Hey, everyone, my very talented friend Arif Rafhan has illustrated a(nother) terrific book!
The Last Jews Of Penang is a slight volume suitable for all ages, that highlights a little known corner of Malaysian and Jewish history. A small but thriving Jewish settlement existed on the island of Penang for well over a century, building first a synagogue then, in the early 1800s, a graveyard several blocks away. The settlement’s decline began with World War II, as many of the Jewish inhabitants fled from the Japanese allies of the virulently anti-Semitic Nazi regime. After the war was over, many evacuees chose to stay with the larger diaspora community in Singapore or moved to Israel. By 1976, Penang’s synagogue could no longer support itself due to lack of congregation, so had to close its doors. The graveyard, however, still stands, maintained by Indian hereditary caretakers. With it stands the community’s legacy, a firm if obscure reminder that Malaya was once a safe haven for the Jewish, no matter the inflammatory rhetoric that made it into the Malaysian political mainstream towards the end of the 20th century.
I’m a big booster of Arif Rafhan’s work, and not just because of my continuing gratitude for his unwavering support for my musical eccentricities back in college. His illustrations are just so good, from the calligraphic endpapers to the dreamy watercolors of the interiors, easily evoking mood with color and light. Whether depicting an idyll of childhood happiness, the incipient horror of WWII, or the portraits of real community figures, he does an excellent job of bringing life to Zayn Gregory’s words, which for the most part are succinct and easily readable.
My one quibble — and this, ofc, comes as a result of living on the bleeding edge of language and cultural sensitivity, as curmudgeonly as that often makes me — is with the use on the next to last page of “a Jew” to signify a Jewish person. People in Malaysia (and let’s be honest, plenty of other people worldwide, gentile or otherwise) will likely stare at me blankly over this, unaware perhaps of the growing movement to use adjective identifiers instead of the more reductive noun formats, in an effort to embrace the multitudes inside us all. So, for instance, “I am a Muslim” is acceptable because this is shorthand for “I am a Muslim person”, whereas “I am a Jew” sounds reductive because there is no corresponding “I am a Jew person”: you would say “I am Jewish” as the adjective form differs. Oddly, perhaps, it feels less disrespectful when speaking in the collective, as in the title and throughout the book, vs the singular.
I don’t believe that any offense was intended tho: En Zayn is himself of Jewish descent, and has been candid with what that means to him. I do believe that this entire project is a worthwhile reminder of the importance, if not natural ubiquity, of multiculturalism and religious coexistence. I deeply sympathize with En Zayn’s desire to put a spotlight on this facet of history, especially in the face of the continuing ignorance too prevalent in Malaysian society in particular. Anti-Semitism is a fitnah perpetuated to divide and conquer, and should be rebuked in all its forms. This book will hopefully help in that last endeavor.
The Last Jews Of Penang by Zayn Gregory & Arif Rafhan was published November 20 2021 by Matahari Books and is available from Fixi.com.my.