Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jewish Cemetery (Penang)

As i was walking back after having a good lunch in Macalister Road, i stumbled upon a rod iron gate that was inscribed with the words Jewish Cemetery. Penang is well known for its food and heritage, but i have not heard before of its Jewish community let alone cemetery. Curious, I walked towards the gate and was greeted by a friendly Indian lady who spoke fluent Hokkien. Chatting with her, i found out she was a third generation caretaker who lived within the cemetery compounds with her children and grandchildren. She invited me in for a quick tour and of course i obliged. I tipped her at the end of the tour, for her time and patience in showing me around and sharing with me the stories of some of the Jews buried here.
Entrance to Jewish Cemetery

Back in Singapore, i learned further that the Penang Jewish Cemetery was established in 1805 and is believed to be the oldest single Jewish cemetery in Asia. It forms a 38,087 square foot cleaver shaped plot of land situated alongside Jalan Zainal Abidin which was formerly known as Jahudi or Jewish Road, in the heart of Georgetown, Penang. There are approximately 107 graves located in the cemetery, with the most recent tombstone dated 2011. It is the only cemetery established solely for the once small and thriving Jewish community in Peninsular Malaysia, although there may be a few Jewish graves in other non-Jewish cemeteries.  The cemetery is still managed by a board of trustees that was established and registered in 1885.
Oldest Jewish tomb - Mrs Shoshan Levi
The oldest Jewish tombstone in the Jewish Cemetery dates back to July 9, 1835 and is said to belong to  Mrs. Shoshan Levi, an English woman of Jewish faith who donated the land where the current cemetery stands.
Reserved site for Cohens and Levis
The graves of the Cohens and Levis are located separately from the main group of graves on one corner of the cemetery and it includes the grave of an English Lieutenant killed during World War II,  Second Lieutenant Eliaho Hayeem Victor Cohen, 2/9 Jat Regiment , born November 29, 1918 -died October 10, 1941, the son of Sassoon Jacob and Seemah Cohen, of Calcutta, India.
Second Lieutenant Eliaho Hayeem Victor Cohen
Commonwealth War Grave Commission
Isaac Abraham Cohen 

History of the Jewish community in Penang

The Jews were said to have visited and traded with the Hindu influenced satellite ports located in the riverbanks of  the Bujang Valley, Kedah as early as the 9th Century and 18th Century in emporium of the east, Malacca. The rise in large number of arrival of the Penang Jewish community, happened in the 19th century with large number of  Baghdadi Jews (Persian Jews who escaped persecution by settling first in India before expanding to Malaya and Singapore ) set foot on its shores to explore the trade opportunities.
World War II was the marking point of the decline of the Jewish Community with many fleeing to Singapore and either settling there or eventually homes in Australia or Israel. The Jewish Welfare Board of Singapore recorded that by 1963, only 20 Jewish families remained in Malaya. The Jewish community only synagogue at Nagore Road closed its doors in 1976 due to a lack of quorum.

Tomb Design

I noticed clean pebbles being placed in front of some of the tombstones. I read that it symbolises remembrance of the deceased and that they are not forgotten. Most of the graves take the design of a triangular vaulted-lid casket, resembling what is term as ossuaries commonly found in Israel.

Tomb of infants and children 

The last Jew in Penang and hope for it's future

The last resident Penang Jew
The last known remaining Jew in Penang passed away at the age of 90. His name was David Mordecai, the former general manager for the E&O Hotel. What is the future for the Jewish Cemetery?  Hopefully with Georgetown gaining UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008, some level of protection and conservation will be granted to this place.

Rest in Peace


Casulty Details. [website] War Grave Commission
Penang Jewish Cemetery. [website] Penang Jewish Cemetery Trust

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