Saturday, March 19, 2011

The last Jew to leave Penang

Joseph Jacobs...born in Penang synagogue

At the turn of the last century some 170 Baghdadi Jews lived in Malaya. Now there is only one. All traces of the Jewish community, save the synagogue, have been erased. FreeMalaysiaToday online interviews Joseph Jacobs, now living in Australia, visiting his childhood haunts:

It was a muggy night in George Town but Joseph Hayeem Abraham Jacobs was loathe to dine in any of the air-conditioned restaurants lining Gurney Plaza’s swanky strip. Not when he had travelled all the way from Australia, and certainly not when he was in his hometown. Instead he made a beeline for the Gurney Drive food court.

“You haven’t been here?” he asked in amazement as he wove his way through the crowded square. “This place is an institution!”

Twenty minutes and a neat pile of satay sticks later, Jacobs, 53, spoke of the reason behind his unplanned trip back to Penang.

“My nanny passed away,” he said. “My sister, Meeda, and I are here to attend her cremation and set up an education fund in her name. She was a wonderful woman… really wonderful… and we want her to have a legacy.”

His eyes misted over at the gentle pull of memories and he concentrated on his last bite of satay before clearing his throat.

“Her name was Soundravalli,” he said. “She brought me up when my parents left me with my grandparents to work in Kuala Lumpur. I grew up speaking Tamil.”

He tossed out a few Tamil words, unaware of how delightfully startling it was to hear them roll off a Pan Asian tongue. Then again Jacobs has never felt like he was cut from different cloth. Not even when he was a Malaysian Jew in Penang.

Penang heralded the arrival of the Malaysian Jewish community in the 19th century when Baghdadi Jews set foot on its shores to explore the trade opportunities there.

The first known Jew to make Malaya his home was Ezekiel Aaron Menasseh in 1895. Menasseh claimed to be the only practising Jew in Malaya for three decades but the general census of Jewish settlers in Penang (1881-1941) showed that 172 Jews already lived there in 1899.

World War II, however, drove a significant number of Jews to Singapore and a majority chose to build new homes there as well as in Australia, Israel and the United States. The Jewish Welfare Board of Singapore recorded that by 1963, only 20 Jewish families remained in Malaya. One of them was Jacobs’ family.

The hazan’s grandson: Jacobs’ father, Abraham Jacobs, was only five when his father, Hayoo Jacobs, packed them up and left Baghdad for Singapore in 1936. But Hayoo wasn’t a tradesman. Nor was he just any other Jew.

Hayoo was a hazan (the leader of a synagogue), a shochet (one who slaughters cattle and fowl for kosher consumption) and a mohel (one who performs ritual Jewish circumcisions).

Penang synagogue, now a flower shop

When word reached him that the Jewish community in Penang required these services, Hayoo uprooted the family once again and made for the island state. Once there the family took up residence in Penang’s synagogue, built in 1929, and nestled at the corner of Nagore Road.

Abraham grew up juggling a myriad of professions including that of a fighter pilot and professional boxer. At one point, he even enjoyed a French dairy board consular status with the French government. He eventually met and married Tan Kok Choo who would go on to become a popular RTM broadcaster.

Jacobs, Meeda and their younger brother, David, were born in the synagogue where they lived for most of their childhood.

“It was a very normal childhood,” Jacobs recalled. “We went to school, we played with the neighbourhood kids. Everyone knew we were Jews but no one cared. That’s the beauty of Penangites.”

When he turned 13, Joseph’s parents returned from Kuala Lumpur and the family left the synagogue for a proper home in a residential area. Four years later, Abraham had a sense of foreboding that the future of Jews in Malaysia would be short-lived.

“Times were relaxed during (first prime minister) Tunku Abdul Rahman’s reign,” Jacobs said. “But when (second prime minister) Tun Abdul Razak stepped in, things began to change.”

“My father decided to move to Australia in 1975. We settled down in Sydney and I surrendered my Malaysian passport the next year. When (fourth prime minister) Mahathir (Mohamad) came into power, it was obvious that Malaysia was no longer a good place for Jews.”

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