people the jewish community counted varied from 172 to 30 in 1895.³ The community itself was accepted by the Muslim majority and even built a Synagogue, located in Nagore Road, in 1929. Following a Jewish Holiday, Rabbi Hayoo Jacobs came all the way from Singapore to help the community.
The pacific war was obviously a caesura in the life of everyone in Malaysia, for the Jewish community aswell. Fearing the arrival of the Japanese soldiers the Jews looked for refuge in countries like Singapore, Australia, Israel. In the late 1960 the community was reduced to only 3 to 20 families (again the numbers varies pretty much from each other and also the counting in “families” is rather vague).
Under the first prime minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the nation got independence and the tensions between Muslims and Jews were removed. This changed with the forthcoming prime ministers. It worsened under Tun Abdul Razak but got even worse under the 4th prime minister of Malaysia, Tun Mahatir Bin Mohamad, whose Antisemitism made it impossible for the Jewish people to stay in Malaysia any longer.
His nationalized hatred against Jews forced the community to leave – in 2003 he said: “The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy.[…]” – followed by even worse prejudices. Gary Braut, who is a Jew living in Kuala Lumpur and is a contact for jewish people in Malaysia, said that Mahatir was not a bad guy.He kept up correspondence with Yitzhak Rabin (prime minister of Israel 1974-1977 & 1992-1995) and also organized trips for Israeli children to meet up with Muslim children in Malaysia, he said.
The Jewish Cemetery
The Jewish cemetery is based in the former Jalan Yahudi, “Jew street”, which was renamed to Jalan Zainal Abidin. It is hidden and not many people even know about this place. The entrance is usually locked due to the fear of violence as well as there are no visitors. If one wants to visit the cemetery one is free to ask via email – I didn’t get an answer. The cemetery was built in 1805, long before there was a real Jewish community. More than 105 are buried here. The last and probably most famous one, David Mordecai – manager of the famous Eastern & Oriental Hotel – was buried there in 2011. Only days before his 90th birthday. 55 people attended the funeral. The oldest tombstone is dated 9th July, 1835 and belongs to Mrs. Shoshan Levi. Many of the buried people are from British descent. Now a nearly forgotten place the cemetery got one Hindu named Rajiv – he’s taking care of the dead and preserves the history.
Additional Note: I don’t know why the numbers of people or families vary that much. This short text is based on different newspaper articles and some of them got totally different numbers than the others. Also: this is not a scientific essay. What surprised me is that there’s barely any literature of Jewish Life in Southeast Asia. I’m glad if you like this short journey to a forgotten place! 🙂
3: The Star says 172, the Neue Züricher Zeitung 30 People.
Pictures by myself.