Latitudes magazine [Bali]
January 2003

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 other
cities. 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 saying
that 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$E2A$A6 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) and Hebrew
(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

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."