The Jews of Surabaya

by Jessica Champagne and Teuku Cut Mahmud Aziz

It's hard to convince most Indonesians that Jews don't run the world, or at 
least the banks and US foreign policy. It's even harder to convince them that 
there's a longstanding community of Jews in Indonesia itself. In the early 
twentieth century, there were at least a thousand Jews, scattered to Padang, 
Semarang, Medan, Malang, Bandung, Batavia, Jogjakarta, and perhaps othercities. 
Now, while expats and others may gather in Jakarta and other major cities, the 
only synagogue and the largest community are in Surabaya.

This lone synagogue is easy to miss. The former residence of a Dutch doctor 
during the colonial period, the exterior is plain white, with a small section 
of wooden carving hidden by tree branches. The inside is immediately 
recognizable as an Orthodox, Sephardi synagogue. Men and women are separated as 
Orthodox Jewish law dictates, and the pulpit faces the ark for the Torah 
together with the congregation in accordance with the tradition of Sephardi 
Jews, those from Spain, Africa, and the Middle East. The simple, wooden ark is 
empty now; the old Torah scrolls belong to a larger congregation in Singapore. 
There is a ragtag collection of books locked away in the pulpit cabinet and the 
ark-frayed history Jewish history books in Dutch, World War II-issue GI prayer 
books, shinier new prayer books from a New York institution dedicated to 
preserving Sephardi tradition.

There is little documentation of the past-at least one old book of names and 
records has been thrown out, seen as bulky and unnecessary. Stories, though, 
are passed down through the generations; the few children readily describe 
their grandparents' childhoods. Leah Zahavi and Isaac Solomon , each of whom 
has held various official positions in the synagogue, are among those who keep 
their community alive, and are eager to share their memories and passed-down 
stories. Leah, whose features reflect her Iraqi origins, lives in a house 
adjoining the synagogue and serves as a caretaker and occasionally as a guide.

In telling community history, Leah often lapses back into Biblical tales of 
Ham, Shem, and Japeth or Sarah and Abraham, exploring the ancient root of the 
tensions between Jews and Muslims or of Jews as wanderers. Her stories of 
Indonesia, though, begin in the early 20th century, by which point some Jews 
(mostly Sephardi) had come to Surabaya as traders. Before living in Indonesia, 
many had lived in other parts of Asia, such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong 
Kong. As Leah says, they settled wherever they could find a living and a 
respite from war and persecution. When one person found a suitable place, they 
spread the word. Often, the men went first, and sent for their wives and 
children after they'd established themselves. As in other Dutch colonies, some 
(again, mostly Sephardi) Jews came as part of the colonial presence. 

Some reports suggest that the community was increased by World War II refugees. 
Gravestones in a small, overgrown Jewish cemetery plot bear names from around 
Europe and Asia, as well as generically Jewish names - Sassoon, Kattan, Moses, 
Reuben, Mussry.

The Surabaya Jews worked largely in trade. Over the decades, community members 
imported and/or repaired watches, refrigerators, electronics, fruits, diamonds, 
and more. Their hope that Surabaya would be a safe and profitable home was 
fulfilled for several decades.

Then the Japanese invaded, and put the Europeans into internment camps. It is 
rumored that the Jews were not counted as enemies until Gestapo officers 
arrived and demanded that the Jews be put into camps and kept separate from the 
other prisoners. Rumors still circulate that the Indonesian Jews would have 
been put to death by the Axis powers if the war had continued only a few days 
longer. As it was, they worked as forced labor on the railroads and were 
treated brutally. Old men bear physical reminders of their time in the camps, 
broken noses and missing teeth.

The Jews were liberated when Japan was defeated, but many had lost their homes 
and possessions. Some left Indonesia, but many dug back in. By the 1950s, the 
community was thriving again. Community members now speak of the 1950s as the 
peak of the Jewish community in Surabaya. They say that thousands of Jews lived 
in Surabaya, that they dominated the center of town in the way that Chinese are 
said to today. The community had acquired the current synagogue, its second, 
and set up a badminton court behind it. The community youth played sports, 
studied religion and language, and celebrated holiday and life cycle 
celebrations with each other and their families. Even those who couldn't attend 
these celebrations would send carloads of food, contributing to lavish feasts.

As the 1960s began, Indonesia was again becoming a risky place to set up shop. 
Jews felt vulnerable to the anti-Dutch feeling that marked the 1962 attempt to 
reclaim West Irian from the Dutch. They worried about currency instability, 
Sukarno's economic policies, and their physical safety. The mid-1960s, with the 
coup against Sukarno and widespread "anti-Communist" violence, increased many 
Jews' fear for their livelihoods and even for their lives. The Dutch passports 
held by many of the Indonesian Jews, along with changes in immigration 
policies, made it easier for them to enter other countries. Many Indonesian 
Jews decamped to Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, the Netherlands, the United 
States, and the new state of Israel.

It was during this turbulent period that Leah Zahavi came to Indonesia.

Abraham Zahavi left for Israel in the 1960s with his mother and brothers, 
driven by his mother's wish for him to find a nice Jewish bride. Soon after he 
succeeded in that mission, he returned to Surabaya without his mother and

brothers, but with his new Bombay-born wife, Leah, and a baby daughter, Chaya. 
By the time Leah and Chaya arrived in Surabaya, in 1969, the vibrant community 
with regular celebrations and gatherings was only a memory.

The Zahavi family has grown since then, with Chaya marrying an Indonesian 
Muslim and giving birth to two children (now ages 12 and 15). The community, 
however, has shrunk further with death and emigration. Now, there are only a 
handful of Jewish households in Surabaya, a total of about 20 people.

Still, the Zahavi family remains firmly rooted in Surabaya. While Leah speaks 
of going home to Israel where she can eventually be buried and mourned by a

full minyan, Chaya and her children speak of Indonesia as their home. "I love 
Indonesia very much," Chaya says. "I grew up here, I went to school here, I eat 
Indonesian food, my friends are here. I am an Indonesian, and my heart is an 
Indonesian heart. The father of my children is an Indonesian."

Many members of the older generation still hold Dutch passports gained at 
independence, ready to flee or chase a better dream abroad. In exchange for the 
international flexibility of a foreign passport, they accept limitations on 
their economic and civic rights in the country where they have always lived. 
These people speak many languages, vestiges of each land they have occupied. 
Leah readily holds conversations in Hebrew, Indonesian, English, Dutch, and 
Farsi, and has some skill in Javanese and Madurese. Chaya's children, however, 
are Indonesian citizens. While, like others in their cohort, they may dream of 
studying abroad or visiting family around the world, they will do so under 
Indonesian passports. The family still preserves the children's Judaism. 
Parents and grandparents teach them songs, prayers, family stories, and a 
little Hebrew.

These children's existence flouts the Indonesian state's static, divided 
concept of religion, in which each person has a single, clear religion

stamped on their national ID card and inter-religious marriage is forbidden. 
While the children have their mother and grandmother's Iraqi features, their 
skin is an Indonesian brown. Chaya seems conflicted about her children's 
religious future, first saying they will be allowed to choose and then 
sayingthat she can't imagine taking them away from their father. "Who will pray 
for him when he dies?" she asks. "What would it be if his children prayed for 
him, a Muslim, in the Jewish way?" For now, the children attend Catholic 
school, learning the stories of the Old and New Testament, and the boy follows 
his father to the mosque for Friday prayers. Their ID cards say "Islam," since 
Judaism is not among the five official options. Chaya's older child herself 
says "I choose Jewish because I am Jewish."

Leah and Chaya constantly find ways to fit themselves into an unexpected niche, 
building a life that is both Jewish and Indonesian. Leah sells what she calls 
Jewish food, but markets as Arab food. None of it would be recognized as Jewish 
in the western lands of bagels and lox. Now that there are too few children to 
make a Hebrew school, Leah teaches Hebrew periodically to interested 
Christians. She studies the Bible with Christian friends, Arabic with a Muslim, 
and is expert at explaining the similarities between Judaism and Islam.

As Leah navigates her life in Surabaya, she also navigates the Indonesian 
language. While bahasa Indonesia has words for "Jew" (yahudi) andHebrew 
(Ibrani), the wealth of words necessary to describe Jewish life and observance 
are missing. The Indonesian words Leah uses to describe her community are 
largely lifted from a Muslim Indonesian vocabulary, such as iman (faith) and 
ummat (the religious community), although the word she uses for the building 
under her care is gereja (church).

That building is threatened both by the decline in the community's numbers and 
by what many Indonesian Jews feel is a recent rise in anti-Semitism. Every 
person interviewed for this article expressed concern about any additional 
attention being drawn to their community or to themselves. They said the 
situation was riskier now than it was a decade ago, and declined to talk on the 
record about past cruelties. They told happy stories about their Muslim and 
Christian friends and neighbors, and shared few personal anecdotes of 
anti-Semitism. Still, there was a fear that with the post-New Order decline of 
law and order and the rise of militant Islam, their situation could change 
rapidly. They do not hide their Judaism from friends and neighbors, but often 
pass as Arab in casual interactions or when things get tense.

Chaya told of a televised speech by political leader Amien Rais in which he 
said that stingy Jews were living right here, among Indonesians, in Surabaya. 
Chaya called an elderly aunt and said "hey, he's talking about us!"

The aunt retorted indignantly, "but we're not stingy!" Chaya laughs about the 
story, but says "we have to be careful--it's like pouring gasoline on the fire."

Each person interviewed repeatedly said they did not want to talk about 
politics, particularly Israel. This fear mingles with a faith that is 
constantly reflected in Leah and

Chaya's constant allusions to G-d and fate. They speak of the wheel of life, of 
how things go up and down in their own time. When asked whether her 
grandchildren will have a synagogue to pray in when they reach adulthood, Leah 
says, "the one who knows the future is G-d." 

Chaya at one point gestured toward a plant in the yard, a clipping from Israel 
that has grown to full size. "Whatever my mother plants, it grows," she says. 
"Her hands are blessed. And the soil here is very good-whatever you throw will 
grow. You even put a stick in the ground and it will be a tree. That's why the 
Jews before us called it Paradise."

Latitudes magazine [Bali] -  January 2003

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