7 things you didn’t know about Jews in Singapore
A glimpse into a group of people in Singapore that anyone hardly talks about.
Did you know that Jews around the world just celebrated their Jewish New Year in September? No?
Well, here are 7 more things about the Jews in Singapore that you probably don’t know as well.
1. A 9,000 km–long Exodus
Singapore saw its first wave of Jewish immigrants from the Baghdadi Trade Diaspora during the 18th and 19th century. At that time, Jews had to leave Baghdad because of persecution under a despotic Ottoman governor.
At the same time, The British East India Company was expanding its reach into India, Burma and the Straits Settlements. Taking advantage of the moving trades, the Jewish people followed and arrived in Singapore.
The first population census conducted by the British in 1830 revealed a grand total of nine Jewish men out of a population of 16,500. The Encyclopedia of Singapore puts the number of Jews in Singapore to be between 2,000 to 3,000 in 2006.
2. Once, Twice, Three Times a Synagogue
The crowning jewel of a Jewish community must be the synagogue – a house of worship as well as community centre for Jews.
The first synagogue for the Jewish community was set up in a small shop house at Boat Quay in 1841. It served the small but growing Jewish population for 37 years, and inspired the naming of Synagogue Street.
Fast forward to the 1870s and the burgeoning population could no longer fit into the tiny shop house. Jewish community leaders sold off the old synagogue to the government and bought new land for a new synagogue along Waterloo Street. Named Maghain Aboth, it was completed in 1878 and features a prayer hall which is oriented towards Jerusalem in the west, as well as a U-shape interior balcony for females.
Interesting fact of the day: The Maghain Aboth is one of the oldest surviving Jewish buildings in Southeast Asia.
The Maghain Aboth Source
By the early 1900s, the Jewish population had doubled and Maghain Aboth got too crowded for worshippers.
Manasseh Meyer, once known as the richest Jewish merchant of the East, decided that he needed his own private synagogue. He built one – called Chesed-El – on his private residence at Oxley Rise.
The synangogue features Greek and Roman architectural features such as arches and Corinthian columns. During the war, the synagogue was ransacked and used to store heavy goods and ammunition by the Japanese.
The Chesed-El Source
3. Same-same but Different
Early Jewish immigrants were considered Sephardim Jews – broadly meaning Jewish people whose ancestors come from the Ottoman world. Ashkenazi Jews refer to Jewish people who have European origins. During the early years, Sephardim and Ashkenazi Jews did not mix. The poorer Sephardim stayed in the Jewish quarter while the richer Sephardim moved to the suburban areas. The Ashkenazi kept to their community; many did not have permanent residences here. Many also chose to send their children back to Europe to study.
4. On the Street Where You Lived
Most of the middle class Baghdadi Jews lived and worked in the Jewish quarter – the area including Middle Road, Wilkie Road, Sophia Road, Selegie Road, Princep Street and Short Street. The Jews called it the mahallah (meaning ‘place’ in Arabic) and it was the place to be if you wanted kosher meats or even just the latest gossip in the community.
Even today, you can find remnants of the Jewish quarter from buildings such as the David Elias Building and Ellison Building which display the Star of David prominently.
David Elias Building Source
Though the mahallah was the centre of Jewish life, the rich preferred to emulate the British and reside in suburban areas or near the sea. Many roads were named after the residences of these upper class Jews.
Ellison building in the past Source
Ellison building today Source
Amber Road/Close/Gardens were named after Sarina Elias. She hailed from the Elias family who owned a vast amount of land and estates in Singapore. Her sons – Joseph and Ezra lent their family name in naming Elias Road, originally a road that led to their holiday bungalow in Pasir Ris.
Frankel Road/Avenue/Close were named after a Jewish furniture emporium family. Their property – the Frankels Coconut Estate covered all of Siglap and extended to the beaches of Bedok.
5. Relatively Calamitous
Many would not be aware that Einstein – an Ashkenazi Jew himself – visited Singapore on 2nd November 1922, one week before he was to receive the Nobel Prize for Physics. The purpose of his visit was to persuade the local Jews to donate generously to the building of a Hebrew university in Jerusalem. Because of his fame as a renowned scientist, he was treated to a pompous welcome by the who’s who of the local Jewish community at that time.
According to Einstein’s travel diary, he was so impressed with the wealth that belonged to Manasseh Meyer, the most influential Jew in the community, that he referred to Meyer as Croessus, a legendary 6th century Lydian king who was known all over the world for his immense wealth.
Meyer invited all of Singapore to the reception at his house, which according to Einstein, was “a desperate calamity of languages and good-tasting cake.”
6. A Jewish Love Story
It was a love story that would probably find itself within the lines of a Taylor Swift song today. As per the Jewish traditions at that time, the Elias family had arranged for their 18 year-old daughter Rebecca to marry a respectable Sephardic Jew who was much older than her. Instead, she had her heart set on David Frankel – the rich and famous heartthrob of the day who was unfortunately Ashkenazi. Rebecca’s mother was furious and was bent on preventing the horrors of intermarriage, but she ultimately gave in, possibly consoled by the fact that the Frankels were equally rich and famous.
7. Notable Personalities
David Marshall Source
Most would recognise David Marshall as Singapore’s first Chief Minister as well as founder of the Workers’ Party. However, many are unaware of his role in the expatriation of 550 Jews from Shanghai in 1956.
At that time in Shanghai, there were over 500 Jews who, for reasons unknown, were denied exit visas by the Communist government to return to Israel. Marshall had travelled to Shangahi to visit Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. He wanted Premier Zhou to urge the Chinese immigrants in Singapore to take up citizenship, now that the British were gone. Premier Zhou agreed on one condition: that they be allowed to return to their ancestral country to be buried when they were old – as per Chinese tradition.
Marshall grabbed the opportunity to bring up how the 500 Jews had a similar desire – to be buried in their homeland, Israel, when they die. Premier Zhou agreed to help Marshall, and within a month, the issued was settled.
(From Left) BACK ROW: Unidentified man, Mrs. Moselle Nissim, Julian Frankel, Charley Ginsburg, Tila Frankel, Victor Clumeck, Marie Frankel-Clumeck and Abraham Frankel;
FRONT ROW: Mr. and Mrs. Montour, Albert Einstein, Sir Menasseh Meyer, Elsa Einstein, Mr. and Mrs Weil and Rosa Frankel
Moselle Nissim, daughter of Manasseh Meyer, was regarded as the Queen of the local Jewish community. Rich and beautiful, she was described by Einstein as a lady whose “slender pale regal countenance [was] one of the finest Jewish women’s images [he had] ever beheld”. Despite the trappings of beauty and wealth, Mrs Nissim was deeply committed to supporting all members of the community through fundraisings and hospitality. Some of her accomplishments included starting the Jewish Women’s League, fundraising for St Andrews, as well as building a school in Palestine in her husband’s name.
Many would remember Symphony 92.4 DJ Andrew Lim as Paul from Under One Roof. His conversion to Judaism was kick-started by a visit to Israel in 1998. After a few years of studying the religion and implementing kosher changes to their daily life, he and his family formally converted in 2002. Lim also took on a new Jewish name – Eliyahu Ben Avraham. What particularly draws him to Judaism is the rich culture; he admitted that “Jewish music is very close to [his] heart”.
While his family and the Jewish community supported his conversion, he found that the reaction from his friends, especially Christian friends, was less than encouraging: Lim recounted how he received hurtful “devil rhetoric” and hate mail. However, Lim and his family took these in stride and chose to focus on the intricacies of Jewish learning. Today, Lim, or Eliyahu, and his family are deeply integrated members of the local Jewish community. You can read more about his conversion here.
This was the man that part of the Botanic Gardens is named after. Ballas was Chairman of Singapore and Malaysia’s stock exchange in the 1960s, and he gave back generously to his school, St Andrew’s and help set up the Jacob Ballas Centre at Waterloo Street.
If the company F J Benjamin doesn’t ring a bell, it’s ok. FJ Benjamin, founded by Frank Benjamin, is the company that helped bring luxury brands such as GAP, Guess, and Superdry to our sunny island.
[Edit: A previous version of this article incorrectly named Sarina Elias Amber Elias. We have corrected the mistake.]