Life in Jewish Malaysia

Life in Jewish Malaysia

The entrance to Gary Braut's house in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Andrew Harris
The entrance to Gary Braut's house in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Andrew Harris


WHAT colour kippah are you wearing?” says Kuala Lumpur’s (KL) 62-year-old Gary Braut. “I’ll send someone down to the lobby to get you.” Needless to say, it was a superfluous question -— even if I were wearing one, I’d be easy to spot. In a country of 27 million, only one, Braut, wears a kippah.

Soon I’m sitting with Braut in a waiting room of the palatial Prince Court Medical Centre private hospital. Braut doesn’t feel well. He’s telling me, quite loudly, that 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 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, “Are you Jewish too?” Yes, as a matter of fact, she is, and works at the nearby US embassy. I explain I am a curious Jewish writer from Melbourne and that Braut has offered me an insight into life as 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

BRAUT’S business, Precision Automotive Industries (motto: Family, Religion, Company), which re-manufactures starters, alternators, A/C compressors and ball bearings for the auto industry, employs about 180 people spanning the full gamut of the Malaysian populace.

In the delivery bay of his factory are a Chinese shrine, a gilt reminder of Muslim prayer times; and a huge photo 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 Braut’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 bin Mohamad.

That’s not to mention the rooftop mural featuring the Kotel and a depiction of Rabbi Avraham Shemtov visiting US President George Bush Snr, the huge Jewish library and the DVD room festooned with Jewish paraphernalia purpose-built to enjoy Chassidic music.

Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad

I SIT down with Braut in his office meeting room, and a chocolate cake iced with “Shalom Andrew Harris”, to discuss his 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. “At the end of the day, Yahya Cohen, the late president of the medical association in Singapore, told me he and Dr Mahathir were classmates. And that actually, he was a swell guy.”

Braut has met Dr Mahathir on several occasions. A photo from one meeting hangs in his lunchroom. “Once I said ‘Yahya Cohen’, he became very warm,” Braut 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!”

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

Dr Mahathir kept up a correspondence with Yitzhak Rabin when he was Israeli prime minister, 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 University academic Dr Ben Mollov and made special arrangements for him to enter the country. Dr Mollov went again to Malaysia last year.

Gary Braut (right) with his staff. Braut, who runs an auto parts remanufacturing business, is a Jewish resident of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: Andrew Harris
Gary Braut (right) with his staff. Braut, who runs an auto parts remanufacturing business, is a Jewish resident of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: Andrew Harris

Being a Jew in KL

BRAUT 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, about 21 years ago.

Nu, so, how does Braut 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 Braut 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 God’s children.” Still, Braut’s house (marked with “Chabad Malaysia” in marble) is fitted with a marble Aron Kodesh. It houses a Torah he purchased in Sofia, Bulgaria, which he says was open to his bar mitzvah parshah when he first saw it.

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

Common ground in KL

TWO Palestinians made it to one of Braut’s seders, one Christian and one Muslim. Braut 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 Braut’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 Braut’s 12-year-old son, David Marshall Braut, (he has three older boys in the US) his aleph-bet. “We made him [the teacher] a name card,” Braut says, “‘Dr Yusuf, Yeshivah of Kuala Lumpur’ — something cute, you know. And he liked it. Because, thank God, there are lots of Palestinians that are okay with us.”

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

“Oh, and there are two Jewish Moroccan fellas -— cousins,” Braut says. “One was, or is married to the daughter of one of the 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 Yiddishe neshamah, who has a be’ezrat hashem on her business card and hosts regular Friday night dinners.

Braut 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-year-old David Mordecai, the last remaining Jew in Penang, a causeway-linked island 300 kilometres north of KL. The other is his 71-year-old cousin Tefa Ephraim, who lives in Bondi, and left Penang 15 years ago. Before I left for KL, I spoke to Ephraim 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.

Ephraim’s paternal grandfather came from Baghdad, and her mother was born in Burma. She speaks English, Malay, Hokkien and Iraqi Judaeo-Arabic. Despite Ephraim’s 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,” Ephraim 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, Ephraim observed what she could by herself. Nonetheless, from the 1940s, a synagogue was situated at 28 Nagore Road. It closed in 1976 and after Ephraim’s father passed away, all the communal possessions -— “the praying things” -— were sent away. The Torah resides at Singapore’s Waterloo Street Synagogue, and 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, Ephraim says, kept kosher and kept Shabbat.

For a while, there was a shochet in Penang, Hugh “Hayawi” Jacobs. Ephraim’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.”

Ephraim’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 to the most recent in 1978.

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

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

Travel info

Malaysia Airlines ( flies direct from Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Kuala Lumpur. Flight time from Melbourne is eight hours. Kosher food is now available on board, as are a range of vegetarian options, the pick of which is the Indian-style Asian Vegetarian meal. Make sure you confirm your meal preference in advance.

There’s no problem with an Israeli stamp in your passport, but you can’t enter on an Israeli passport.