Dec 06, 2023 Last Updated 11:47 PM, Dec 5, 2023

Being Jewish in Indonesia

Being Jewish in Indonesia
Published: Jul 18, 2011

Life might be difficult at times, but Indonesia is home


   Passover in Bandung, 2011

I am one of a handful of Indonesian Jews. My father is from Solo, and is Javanese in every way. My mum is a Dutch Jewess. They met in the wild 60s, when partying in Singapore. They fell in love, married against the wishes of both families, and parented three children. My father was pragmatic and educated us in both Islam and Judaism. We are literate in Hebrew and Jawi. At 10, I was as comfortable reading the Kaddish as I was performing the Sholat. My sisters became Muslim, while I decided to remain a Jew. By the 1980s, the number of Jewish Indonesians had dwindled. Most had emigrated to Australia, or had intermarried and professed a new religion.

When I was young, we spent the High Holy Days in Singapore and Hong Kong. Being Jewish was being different, but we went to synagogue openly and proudly. We were always aware of the police patrol cars on Waterloo Street or Robinson Road. Still, the police never dampened the joyousness of a Purim, or the sobriety of our Kol Nidre. But things are different in Indonesia, where Israel is viewed as an aggressor and routinely singled out by Indonesian students for condemnation in mass rallies. The Synagogue in Surabaya was the centre of protest of a 1000 strong mob a few years ago – only the timely intervention of riot police saved it from desecration. I thought of poor aunty Rivka who looks after the synagogue and adjoining cemetery. It was a traumatic experience, although she was none the worse for wear the last time I called.

Keeping the faith

Being a minority of about 10 in a predominantly Muslim country of almost 250 million people is truly being a minority. My National Identity Card lists me as a Christian, since every citizen is required to profess one of six prescribed religions by law – none of which is Judaism.

But ever resourceful, I decided that I was not going to lose my Jewishness. I have worked hard to educate my two children, Sarah and David, with Jewish values and the Torah. The Internet and frequent trips to bookshops in Singapore have given me access to religious resources. Sarah is eight years old and can recite many prayers fluently. Two-year-old David looks on in wonderment. Sarah also attends Sunday school in a Protestant Church near our home. Like my father, I confidently expose both my children to different religious traditions, in the knowledge that they will ultimately make their own religious choices. My personal role is to make Judaism attractive, intelligent and relevant to the children. We study our Weekly Parsha, bless our bread, eat Halal (not kosher), observe our Passover Seder, and other Holy Days. As each festive meal approaches, I am always fretting over my guest list, ever hopeful for the casual Jewish tourist or traveller who may want to come.

My last Jewish prayer congregation was in Bali in 2009, where some intrepid Jewish friends from Jepara converted a luxury Villa into a temporary Synagogue. They went the distance, even flying in Prayer Scrolls from Singapore. There were about 20 of us at Yom Kippur service. Half were resident in Indonesia, and the others, Israeli tourists who had somehow heard about this makeshift synagogue. The prayers were followed by a Kosher meal and the Bikat Hamazon Blessing. I imagine that this was the first time this blessing was said on Indonesian soil for many years.

Though I treasure such occasions, my family has little day-to-day interaction with other Jews. Mostly we keep touch through Blackberry messages and emails. There is usually a flurry of season’s greetings at Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana and Purim, which at least let other Jews know that we are still here.

Indonesia is home

My staff and friends know that they have a Jew in their midst. I do not shout my Jewishness from the rooftops, but neither do I feel the need to be secretive. There has also been increased interest in Jewish liturgy and ceremony amongst my Christian friends, resulting in an endless waiting list to participate in the annual Seder Passover meal at our home.

My relationships with Muslim Indonesians are certainly more cautious. Because I am sensitive to widespread negative perceptions of Jews and Israel, I have often allowed myself to be mistaken as Christian. I do not think of it as lying, simply as turning a blind eye to an inconvenient truth. Being economically secure – the employer rather than employee, the investor rather than the minority shareholder – has protected me from possible discrimination. I’m not sure what it would be like if the tables were ever turned and I hope I will never find out.

The unsympathetic amongst you may ask why we stay. To you, I say that Indonesia is my home. Our business has its roots in this country. A unique combination of geography, language, education and familial contacts provide an important link between Indonesian business and foreign capital. This would not be easily replicated elsewhere. What’s more, it means a lot that my family has been here since the turn of the nineteenth century. The land bought by my great grandfather is still in the family, and it ties us to Indonesia forever.

Elias is an Indonesian who has studied in the UK and the US. He lives in Bandung with his wife and two children and manages a venture capital fund, principally investing in the Leisure and Tourist Industry.

This article is part of the Indonesia's Jews series.

Inside Indonesia 104: Apr-Jun 2011

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