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One family’s world of Judaism in Malaysia Print

“It might seem like a very unusual place for Jews to choose to live, but peninsular Malaysia is home to a fascinating, if miniscule, Jewish population. On the island of Penang, a lone, elderly Jew is the final member of a decades-old community, while in Kuala Lumpur, one man is determined to gather together the few Jewish souls in town.”

“What colour kippah are you wearing?” says 62-year-old Gary Braut, Kuala Lumpur’s (KL) Jewish contact. “I’ll send someone down to the lobby to get you.” Needless to say, it was a superfluous question – even if I was not wearing one, I’d be easy to spot. In this country of 27 million, only a handful are Jews, probably only one of which, Gary, wears a kippah.

Soon I’m sitting with Gary in a waiting room of the palatial Prince Court Medical Center private hospital. Gary doesn’t feel well. He’s telling me, quite loudly, how his mum doesn’t want him to wear a kippah and tzitzit in public. Such overt Jewish talk is unusual in KL, and I’m feeling a little bit nervous.

I see a curly-haired Caucasian woman to my left, the only other non-Asian in the room, eavesdropping. On a whim, I ask her, “What, are you Jewish too?” Yes, as a matter of fact, she is, and works at the nearby US embassy. I explain myself as a curious Jewish writer from Melbourne, and that Gary has offered me an insight into life as a Jew in KL. She hands me her card. “I’d be interested to hear what he tells you,” she says, and goes off to her doctor’s appointment.


Family, Religion, Company

Gary’s business, Precision Automotive Industries (motto: Family, Religion, Company), which remanufactures starters, alternators, A/C compressors and ball bearings for the auto industry, employs around 180 people spanning the full gamut of the Malaysian populace.

In the delivery bay of his factory is a Chinese shrine, a gilt reminder of Muslim prayer times, and a huge photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, titled: Sultan of World Jewry Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ‘The Lubavitcher Rebbe’, waving benevolently from behind a man-sized oil-burning menorah made of car parts. As I arrive, one of Gary’s employees sets about lighting the wicks. It’s hot, humid, and easy to dehydrate in KL, and I have the odd feeling that I’m hallucinating.

Opposite the delivery bay is a marble plaque attesting to the company’s philosophy, which is to adhere to the values laid out by the Rebbe; there’s a company van emblazoned with ‘Mitzvah Tank’ and ‘Chabad Malaysia’; and back at the entrance to the delivery bay, I notice that the stone Feng Shui lion/dog guardians on either side of the gate are respectively engraved with ‘Chabad Malaysia’ and ‘Mikvah Malaysia’.

The Rebbe’s image again hangs alongside portraits of the Malaysian royal couple and a portrait of the former Prime Ministers Ahmad Badawi and Dr Mahathir. That’s not to mention the rooftop mural featuring the kotel and a depiction of Rabbi Avraham Shemtov visiting US President Ronald Reagan, the huge Jewish library, the DVD room festooned with Jewish paraphernalia purpose-built to enjoy chassidische music.


Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad

I sit down with Gary in his office meeting room, and a chocolate cake iced with ‘Shalom Andrew Harris’, to discuss his absolutely unique situation. Firstly, what about Dr Mahathir?

“Yes, the previous Prime Minister said things, but I think a little bit is taken out of context,” he says. “But at the end of the day, Yahya Cohen, the late president of the medical association in Singapore, told me he and Mahatir were classmates. And that actually, he was a swell guy.”

Gary’s met Dr Mahathir on several occasions. A photo from one meeting hangs in his lunch room. “Once I said ‘Yahya Cohen’, he became very warm,” Gary says. “He said, ‘Send him my best, how’s that fellow doing, he’s getting old.’ I felt like saying if he’s getting old, Dr Mahathir [born December 20, 1925], you’re also getting old!”

Yahya Cohen was a Jewish Singaporean-born surgeon, with a Yemenite father and Iraqi mother. He became a worldrenowned professor and expert in his field, and died in 2003. Cohen and Dr Mahatir studied medicine together at the then University of Malaya, in Singapore.

Mahatir kept up a correspondence with Yitzhak Rabin when he was Israeli PM, and helped organise a trip with Rabin to bring Israeli kids to Malaysia to meet local Muslim children.

He also runs the Global Peace Forum, and in 2006 invited Bar Ilan academic Dr Ben Mollov and made special arrangements to allow him to enter the country. Dr Mollov went again to Malaysia last year.



Being a Jew in KL

Gary tells me he ended up in KL after a search for cost-effective skilled labour in South East Asia. It was to Thailand, the Philippines, or Malaysia, and this is where he ended up, around 21 years ago.

Nu, so, how does Gary feel being a Jew in Kuala Lumpur? “Comfortable,” he says. “More comfortable than Brooklyn, that’s for sure.” He thinks the extremely small community, if you could call it that, attracts so little attention, that it’s no problem being Jewish in Malaysia.

It’s more due to his isolation that it’s difficult for Gary to be fully observant in KL. He does what he can. “My strength is not putting tefillin on every day. My strength is trying to be warm, recognise everyone, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, as G-d’s children.” Still, Gary’s house (marked as I see later, with ‘Chabad Malaysia’ in marble) is fitted with a marble aronkodesh, which houses a torah he bought in Sofia, Bulgaria, which, when he first saw it, he says was open to his barmitzvah parsha.

A few times, Gary’s managed to hold a Seder, with matzah from Singapore, a brandnew oven, paper plates and fresh salmon, officiated by young Rabbi Nochi Goldschmid, who he flew in from Brooklyn. Other curious attendees always outnumber the few Jews, and it’s more of an outreach and PR exercise than a full-on Seder. Gary advertises in local English-language papers, and the enquiries trickle in.


Common ground in KL

Two Palestinians made it to one of Gary’s Seders, one Christian and one Muslim. Gary met them by chance in the lobby of the hotel where he was putting up the two Rabbinical students who were to officiate.

They spotted his matzah, and one read off Gary’s kippah, and called out “Leibel ben Peretz, I haven’t seen matzah in a long time!” Two days later, they joined the Seder. The Palestinian–Malaysian– Jewish exchange went further.

Another Palestinian, this time a tertiary student of hotel management, taught Gary’s 12-yearold son, David Marshall Braut, (he has three older boys in the US) his Aleph-Bet. “We made him [the teacher] a name card,” Gary says, “‘Dr Yusuf, Yeshiva of Kuala Lumpur’; something cute, you know. And he liked it. Because, thank G-d, there’s lots of Palestinians that are OK with us.”

Gary says there’s a rotating cast of three- or four-year expat Jews in town, and then starts to tell me about the other permanent Jews he knows of: a guy from New Orleans who runs a furniture export business; a British lady who fell in love with a Malay architecture student and has lived here for 40 years; an art lecturer at one of the universities.

“Oh, and there’s two Jewish Moroccan fellas; cousins,” Gary says. “One was, or is married to the daughter of one of the [Malaysian] royal families. He came to a couple of my seders.

He might be divorced from the girl now. They [the boys] were running a bar here.” And there’s a young Chinese woman with a yiddische neshama, who has a be’ezrat hashem on her business card and hosts regular Friday night dinners.

Gary invites all the Jews to Sunday barbecues at his home. “And sometimes,” he says, “they even show up.”


The last Jews of Penang


Only two Jews carry Malaysian passports. One is the 87-yearold David Mordecai, the last remaining Jew in Penang, a causeway-linked island 300km north of KL. The other is his 71-yearold cousin Tefa Ephraim, who lives in Bondi, and left Penang 15 years ago. Before I left for KL, I spoke to Tefa over the phone, from Melbourne. How was it growing up Jewish in Penang? “It was alright.

Only towards the end, when there was the Gulf War, they started their rubbish over there; becoming anti-Jewish, and they knew I was Jewish, and they started passing remarks and all that…There were a few fanatics in the office – they threatened me on the phone.” She had already applied to move to Australia.

Tefa’s paternal grandfather came from Baghdad, and her mother was born in Burma. Tefa speaks English, Malay, Hokkien and Iraqi Judaeo-Arabic. Despite her ability to blend in, she steadfastly wore a magen david around her neck, and that’s largely what singled her out.

The only time her family had issues was in the 1940s, and it was due to their relatively fair complexions. “During the Japanese occupation, I was five or six years old,” Tefa says. “Every time they used to come to the house, my father would push me and my younger brother out the back door.”

The Penang Jews never had a rabbi to officiate anything. In the 1990s, when the community had virtually disappeared, Tefa observed what she could by herself.

Nonetheless, there was, from the 1940s, a synagogue, at 28 Nagore Road, which closed in 1976. After Tefa’s father passed away, all the communal possessions – “the praying things” – were sent away. The torah resides at Singapore’s Waterloo Street Synagogue; other items ended up in Israel.

Even at the peak of the community, there were never many Jews. “When I was living there, with my father, and mother, there were 15 or 20 of us.” Everybody, Tefa says, kept kosher and kept Shabbat.

For a while, there was a shochet in Penang, Hugh ‘Hayawi’ Jacobs. Tefa’s grandfather, Aboody Ephraim Nahom, was also quite learned. “When he was alive, he used to cut the chicken, he used to slaughter the chicken for us,” she says. “Once he passed away, it was very hard.”

Tefa’s cousin David continues to live in Penang, and is tended to by a carer. She saw him last in May 2008, when she went for a few weeks to tend the Jewish cemetery, which contains 106 graves, the earliest from 1835 and the most recent from 1978.

Despite her Bondi address, Tefa, rather than David, is the custodian of Penang’s Jewish heritage. “He’s very forgetful,” Tefa says. “One day he knows you, the next minute he doesn’t know who he’s talking to.”

Meanwhile, things are changing in Penang. Tefa’s childhood stomping ground has been razed, and the cemetery street, which used to be Jalan Yahudi, has been renamed. “It’s their country,” Tefa says, “what can we do?”

Supplied by Andrew Harris, a freelance photojournalist based in Melbourne, Australia
Publisher’s note The article mentions the name Chabad. The Chabad organisation has no affiliation with Mr Gary Braut in Kuala Lumpur and has no operation in Malaysia.

(Issue Dec 09/Jan 10)