This New Book Sheds Light On The History Of Penang’s Jewish Community

The Last Jews of Penang. (source: Elliot1020/Reddit)

The history of the Jewish people is a tale as old as time.

Believed to have originated from the Levant region in Southwestern Asia, today Jewish representation is seen all around the world, in the form of movies, TV shows, and even works of art.

Despite this, their presence in Malaysia is seemingly non-existent. While a sizeable Jewish community was said to have lived in the then-British colony of Penang, not much is widely known of them today.

A Jewish immigrant ship in the 1940s. (source: National Army Museum)

A new book seeks to set the record straight, and is expected to hit bookshelves very soon.

Titled ‘The Last Jews Of Penang’, it’s penned by American-Malaysian academic Zayn Gregory, and features illustrations by respected cartoonist Arif Rafhan.

The book was made possible by a crowd-funder run by it’s publisher Matahari Books, which saw it reach 91% of its backing goal within a week.

The author and the artist. (source: Zayn bin Gregory (YouTube) / Difference Engine/Asian Books Blog)

Told in a format “a Primary Six kid could pick up”, the 40-page book chronicles the accounts of various Jewish families who are said to have called Malaysia home.

The author takes great detail to explain the traces of their culture that still remains today, from the Penang Jewish Cemetery on Jalan Zainal Abidin (formerly Jalan Yahudi), to the last synagogue that was in operation on Jalan Nagor – which now serves as a coffeeshop.

The road which the Jewish Cemetery sits on used to be the centre of the Penang Jewish community. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The issue is close to home for Zayn, as his mother is Jewish and his father’s family is from Poland. Indeed, he says that the book is his way of openly declaring his heritage, something he had kept secret since migrating here.

“I stuck out enough as a foreigner already, without getting into complicated issues, so I decided to keep the fact (that) I’m a Jew to myself,” he told Free Malaysia Today in an interview.

He converted to Islam at 17 years old, and had moved from Detroit, USA to his wife’s hometown of Kuching back in 2003.

Zayn and his family. (source: Zayn Gregory/Free Malaysia Today)

The Last Jews Of Penang is set to launch at the George Town Literary Festival on 20 November, before hitting physical and online retailers.

Check out the book on GoodReads or follow the author here.