In every darkness, we see the light.This is why all holy days in Judaism start on Shabbath or Friday evening – explains Rabbi Fettmann of Chesed-El Synagogue in Singapore, with a deep sense of faith and respect towards his religion. To me however, it was a moment of epiphany that revealed how the Jewish community has remained resilient and been successful despite centuries of persecution. Indeed, in every darkness, they saw the light.
The Jewish community has been on the move well before the start of Christian Era. Their origins lie in ancient Babylonia, the cradle of civilisation which was at the cusp of Tigris and Euphrates in present-day Iraq. From here, many Jews migrated to Europe (the Ashkanazi) and to Asia (the Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews, otherwise known as Baghdadi Jews).
Iraq was an important outpost of the Ottoman empire. By 1760s, the ancient Mesopotamia was an important through route to India – the jewel in Britain’s crown. It was for this reason that the English East India company set up Basra as its trading port to compete with Persia and linking it to Surat in western India. Ethnic Jews traded with the East India Company but soon found themselves out of favour with Suleiman Pasha, who wanted to control the key cities of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. Facing persecution, the Sephardic Jews migrated to Surat, and then to Calcutta, which was the seat of power in India prior to the capital moving to Delhi; then to Burma and finally to Singapore which was being established by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1822 as the free port to trade with China, Malaya, India, Arabia and Europe.
According to 1830 census, there were 9 traders of Jewish faith in Singapore, and by 1841, it rose to 22: 18 male and 4 female. Many continued to shuttle between the countries the English traded with. Fluent in Arabic, and having lived in India, they were successful go-betweens. They even lived in the same neighbourhoods, mixing and mingling with the Arabs, the Sikhs, Indians and Malays, at the same time, continuing to carry forward their Baghdadi origins of wearing turbans and long flowing coats, and speaking in Arabic (most Sephardic Jews did not speak English at all but remained incredibly successful conducting business in Arabic, Malay and Hindustani). In comparison, the latter wave of migrants – the Ashkanazi Jews, who came to Singapore from Germany, Russia and other parts of Europe, wore Western dress and spoke English and other European languages.
Intermingling among the 2 Jewish communities was not common and most Sephardic Jews settled in a mahallah (Arabic word for neighbourhood) along Niven Road near Mount Sophia that was close to Little India, (which had the Racecourse and the buffalo trading), as well as to the synagogues. As per the Jewish custom, Shabbath was the day of rest and the people were not allowed to work, light a fire or use vehicular mode of transport. This meant that most people would walk to the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street from the mahallah in Niven Road.
The community also obtained a piece of land on Orchard Road for a cemetery; it was located opposite McDonald House where the Dhoby Ghaut MRT stands today. The land was repossessed by the government for development in 1983 and the cemetery was moved to Chao Chu Kang in the eastern part of Singapore.
The Jewish community remained faithful to its religion and as soon as there were a minimum of 10 to form a Minyan, they fulfilled their religious obligation by buying some land to build a synagogue. For the Jewish community, a synagogue is a representation of not just religious but also cultural, social, education and charitable institution.
By 1902, the Jewish community had reached almost 500 and the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was getting crowded. Manasseh Meyer, a noted businessman and philanthropist, decided to undertake the construction of a new synagogue near his Oxley Rise property. He commissioned Regent Alfred John Bidwell of Swann & MacLaren, the largest architectural office in Singapore at that time, to design the place of worship. Chesed-El Synagogue opened for services in 1905. During Japanese occupation, the synagogue services were discontinued and many Jews were interned. Chesed-El fell into disrepair and following the end of the war, a number of Jews emigrated to Israel, Australia, England and the US.
“It is a sin to close a synagogue,” says Rabbi Fettmann (though I found another greater sin etched on the synagogue’s wall). After years of restoration, the synagogue finally reopened in 2002, and supports a small yet successful diaspora of about 2000 people from the Jewish community in Singapore. (**see note at the bottom to visit this synagogue and learn more about the Jewish history in Singapore)
On the corner of Selegie Road, at the intersection of Little India, lies the semi-circular Ellison Building. It was built by Issac Ellison (1864-1928), a Romanian Jew, in 1924 for his wife Flora Ellison, a Baghdadi Jew from Rangoon.
David Elias Building
David Elias Building was built in 1928 by Jewish merchant David Elias to house his trading company. The architect firm Swan & Maclaren was commissioned to design the building. Its key architectural feat was to build cantilevered balconies which also served as a roof above doorways. Various Stars of David can be found on the building’s facade as bas-relief decorations. It has shops, rooms, eateries and business offices for commercial use. (Source ref: NLB)
The prized building of them all, was the Eden Hall. Currently the British High Commission’s residence in Singapore, the Wedgewood-style building was also designed by R.A.J. Bidwell – the very same architect who built Raffles and Goodwood Park Hotel among others. It was built in 1904 for Ezekiel Saleh Manasseh, a Baghdadi merchant. During the Second World War, most Jews were interned by the Japanese and Ezekiel Manasseh died in Changi Prison in May, 1944. His stepson, Vivian Bath sold the building to the British Government on one condition: that the Union Jack flies here forever.
** To learn about the Jewish history, contact Jane at Jane’s Tours (https://janestours.sg/) who has obtained special permission to visit the synagogue, meet with Rabbi Fettman and also visit the British High Commissioner’s residence. Other guided tours do not have such exclusive arrangements. Our guide Catalina was very knowledgeable and shared so many wonderful insights which even I, who has lived in Singapore for a decade, didn’t know.