New graphic novel tells the story of Malaysia’s lost Jewish community
(JTA) – Researchers aren’t sure exactly when Jews first arrived in Penang, one of Malaysia’s smaller states, located on the Southeast Asian nation’s western island.
The Jewish cemetery in George Town, the region’s capital, on a street formerly called Jalan Yahudi – “Jewish way” – gives an estimate: his first burial was that of Mrs. Shoshan Levi, in 1835. At the turn of the 20th century, a census showed a Jewish population of 172.
But Jews no longer roam the streets of George Town, and they haven’t for decades. Jalan Yehudi has since been renamed in honor of a Malaysian writer, Zainal Abidin, and the former local synagogue has not been inhabited by Jews since it closed in 1976. Without enough Jews to complete a minyan, or a 10-man Jewish prayer group, the building is now a trendy cafe.
And in recent years, Malaysia has been identified by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the most anti-Semitic nations outside of the Middle East and North Africa. Much of this hatred can be attributed to its former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who said he was proud to be anti-Semitic. Israel and Malaysia do not maintain diplomatic relations and Israelis are banned from visiting.
“The only thing that exists [in Malaysia today] are people of Jewish descent, say, people who have Jewish ancestry somewhere in the family tree, but these people converted to Islam in order to marry the Malay community, ”said Zayn Gregory.
Gregory, an American who is himself a half-Jewish convert to Islam and now lives in the Malaysian city of Kuching, recently wrote a book on the Jews of Penang. “The last Jews of Penang“, which was published last week, is a short graphic novel for all ages, featuring colorful watercolor illustrations of the old streets of George Town and synagogue scenes by artist Arif Rafhan.
It describes the history of the once vibrant Jewish community that occupied old George Town, explaining Jewish lifestyles to readers who may have never met a Jew and spotlighting some of its famous figures like David Marshall, who would become the Chief Prime Minister of Singapore (under British Commonwealth rule).
“The book is kind of a requiem for the old community – those who are aware of the missing community have some idea of how we have been diminished by their passing. The hope is that this book will bring more awareness to Malaysia’s rich multicultural reality. [the name of the region until the early 1960s] it used to be, ”said Gregory, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Malaysia Sarawak and writer and translator of Malay poems.
He became fascinated with the little-known history of Jews in Malaysia through stories he read in local media, and was later approached by the book’s publisher, Matahari Books.
Gregory converted to Islam at the age of 17, a decision he attributes to being caught in the midst of a mixed Jewish and Christian family, without strongly identifying with either. the other. He then made the decision to move to Malaysia with his wife, whom he had met in the United States but who was born and raised in Malaysia. The country is over 60 percent Muslim, with almost 40 percent identifying with other faiths.
Judaism was not a big part of Gregory’s life until he moved to Malaysia, he said. “But being here, it’s a country where Judaism is not widely known or understood. Most people have never met a Jew in their life. And there are unfortunately a lot of misunderstandings and, you know, kinds of prejudices born out of ignorance.
Researching and writing the book brought him closer to his Jewish roots. When he learned that there used to be a Jewish community in Malaysia, “It really blew me away. I was so amazed, ”said Gregory. “I felt like this was really an opportunity for me to share something about myself that is still a part of me.”
Little significant research or writing has been done on the Jews of Penang – Gregory mainly used articles from local newspapers and magazines, in addition to a study written by Australian researcher Raimy Che-Ross. According to this newspaper, Zionist nationalist Israel Cohen paid a visit to Penang in 1920, then under British control, where he met a man named Ezekiel Aaron Manasseh, who claimed he was until recently the only religious Jew there. -low.
Commercial interests, anti-Semitism in their home country and World War I had brought “”a few other Jews in Baghdad, mostly poor hawkers, who frequented Chinese and Malaysian women and led a degraded life, ”said Manasseh, who was Orthodox. It was not all true, as census data shows, but Manasseh showed that even in a place as small and remote from a large Jewish community as Penang was over a century ago, wars of timeless Jewish territory persisted.
Many Jews began to leave Malaysia during WWII with the help of the British. Those who stayed mostly left in the 1970s, as anti-Semitism became more prevalent in everyday life.
In a 1970 book, Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister, wrote that Jews “have a hook nose” and “understand money instinctively”. He was removed from office in 2020 during his second term as Prime Minister, by which time Malaysia’s Jewish population had all but disappeared.
Of his anti-Semitism, Mohamad said in 2012, “How can I be otherwise, when the Jews who speak so often about the horrors they suffered during the Holocaust show the same cruelty and the same Nazi harshness towards not only their enemies but even towards their allies. trying to stop the senseless slaughter of their Palestinian enemies.
Those who fled Malaysia have gone to Australia, Israel and the United States; many more would travel to nearby Singapore, including Marshall.
The last known ethnic Jew in Penang was David Mordecai, a famous hotel manager whose family first came from Baghdad in 1895 and who died in 2011. He is buried in The only Jewish cemetery in Penang, which has been cared for by the same Muslim family for generations.
The scholars said the strong voices of politicians do not necessarily reflect the views of everyday Malaysians; they argue that many of those who reject the country’s religious nationalism have begun to reject the country’s tradition of hating Jews.
Gregory agrees and hopes his book will help build bridges with the distant Jewish people whom he still considers an important part of his life and who once called Penang their home.
“The many times that I have shared here with people on my own background, I have never experienced anything hostile from a distance,” said Gregory. “There is sometimes amazement – certainly the idea that a person of Jewish descent becomes a Muslim is just as surprising to a Muslim as it could be to a Jew. “