Malaysia’s forgotten Jewish community
It is Friday. The table is set. There is food placed neatly around the red-tinted oak table as four Malaysians take their seats. It wouldn’t be that abnormal to see the group of Malaysians gather for a dinner party in the country, but for these few, Friday marks the Seder. And for this small Jewish community in the Southeast Asian Islamic country, their Friday gatherings are unique, and secretive.
“We don’t want to anger people and this is why we just keep it small,” said host Anwar Tarek, who’s Muslim name has helped him avoid the discerning gazes of a country that is not too keen to promote its Jewish history. “We don’t mind because we are able to practice our faith in peace. We are Malaysians and proud of our country, but with the situation in Palestine, we don’t really want to be singled out.”
Tarek’s family history is a conglomeration of Iraqi and Chinese Jews fleeing their own countries’ turmoil. His unique, Arab and Asian features fit in nicely in the ethnic mix that is Malaysia. Few people, he says, ever ask about religion, which he appreciates.
“Life is good here in Malaysia,” he begins. “While we are not a large community, there are still thousands of Jews in Malaysia, some who practice and others who don’t. The vast majority are either of Arab or Chinese origin.”
His history lesson of sorts comes between bites and small talk around the table. The Seder sees Tarek, his wife and two of their closest friends; engage in what the Jewish community globally does every Friday evening. They are merry, a sign that Malaysia has been good to them.
Malaysia’s history with the Jewish community is an interesting one, with a large number of Jews living quite openly in the northern state of Penang until the end of the 1970s, when anti-Israeli sentiment drove many Jews to convert or go underground in order to not be singled out as “traitors.”
Tarek’s family, of Sephardic origin, moved closer to the capital, Kuala Lumpur in the 1980s, where Tarek went to high school and eventually university. He said his father changed their family names in order to “fit in with the rest of society.”
While he wants to bring back his Jewish identity for his future children – his wife Mary, of Chinese ethnic background and Jewish, is pregnant with their first child – he appreciates what his father did for him and his three brothers.
“Going to school with a Muslim name was really smart because we never faced any trouble. Granted we aren’t the ultra-religious that many Malaysians think of when they think Jewish, but it was a good idea and helped us fit in to society,” he said.
The Chinese Jewish population in Malaysia, of which Mary is a part of, largely came to Malaysia in the 1950s, following the Communist revolution in China. For them, Mary says, it was easier to assimilate into Malaysian society because this was when thousands of Chinese laborers arrived.
Overall, there are no statistics on the Malaysian Jewry, as the government largely doesn’t admit to their existence, but Tarek and others part of the Jewish community in the country say there are thousands, although they admit that many probably wouldn’t recognize themselves as being Jewish. At least not publicly.
“It was okay for my father because we weren’t singled out as being Jewish and people wanted laborers to work on developing the country, so the Chinese Jewish community just fit in,” she said.
When she met her future husband at university, her Jewish roots had largely been forgotten. She had grown up in a secular household in the southern state of Malacca and had never attended a Seder.
“It was new to me to learn about my roots and Anwar was really great about making me fit in with the community I guess I had always been a part of, but didn’t really know it,” she said, adding that “his parents, before they passed, were so welcoming and hopeful that our relationship would stick. I guess it did.”
Now, the couple hosts regular Seders in their home. Often, they said, a half dozen couples join them for the Friday meals. “It is a great experience to know that we can be Jewish and Malaysian at the same time.”
But there are concerns they have for the future, as more and more of the Jewish community begins to come out and be more open about their faith.
“Certainly, this is something we are watching. We are very pro-Palestinian and do not like what is happening in the Holy Land, but at the same time, we are worried about how the government would react if we wanted to travel to Israel. We’ve seen Christians have problems with that,” Tarek admitted.
He was referring to the recent crackdown and police intimidation of a number of Christian families who had returned from trips to Palestine, local media reported. With children part of this young couple’s plans for the future, they have no desire to risk alienation from a country they call home.
“Malaysia is our home. It is our future and being Jewish hasn’t really changed anything. We don’t face any anger or resentment from friends and colleagues who know we are Jewish, so I think in the future, the Jewish community will continue to be strong in our own way,” he added.