Latitudes magazine [Bali]
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,
least the banks and US foreign policy. It's even harder to convince
there's a longstanding community of Jews in Indonesia itself. In the
twentieth century, there were at least a thousand Jews, scattered to
Semarang, Medan, Malang, Bandung, Batavia, Jogjakarta, and perhaps other
cities. Now, while expats and others may gather in Jakarta and other
cities, the only synagogue and the largest community are in Surabaya.
This lone synagogue is easy to miss. The former residence of a Dutch
during the colonial period, the exterior is plain white, with a small
of wooden carving hidden by tree branches. The inside is immediately
recognizable as an Orthodox, Sephardi synagogue. Men and women are
as Orthodox Jewish law dictates, and the pulpit faces the ark for the
together with the congregation in accordance with the tradition of
Jews, those from Spain, Africa, and the Middle East. The simple, wooden
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
cabinet and the ark-frayed history Jewish history books in Dutch, World
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
records has been thrown out, seen as bulky and unnecessary. Stories,
are passed down through the generations; the few children readily
their grandparents' childhoods. Leah Zahavi and Isaac Solomon , each of
has held various official positions in the synagogue, are among those
keep their community alive, and are eager to share their memories and
passed-down stories. Leah, whose features reflect her Iraqi origins,
a house adjoining the synagogue and serves as a caretaker and
In telling community history, Leah often lapses back into Biblical
Ham, Shem, and Japeth or Sarah and Abraham, exploring the ancient root
tensions between Jews and Muslims or of Jews as wanderers. Her stories
Indonesia, though, begin in the early 20th century, by which point some
(mostly Sephardi) had come to Surabaya as traders. Before living in
Indonesia, many had lived in other parts of Asia, such as India,
Singapore, Hong Kong. As Leah says, they settled wherever they could
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
their wives and children after they'd established themselves. As in
Dutch colonies, some (again, mostly Sephardi) Jews came as part of the
colonial presence. Some reports suggest that the community was
World War II refugees. Gravestones in a small, overgrown Jewish
bear names from around Europe and Asia, as well as generically Jewish
Sassoon, Kattan, Moses, Reuben, Mussry.
The Surabaya Jews worked largely in trade. Over the decades, community
members imported and/or repaired watches, refrigerators, electronics,
diamonds, and more. Their hope that Surabaya would be a safe and
home was fulfilled for several decades.
Then the Japanese invaded, and put the Europeans into internment camps.
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
the other prisoners. Rumors still circulate that the Indonesian Jews
have been put to death by the Axis powers if the war had continued only
days longer. As it was, they worked as forced labor on the railroads
treated brutally. Old men bear physical reminders of their time in the
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
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
in the way that Chinese are said to today. The community had acquired
current synagogue, its second, and set up a badminton court behind it.
community youth played sports, studied religion and language, and
holiday and life cycle celebrations with each other and their families.
those who couldn't attend these celebrations would send carloads of
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
attempt to reclaim West Irian from the Dutch. They worried about
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
lives. The Dutch passports held by many of the Indonesian Jews, along
changes in immigration policies, made it easier for them to enter other
countries. Many Indonesian Jews decamped to Singapore, Malaysia,
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
driven by his mother's wish for him to find a nice Jewish bride. Soon
he succeeded in that mission, he returned to Surabaya without his
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
community with regular celebrations and gatherings was only a memory.
The Zahavi family has grown since then, with Chaya marrying an
Muslim and giving birth to two children (now ages 12 and 15). The
however, has shrunk further with death and emigration. Now, there are
handful of Jewish households in Surabaya, a total of about 20 people.
Still, the Zahavi family remains firmly rooted in Surabaya. While Leah
of going home to Israel where she can eventually be buried and mourned
full minyan, Chaya and her children speak of Indonesia as their home.
Indonesia very much," Chaya says. "I grew up here, I went to school
eat Indonesian food, my friends are here. I am an Indonesian, and my
an Indonesian heart. The father of my children is an Indonesian."
Many members of the older generation still hold Dutch passports gained
independence, ready to flee or chase a better dream abroad. In exchange
the international flexibility of a foreign passport, they accept
on their economic and civic rights in the country where they have always
lived. These people speak many languages, vestiges of each land they
occupied. Leah readily holds conversations in Hebrew, Indonesian,
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
the children's Judaism. Parents and grandparents teach them songs,
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
While the children have their mother and grandmother's Iraqi features,
skin is an Indonesian brown. Chaya seems conflicted about her children's
religious future, first saying they will be allowed to choose and then
that she can't imagine taking them away from their father. "Who will
him when he dies?" she asks. "What would it be if his children prayed
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
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
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
are too few children to make a Hebrew school, Leah teaches Hebrew
periodically to interested Christians. She studies the Bible with
friends, Arabic with a Muslim, and is expert at explaining the
between Judaism and Islam.
As Leah navigates her life in Surabaya, she also navigates the
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
iman (faith) and ummat (the religious community), although the word she
for the building under her care is gereja (church).
That building is threatened both by the decline in the community's
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.
said the situation was riskier now than it was a decade ago, and
talk on the record about past cruelties. They told happy stories about
Muslim and Christian friends and neighbors, and shared few personal
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
Chaya told of a televised speech by political leader Amien Rais in
said that stingy Jews were living right here, among Indonesians, in
Chaya called an elderly aunt and said "hey, he's talking about us!" The
retorted indignantly, "but we're not stingy!" Chaya laughs about the
but says "we have to be careful--it's like pouring gasoline on the
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
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
Leah says, "the one who knows the future is G-d." Chaya at one point
toward a plant in the yard, a clipping from Israel that has grown to
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.
even put a stick in the ground and it will be a tree. That's why the
before us called it Paradise."