On my last trip to Penang, I decided to re-visit Jahudi Road (now Jalan Zainal Abidin) where you can find a Jewish Cemetery. Jahudi Road is located between Burma Road and MaCalister Road, a 10-minute walk from the towering Komtar (Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak). I failed to understand why the local authorities changed its name to Jalan Zainal Abidin. What is wrong with Jahudi Road or Jalan Yahudi for that matter?
Many Malaysians and for that matter Penangites, do not know the existence of this cemetery or the fact that there was once a Jewish community in Penang.
The Penang Jews consisted mainly of Oriental Jews, the majority of whom were Baghdadi Jews (from Baghdad, Iraq) as well as European and Central Asian Jews and a handful of Chinese Jews, yes Chinese Jews, from Kaifeng. The Kaifeng Jews fled their Chinese homeland mainly during the Communist take over of mainland China in 1949.
The first known Jew to settle in Penang was believed to have been Ezekiel Menasseh who migrated from Baghdad in 1800s. Menasseh remained the only Jew in British Malaya for 30 years, and he continued to observe Jewish holidays. After World War I, more Jews began to settle in Malaya. Then during World War II, the Jewish community was evacuated by the British military to Singapore, fearing Japanese imprisonment and ill-treatment. By 1963, only 20 Jewish families remained in Malaysia including former RTM orchestra conductor Gus Styne.
Penang's only synagogue closed down in 1976 because it "could no longer muster the requisite 10 male above the age of 12 needed to perform religious ceremonies".
The descendants of Penang Jews can be found in Singapore (such as ex late Chief Minister David Marshall, a Baghdadi Jew), in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States.
The Jewish Cemetery in Penang is believed to be the oldest single Jewish cemetery in Malaysia, if not South-East Asia. The oldest tombstone is dated 1805 and the most recent being 1976, that of a teacher's college lecturer.
It is the only cemetery established solely for the once small and thriving Jewish community although there may be a few Jewish graves in other non-Jewish cemeteries such as the Protestant cemetery (Farquhar Street) and the Catholic cemetery (Kelawai Road).
The Jewish cemetery in Penang also has one of the largest number of Jewish graves interned in one specific area, numbering 70 graves. The cemetery is well-kept and clean compared to most other cemeteries in Penang.