Penang Jewish Cemetery
The oldest Jewish cemetery in Southeast Asia is a monument to a disappearing community.
Tucked away behind high, unkempt walls on the side of a busy road that feels worlds away from the charming shophouse streets of tourist-friendly George Town, it’s easy to miss the Jewish Cemetery (despite the name printed in English on its gates). If the gates appear locked, a visitor need only knock or shout; the proprietor will soon be out to open them, and give you a brief tour, from the oldest grave, erected in 1835, to the newest, erected in 2011.
Upon first entering the cemetery, the graves—formed of long, low triangles or domes similar to ossuaries found in the Middle East—appear to be unmarked. But if you walk around to the other side you can find inscriptions. Most are in Hebrew, a few accompanied by English translations. Nearly all are hidden in small alcoves on the side of the casket-like grave stones, facing away from the entrance.
A few small glass pebbles and several stones mark the graves, demonstrating that the memory of those interred here lives on, despite the fact that (according to the proprietor) the last ethnic Jew on the island of Penang is already lying here, a man who died in 2011. When asked if there were still any jews living in Penang, he replies laconically, “There used to be many—but now there are none at all.”
The absence may be keenly felt by the traveller to this lonely alcove. Checking the guestbook, it seems that the cemetery often goes days or weeks without a single guest. Those that have made the pilgrimage leave names and countries from all over the world. There are even a few entires in Hebrew.
Sadly, Penang’s only synagogue, dating back to 1929, was unable to support a minyan (a group of 10 or more adult Jews, traditionally men), and closed down in 1976, leaving the Jewish Cemetery as the last trace of the community. Even the street it stands next to, once called Yahudi Road, or “Jewish Street,” has since been renamed Jalan Zainal Abidin.
Know Before You Go
The only entrance is via the gate on the main, northern stretch of Jalan Zainal Abidin road. The parts that border the alleyway of the same name to the south are made inaccessible by high stone walls.
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