It’s become almost fashionable to write about lost Jewish communities around the world. Recent books have been published about Indian Jews and Jews in Harbin, along with those in the Philippines, to name a few. Now Zayn Gregory has come out with The Last Jews of Penang, illustrated by Arif Rafhan. It’s a short book and resembles a children’s picture book, yet is filled with interesting history going back almost two hundred years that can be enjoyed no matter what age.
The story starts with a drive past an old Jewish cemetery that has been tended to by one Muslim family going back five generations. The first person to be buried there was a woman named Shoshan Levi back in 1835. During its heyday about 125 years ago, the Jewish community in Penang only numbered about 200, but it was a vibrant and diverse group from around the world. Gregory writes that no one knows for sure when Jews first reached the shores of Malaysia, but raise the (probably speculative) possibility that it might have been three millennia ago:
After all, when King Solomon was building his glorious temple, he sent his men far and wide to gather gold and incense. Rare, precious aromatic woods like gaharu and kafur can only be found in the Nusantara.
In any case, the 19th and 20th century Penang Jewish community came from a diverse background:
Sephardic Jews from Portugal, Mizrahi Jews from Baghdad and Armenia, Ashkenazi Jews from Romania, Germany, Poland and England. Some came to seek their fortune, like the wealthy Jews of Malabar who have had roots in India for 800 years.
Gregory writes that these Jews mixed with their Chinese, Malay, and Indian neighbors.
The center of the Jewish community was a shopfront synagogue that is now a coffee shop. Back when it was still used as a place of worship, this synagogue housed twelve torahs and was within walking distance of most of the Jewish residents who lived near the streets Jalan Nagore or Jalan Yahudi, the latter of which is now called Jalan Zainal Abidin. Most of the congregants were religious and didn’t want to spend too much time walking to synagogue or else that would seem like work.
As with many of these Asian Jewish diaspora stories, the community in Penang started to leave as WWII swept through the region. Most of the Jews who were able to get out early went to Australia, although those who left after the war also went to the US, Israel and Singapore. All of these places had Jewish communities and Singapore was the home of David Marshall, one of the leaders of the independence movement.
The synagogue closed in 1976, although the last person to be buried in the Jewish cemetery was just in 2011, when David Mordecai, the general manager of the stately Eastern & Oriental Hotel, passed away. The same caretaking family, Mr. Selvaraj and his son, continue to look after the grounds of the cemetery. Malaysia is not the most hospitable country to Jews now, and Gregory mentions this, but thanks to this book the history of this small, but fascinating community lives on.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.