The Jews of India

A history of the Baghdadi Jews--who actually lived in India, not Baghdad.

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Reprinted with permission from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem ©.

The Persian Gulf port of Basra began to serve as a trading center of the British East India Company in 1760, and it was from Basra--and Baghdad--that many Jews who played an important role in English commerce in the region gradually moved on to India. At first they settled in the west coast port of Surat. By the end of the 18th century, close to 100 Jews from Aleppo, Baghdad, and Basra made up the Arabic-speaking Jewish merchant colony of Surat.

Originally, the term "Baghdadi" or "Iraqi," as used in India, referred to Jews who came from the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, for centuries a center of Jewish learning and culture. However, the name soon came to include Jews from Syria and other parts of the Ottoman Empire, Aden, and Yemen, who were all Arabic-speaking, and even Jews from Persia and Afghanistan, who were not. Baghdadi Jews often referred to themselves as Sephardim, an allusion to their liturgical tradition rather than their geographic origins.

taj mahal hotel

Photo courtesy of QuartierLatin1968.

As the British presidencies of Calcutta and Bombay developed, Surat's importance as a port declined, and the Jewish merchants living there moved to these fast-growing commercial centers. Encouraged by the British, prominent Iraqi families prospered as merchants or as middlemen for the large cotton-, jute-, and tobacco-processing plants. Some Baghdadi Jews also made fortunes in the opium trade.

Bombay

The Baghdadi Jewish community in Bombay (Mumbai) dates back to about 1730. A century later, there were perhaps 20 to 30 families of Arabic-speaking Jews among the total Bombay Jewish population of 2,246.

In 1833, the man who was to found a great commercial dynasty and a merchant house known throughout the world arrived in Bombay. David Sassoon (1792-1864) was a scion of the family that had long held the position of chief treasurer to the governor of Baghdad, but whose political fortunes were waning. The economic empire the Sassoons eventually established (with centers in Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, and elsewhere), along with their wide-ranging charitable activities, earned them the title of "the Rothschilds of the East."

In 1861, David Sassoon, an observant Jew, built the Magen David synagogue in the then-fashionable Bombay neighborhood of Byculla. The synagogue compound contained a hostel for travelers, a ritual bath, and a Talmud Torah (religious school). Word spread among Jews throughout the Ottoman Empire that employment was available in the firm of David Sassoon and Company in Bombay. To accommodate the new arrivals, Sassoon arranged food, housing, medical care, and education for their children.

David Sassoon also contributed enormously to the development of the city of Bombay, financing numerous educational, medical, and social institutions that were open to all. When he died in 1864, the Times of India wrote, "Bombay has lost one of its most energetic, wealthy, public-spirited and benevolent citizens ... in personal appearance, private character and public life most remarkable."

After David Sassoon's death, his descendants became major forces behind the development of the textile industry in Bombay. With their help, the city grew, in the second half of the 19th century, into an important manufacturing center. The younger Sassoons carried on their father's philanthropy in both the Jewish community and the country as a whole.

Thus, it is understandable that the economic, social, educational, and religious history of the Baghdadi Jewish community of Bombay revolved around the Sassoon family. Some have argued that the benefactions and trusts established by the Sassoons obviated any motivation toward entrepreneurship and industry on the part of other Baghdadis. Everything was provided for them: if they could not earn a living in one of the firms, they could subsist on one of the doles.

Calcutta

The capital of British India until 1911, Calcutta became the second-largest center of Baghdadi Jewish settlement. Although most of the community consisted of Iraqis, particularly those who had arrived in the early 19th century fleeing the oppressive rule of Daud Pasha (1817-1831), Aleppo also contributed a number of leading members.

By the end of the 19th century, the community numbered over 1,800, and some of its members had moved into the stock exchange and become major urban landowners.

Initially, most of the Baghdadis lived in an area of Calcutta north and west of the trading center, and three synagogues were built in close proximity. The Neveh Shalom synagogue was completed in 1831, and when it was no longer large enough to accommodate the community, Beth El was erected in 1856. Finally, in 1884, Magen David, the largest synagogue in the East, was dedicated.

Until the 1880s, all power relating to the religious, communal, and social affairs of the community was vested in the synagogue committees, which also acted as liaison between the Jewish community and the government of India. However, towards the end of the 19th century, internal rivalry led to the disintegration of the system. A number of new bodies developed, and eventually a Jewish Association was founded in 1945 to coordinate the various activities and groups.

Social and Communal Life

The merchant elite that dominated community life in both Bombay and Calcutta consisted of fewer than 40 families out of a community that, at its height, numbered less than 5,000. The rest were shopkeepers, artisans, brokers, clerks, or factory workers. Some subsisted on the charity of the community trust funds. As a rule, Baghdadi Jews confined themselves to trade, finance, and industry; relatively few entered the professions.

indian synagogue

Keneseth Eliyahu
Synagogue, Bombay

Intellectual activity in Calcutta revolved around the Hebrew presses, which, in the last half of the 19th century, published religious, historical, and literary works, as well as anti-missionary tracts. After the turn of the century, religious and intellectual activity in the city seems to have waned.

Like the Bene Israel and Cochin Jews, the Baghdadi Jews in India did not have ordained rabbis of their own. They remained attached to the teaching and traditions of Baghdad, seeking guidance from that city's hakhams (sages) on questions of ritual and law. After World War I, they tended to refer their questions to the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Enqland.

The Baghdadi Jews in Calcutta and Bombay maintained a very strong sense of community and perpetuated most of the Iraqi Jewish traditions they had brought with them. Rites for protection of the newborn, special circumcision services, binding betrothal before marriage, certain marriage and funeral custom--all followed the ways of Baghdad. Baghdadi families in India today still serve an Arab-influenced cuisine.

Public Life and Political Attitudes

Although most Baghdadi Jews had little interest in Indian politics, they were active in public affairs. In Calcutta members of the community were named as honorary magistrates. Leading Baghdadi Jews were invited to the viceroy's levees and celebrations, some of which they helped to organize. They were appointed sheriffs of Calcutta and served as municipal councilors.

In Bombay, the Jews played an even larger role. The government of Bombay offered David Sassoon many public appointments, but he accepted only the position of Justice of the Peace. His son, Albert-Abdullah, was a member of the Bombay Legislative Council. In the 20th century, two Baghdadi Jews served as Head of the Bombay Municipal Corporation--i.e., as Mayor of Bombay.

Racial separation between Indians and British, which was fostered by the colonial pattern, also affected the attitudes of the paler Baghdadis towards indigenous Indians. The Baghdadis wished to assimilate into British society and to be considered European, both socially and politically. Aside from religious observances, they quickly adopted an English lifestyle. The wealthier Baghdadis wore European clothes and became culturally westernized; poorer Baghdadis, especially women, continued to wear Arab dress.

Although they learned Hindi to be able to communicate on a day-to-day basis with Indians, most Baghdadis did not acquire a good knowledge of Bengali or Marathi, the regional languages. Instead, they made the switch directly from Arabic to English.

Baghdadis joined British clubs that excluded Indians, and their commercial establishments were affiliated with the British chambers of commerce. And yet, for all their efforts, they remained--like the Armenians—marginal members of the European community.

The Baghdadis' social concerns were reflected in their relations with other Indian Jewish communities. Initially, Baghdadi-Bene Israel relations had been positive, but the Baghdadis in Bombay, where the Bene Israel were concentrated, gradually drew away from the native-born community.

Doubtful about the Jewish status and religious observance of the Bene Israel, they were also anxious to protect their status in European society in India. Thus, the issues of purity, caste, and color, which were so important in the Indian environment and had been intensified in the British colonial context, created tension between the Baghdadis and the Bene Israel. There was little intermarriage, and for a while Baghdadis would not count the Bene Israel in forming a minyan (prayer quorum) nor call them up to the Torah in the synagogue.

By the mid-twentieth century, however, relations had improved.

Dispersal of the Baghdadi Community

Indian independence was not welcomed by most Baghdadis. Having always aspired to assimilate among the Europeans in India, and having spurned identification with Indians, the Baghdadi Jews were not supportive of Indian nationalism. They doubted that they would be comfortable in the new India.

After 1947, new economic regulations enacted by the Indian Government restricted imports and controlled foreign exchange, seriously hampering the business of many wealthy Baghdadis. Political changes in the Middle East in the late 1950s and early 1960s closed the markets of Iraq and Egypt to Baghdadi Jewish trade.

With family, connections, and funds abroad, members of the upper classes were free to migrate to countries such as England, Canada, the United States, and Australia. Less affluent Baghdadis who had relatives abroad or who could find a source of livelihood in the West also departed, with a relatively small percentage going to Israel. As the community disintegrated--and, with it, Jewish marriage prospects for children--more left the country. Of what had once been a community of perhaps 5,000 Baghdadis, barely 200 remained in the mid-1990s.

Unlike the Bene Israel and Cochin Jews, the Indian Baghdadi Jews who immigrated to Israel did not tend to maintain their own communal identity. Instead, they merged with the much larger Jewish community that had come directly from Iraq. They settled all across the country: in the major cities, smaller towns and, in a few cases, on kibbutzim.

However, there are small concentrations of Indian Baghdadis in the Kurdani neighborhood near Haifa, in Ramat Eliyahu, and in Ashdod. In these locales, some have maintained their Indian ties and identity and pray in synagogues attended by other Jews from India, rather than in those at the broader Iraqi community. Because their numbers in Israel are relatively small, however, Indian Baghdadi culture is more likely to be preserved in Golders Green in London, or in parts of Canada, Australia, and the United States, than in Israel.

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Joan G. Roland

Joan G. Roland is chair and professor of history at Pace University in New York City.