The Penang cemetery of Jewish history

The entrance to the Penang Jewish cemetery.

The Jewish Cemetery is all that’s left of Penang’s once prominent Jewish community, which once played an important role in the city’s history.

A sign at the entrance states that the cemetery was established in 1835. It is thought to be the oldest Jewish cemetery in South-East Asia though there may be older Jewish graves in other non-Jewish cemeteries.

It is located along Jalan Zainal Abidin, formerly known as Jalan Jahudi or Yehudi Road. Today this nondescript street comprises some dreary government housing blocks and a few old shop houses.

The family home of P Ramlee, Malaysia’s most celebrated singer, actor and director used to be located here.

History of the Jews in Penang

The Jews had been trading in the Malay Peninsula for hundreds of years but in Penang they can certainly trace their origins back to the 1830s when the Baghdadi Jewish population fled Persia to India and onward to Singapore and Penang to escape persecution.

They engaged in various trades such as tailors, scribes, jewellers and money-lenders. While some were poor, others became very affluent and successful.

The famous Sassoon family were Baghdadi Jews.

There was a synagogue in a shop house at number 18 Jalan Nagore, George Town. At their peak in 1899 the number of Jewish settlers was 172, declining to just 30 by 1941 when the remaining families were mostly evacuated by the British to Singapore prior to the Japanese invasion of Malaya.

After the war the few remaining Jews on the island migrated to Singapore, Australia, Israel and the US. By 1969 there were only three Jewish families left and today they are all gone.

The oldest grave in the cemetery.

The cemetery today

There are 107 graves in this cemetery. If you can find him, the caretaker will point out a few graves to you, including the oldest in the cemetery dated July 9, 1835.

You may not be able to read the Hebrew inscription, but the history notes in the visitors book says it belongs to Mrs Shoshan Levi, an English woman who donated the land where the cemetery stands.

Mordecai David is the last person to be buried here.

Mordecai David Mordecai, who died on July 15, 2011 is the most recent and final person to be buried in the cemetery.

Mordecai was an E&O hotel manager. The caretaker says this will be the last grave as there are no more Jews in Penang now.

Many of the graves are topped with a pyramid shaped cover said to resemble ossuaries found in Israel where the bones of several bodies are kept together.

The ossuaries were originally made of wood and hinged to enable the easy addition of more bones. This shape later became a model for stonemasons to copy.

A fenced-off section at the cemetery has a notice which reads: ”This site is reserved for the burial of Cohens and Levis only.”

Historically, the Cohens enjoy a priestly status and were not allowed to come into contact with any dead body. The Cohens are buried at the edge of the main cemetery so that relatives can visit without entering the cemetery.

The British war grave of 2nd Lieutenant Louis Victor Cohen.

The Cohen section contains a British war grave. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records him as 2nd Lieutenant Louis Victor Cohen of the 9th Jat Regiment who died on Oct 9, 1941 aged 23.

He was the son of Sassoon Jacob and Seemah Cohen of Calcutta. He died in an accident two months before the Japanese invasion of Malaya.

The Levites’ role in the Jewish temple included singing Psalms during services. They also served as teachers and judges in biblical times.

The hand symbol on Joseph Bernstein’s grave denotes that he was a Cohen.

The cemetery is being well looked after by the caretaker and the trustees with the support of private donations. It is a poignant place to visit even if you don’t have any Jewish ancestry.

Penang Jewish Cemetery
Jalan Zainal Abidin, 10400 George Town, Pulau Pinang

GPS: 5.417069, 100.326194

This article first appeared in malaysia-traveller.com