The Jews of Penang

Nestled in the heart of George Town is a small and charming plot of land that has quietly borne the remains of a little-known people of Penang. Tucked safely behind its high walls along a narrow lazy stretch named Jalan Zainal Abidin (formerly known as Jalan Yahudi) is an intriguing Jewish cemetery.

Little is known of its past and less still of those it shelters. But the cemetery, with its neat rows of Hebrew-inscribed headstones, breathes a fresh aura of reverence that seems to defy its strange and elusive history. One cannot help but feel a deep sanctity that weighs gently upon the lush plot of land upon entering the cemetery’s huge iron gates.

Bordered by shady angsana trees and the paint-cracked back walls of pre-war shophouses, the cemetery has persevered for more than 160 years, patiently bearing in its sweet and inconspicuous way, the spirit of the island’s Jewish community.

All that is known of its origins is that an English lady of Jewish faith acquired the land in the early part of the 19th century and, upon her death, was buried there in 1835. The land was then transferred to the general ownership of the Jewish community.

While numerous local and visiting Jews in the region have been buried in the cemetery since then, it is interesting to note that Jews first arrived on Malaysian soil way back in the 11th century.

According to a business record left by Abraham, son of legendary Jewish leader Maimonides, traders from Fustat, the old city of Cairo, had travelled as far away as the Malayan peninsula where the powerful Indianised port-civilisations of Kedah and Langkasuka were thriving. Dealing in dyes, textiles, medications, perfumes, precious stones and metals, the traders traversed around important centres in South-east Asia.

South-east Asia also received a large wave of Jewish immigration during the post-war communist regime in China. Much of China’s Jewish community, comprising refugees from Soviet Russia and Hitler’s Europe, and descendents of Jews who had been in China since the 8th century, fled to Hong Kong and South-east Asia, particularly Singapore. The cemetery in Penang was used largely to bury visiting Europeans who died in the area during the British colonial period.

According to Jenny Hazell, an official with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Berks, England, the Commission is currently undertaking the maintenance of the grave of Second Lieutenant Louis Victor Cohen, who died on Oct 9, 1941, at the age of 23 years. The Commission’s resident caretaker Ong Thiam Lye, who is also caretaker of the Taiping War Cemetery, visits the cemetery every six months to clean Cohen’s headstone and clear the grass around the grave.

“I have maintained the graves of Cohen and several other British subjects buried at the Jalan Utama cemetery in Penang, but know little of their history,” Ong said.

According to Tefa Ephraim, a Penang born Jew in her 60s, although numerous British subjects in Malaya were buried at the Penang cemetery before and during the Second World War, the cemetery also received the remains of Jewish soldiers who died in places as far away as China.

“Among those who remain, the younger generation is not as versed in Jewish customs and traditions as the elders.”

Tefa was interviewed in 1996 when she returned for a short visit from Sydney where she now resides. She belongs to Penang’s small but close-knit Jewish community which has largely dispersed since the 70s. Some of the local families buried at the cemetery include the Manassehs, Mordecais, Jacobs, Ephraims and the Moses family.
Tefa’s brother, Charles Ephraim, one of the few Penang-born Jews left here, offered some explanations for the dwindling of the community. “Much of the community has migrated abroad,” he said during an interview. “Among those who remain, the younger generation is not as versed in Jewish customs and traditions as the elders.”

Even the minyan, a custom which requires a quorum of at least ten males aged 12 and above at a religious ceremony, could not be met. “Friends from Singapore would come to funeral ceremonies here to satisfy the quorum,” Charles explained.

The inability to fulfil the minyan, coupled with lack of religious knowledge among emerging generations, forced the shutdown of Penang’s only synagogue in late 1976. The synagogue, set in a terrace shophouse along Nagore Road, was established long before Charles was born in 1932, and was closed after his father passed away in June 1976.

“We would meet regularly for Saturday prayers at the synagogue,” Charles recounted. “It was a small place and had 12 copies of the Torah (the Jewish book of faith) placed in a row for us to pray toward.”

Like many of the Jews in Penang, the ancestry of the Ephraims is Persian. Their grandfather, a businessman, migrated from Baghdad in the 19th century, joining the community in Penang that consisted of numerous watch dealers. The subsequent generations that emerged assimilated a variety of local social traits with their traditional Jewish lifestyles.

“When I was young, my family spoke a mixture of Hebrew and English at home, with smatterings of Hokkien, Malay and Arabic,” Charles said.

He also has vivid memories of the Second World War, when Jews were persecuted in Europe. “During the Japanese Occupation in Malaya, Jewish adults had to wear red and white striped tags on their sleeves for identification purposes. The Japanese, afraid that we may be spies, also barred us from being present within half-a-mile of Penang island’s shoreline,” he said.

The cemetery nevertheless survived through the two wars, and had its last burial in 1978. A tattered registration book with pages falling off its spine still exists with a caretaker family that has tended the cemetery for five generations. The book, which bears names of people buried at the cemetery written in cursive and with blots of dried ink on its yellowish pages, contains a small list of autographs left by foreign visitors to the cemetery.

Fatimah Rabu, in her seventies, is the oldest person in the caretaker family hired by the Jewish community to maintain the cemetery. She said she knew little of the site’s history, but remembered that her grandfather took care of the place years before her parents took over.

“Many visitors, including Orang Putih (Westerners), visit this place,” Fatimah said. “Some, after visiting a particular grave, would place a clean pebble next to the headstone as a sign of holy remembrance.”

“We don’t know who these visitors are or where they come from, but every now and then, someone is seen kneeling or walking solemnly around the cemetery.”

Historian Paul Johnson once noted that the Jewish people have, over the centuries in history, exhibited a “tenacious adaptability even in the most adverse circumstances”. The Jewish cemetery in Penang is not only a testament to the spirit of this perseverance, but also a silent symbol of a unique community’s contribution to our nation’s rich heritage.

Himanshu Bhatt