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28 ARTS&LIFESTYLE

The Australian Jewish News – ajn.com.au Friday, July 17, 2009

arts&lifestyle

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

Jewish Malaysia
It may appear to be an unusual place for Jews to live, but Andrew Harris finds Malaysia is host to a fascinating, if miniscule, Jewish population.
Soon I’m sitting with Braut in a wait- the values laid out by the Rebbe. Braut has met Dr Mahathir on several

W
HAT colour kippah are you
wearing?” says Kuala ing room of the palatial Prince Court There’s a company van emblazoned occasions. A photo from one meeting
Lumpur’s (KL) 62-year-old Medical Centre private hospital. Braut with “Mitzvah Tank” and “Chabad hangs in his lunchroom. “Once I said
Gary Braut. “I’ll send some- doesn’t feel well. He’s telling me, quite Malaysia”, and back at the entrance to ‘Yahya Cohen’, he became very warm,”
one down to the lobby to get you.” Need- loudly, that his mum doesn’t want him the delivery bay I notice that the stone Braut says. “He said, ‘Send him my best,
less to say, it was a superfluous question – to wear a kippah and tzitzit in public. Feng Shui lion/dog guardians on either how’s that fellow doing, he’s getting old.’
even if I were wearing one, I’d be easy to Such overt Jewish talk is unusual in KL, side of the gate are respectively engraved I felt like saying if he’s getting old, Dr
spot. In a country of 27 million, only one, and I’m feeling a little nervous. with “Chabad Malaysia” and “Mikvah Mahathir [born December 20, 1925],
Braut, wears a kippah. I see a curly-haired Caucasian woman Malaysia”. The Rebbe’s image again you’re also getting old!”
to my left, the only other non-Asian in hangs alongside portraits of the Cohen was a Jewish Singaporean-
A rooftop mural depicting Rabbi the room, eavesdropping. On a whim I Malaysian royal couple and a portrait of born surgeon, with a Yemenite father
Avraham Shemtov (right) and ask her, “Are you Jewish too?” Yes, as a the former prime ministers, Ahmad and Iraqi mother. He became a world-
US President George Bush matter of fact, she is, and works at the Badawi and Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad. renowned professor and expert in his
Senior emblazoned on the side nearby US embassy. I explain I am a field, and died in 2003. Cohen and Dr
of Braut’s factory.
curious Jewish writer from Melbourne The Rebbe’s image again Mahathir studied medicine together at
and that Braut has offered me an insight the then University of Malaya, in
into life as Jew in KL. She hands me her hangs alongside portraits Singapore.
card. “I’d be interested to hear what he of the Malaysian royal Dr Mahathir kept up a correspon-
tells you,” she says, and goes off to her dence with Yitzhak Rabin when he was
doctor’s appointment.
couple and a portrait of the Israeli prime minister, and helped
former prime ministers. organise a trip with Rabin to bring Israeli
Family, Religion, Company kids to Malaysia to meet local Muslim

B RAUT’S business, Precision


Automotive Industries (motto:
Family, Religion, Company), which re-
That’s not to mention the rooftop
mural featuring the Kotel and a depic-
children. He also runs the Global Peace
Forum, and in 2006 invited Bar-Ilan
tion of Rabbi Avraham Shemtov visiting University academic Dr Ben Mollov and
manufactures starters, alternators, A/C made special arrangements for him to
US President George Bush Snr, the huge
compressors and ball bearings for the enter the country. Dr Mollov went again
Jewish library and the DVD room fes-
auto industry, employs about 180 people to Malaysia last year.
tooned with Jewish paraphernalia pur-
spanning the full gamut of the Malaysian
pose-built to enjoy Chassidic music.
populace. In the delivery bay of his fac- Being a Jew in KL
tory are a Chinese shrine, a gilt reminder
of Muslim prayer times; and a huge
photo titled “Sultan of World Jewry
Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad
I SIT down with Braut in his office
meeting room, and a chocolate cake
B RAUT tells me he ended up in KL
after a search for cost-effective
skilled labour in South-East Asia. It was
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, iced with “Shalom Andrew Harris”, to to Thailand, the Philippines or Malaysia,
The Lubavitcher Rebbe”, waving benev- discuss his unique situation. Firstly, what and this is where he ended up, about 21
olently from behind a man-sized oil- about Dr Mahathir? years ago.
burning menorah made of car parts. As I “Yes, the previous prime minister Nu, so, how does Braut feel being a
arrive, one of Braut’s employees sets said things, but I think a little bit is taken Jew in Kuala Lumpur? “Comfortable,”
about lighting the wicks. out of context,” he says. “At the end of he says. “More comfortable than
It’s hot, humid and easy to dehydrate the day, Yahya Cohen, the late president Brooklyn, that’s for sure.” He thinks the
in KL, and I have the odd feeling that I’m of the medical association in Singapore, extremely small community, if you
hallucinating. Opposite the delivery bay told me he and Dr Mahathir were class- could call it that, attracts so little atten-
is a marble plaque attesting to the com- mates. And that actually, he was a swell tion, that it’s no problem being Jewish in
pany’s philosophy, which is to adhere to guy.” Malaysia.
Friday, July 17, 2009
ARTS&LIFESTYLE
The Australian Jewish News – ajn.com.au 29
It’s more due to his isolation that town, and then starts to tell me about few fanatics in the office – they threat-
it’s difficult for Braut to be fully the other permanent Jews he knows: ened me on the phone.” She had
observant in KL. He does what he a guy from New Orleans who runs a already applied to move to Australia.
can. “My strength is not putting furniture export business, a British Ephraim’s paternal grandfather
tefillin on every day. My strength is woman who fell in love with a Malay came from Baghdad, and her mother
trying to be warm, recognise every- architecture student and has lived was born in Burma. She speaks
one, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, there for 40 years, and an art lecturer English, Malay, Hokkien and Iraqi
as God’s children.” Still, Braut’s at one of the universities. Judaeo-Arabic. Despite Ephraim’s
house (marked with “Chabad “Oh, and there are two Jewish ability to blend in, she steadfastly wore
Malaysia” in marble) is fitted with a Moroccan fellas – cousins,” Braut a Magen David around her neck and
marble Aron Kodesh. It houses a says. “One was, or is married to the that’s largely what singled her out.
Torah he purchased in Sofia, daughter of one of the royal families. The only time her family had
Bulgaria, which he says was open to He came to a couple of my seders. He issues was in the 1940s, and it was due
his bar mitzvah parshah when he first might be divorced from the girl now. to their relatively fair complexions.
saw it. They [the boys] were running a bar “During the Japanese occupation, I
A few times, Braut has managed to here.” was five or six years old,” Ephraim
hold a seder, with matzah from says. “Every time they used to come
Singapore, a brand-new oven, paper to the house, my father would push
plates and fresh salmon, officiated by My strength is trying to
me and my younger brother out the
young Rabbi Nochi Goldschmid, be warm, recognise back door.”
who he flew in from Brooklyn. Other The Penang Jews never had a
curious attendees always outnumber
everyone, whether
rabbi to officiate anything. In the
the Jews, and it’s more of an outreach Jewish or non-Jewish, as 1990s, when the community had vir-
and public relations exercise than a God’s children. tually disappeared, Ephraim
full-on seder. Braut advertises in local observed what she could by herself.
English-language papers, and the Gary Braut
Jewish Kuala Lumpur resident Nonetheless, from the 1940s, a syna-
enquiries trickle in. gogue was situated at 28 Nagore
Common ground in KL And there’s a young Chinese Road. It closed in 1976 and after
Ephraim’s father passed away, all the
T WO Palestinians made it to one of
Braut’s seders, one Christian and
one Muslim. Braut met them by
woman with a Yiddishe neshamah,
who has a be’ezrat hashem on her
business card and hosts regular
communal possessions – “the pray-
ing things” – were sent away. The
chance in the lobby of the hotel Friday night dinners. Torah resides at Singapore’s
where he was putting up the two rab- Braut invites all the Jews to Sunday Waterloo Street Synagogue, and
binical students, who were to offici- barbecues at his home. “And some- other items ended up in Israel.
ate. They spotted his matzah, and one times,” he says, “they even show up”. Even at the peak of the commu-
read off Braut’s kippah, and called nity, there were never many Jews.
out “Leibel ben Peretz, I haven’t seen The last Jews of Penang “When I was living there with my
matzah in a long time!” Two days
later, they joined the seder. O NLY two Jews carry Malaysian
passports. One is the 87-year-old
David Mordecai, the last remaining
father and mother, there were 15 or
20 of us.” Everybody, Ephraim says,
kept kosher and kept Shabbat.
The entrance to Braut’s house in Kuala Lumpur.

The Palestinian-Malaysian-Jewish 1835 to the most recent in 1978.


exchange went further. Another Jew in Penang, a causeway-linked For a while, there was a shochet in Despite her Bondi address, Travel info
Palestinian, this time a tertiary stu- island 300 kilometres north of KL. Penang, Hugh “Hayawi” Jacobs. Ephraim, rather than Mr Mordecai, MALAYSIA Airlines (www.malaysiaair-
dent of hotel management, taught The other is his 71-year-old cousin Ephraim’s grandfather, Aboody is the custodian of Penang’s Jewish lines.com) flies direct from Perth,
Braut’s 12-year-old son, David Tefa Ephraim, who lives in Bondi, Ephraim Nahom, was also quite heritage. “He’s very forgetful,” she Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and
Marshall Braut, (he has three older and left Penang 15 years ago. Before I learned. “When he was alive, he used says. “One day he knows you, the Brisbane to Kuala Lumpur. Flight time
boys in the US) his aleph-bet. “We left for KL, I spoke to Ephraim over to cut the chicken, he used to slaugh- next minute he doesn’t know who from Melbourne is eight hours. Kosher
made him [the teacher] a name the phone, from Melbourne. ter the chicken for us,” she says. “Once he’s talking to.” food is now available on board, as are
card,” Braut says, “‘Dr Yusuf, How was it growing up Jewish in he passed away, it was very hard.” Meanwhile, things are changing in a range of vegetarian options, the pick
Yeshivah of Kuala Lumpur’ – some- Penang? “It was alright. Only towards Ephraim’s cousin David continues Penang. Her childhood stomping of which is the Indian-style Asian
thing cute, you know. And he liked it. the end, when there was the Gulf War to live in Penang, and is tended to by ground has been razed, and the Vegetarian meal. Make sure you con-
Because, thank God, there are lots of – they started their rubbish over there a carer. She saw him last in May 2008 cemetery street, which used to be firm your meal preference in advance.
Palestinians that are okay with us.” becoming anti-Jewish, and they knew when she went for a few weeks to Jalan Yahudi, has been renamed. “It’s There’s no problem with an Israeli
Braut says there’s a rotating cast of I was Jewish and they started passing tend the Jewish cemetery, which con- their country,” Ephraim says, “What stamp in your passport, but you can’t
three- or four-year expat Jews in remarks and all that ... There were a tains 106 graves, the earliest from can we do?” enter on an Israeli passport.

The delivery bay of Braut’s factory in Kuala Lumpur.