Who are the Baghdadi Jews?
In the late 18th century, Jews from Arab countries and Iran arrived in India. Collectively they are called ‘Baghdadi Jews’. Most of the ‘Baghdadi’ Jews did arrive from Baghdad but there were among them Jews who arrived from Syria, Iran, Yemen and other places in Iraq. Sometimes these Jews are collectively called ‘Iraqi Jews’. The Bene Israel Jews were called ‘Israel’ and the ‘Baghdadi’s as ’Yehudi’.
The ‘Baghdadi’ came to India because of religious persecutions in their countries and also because of commercial reasons.
Most of the ‘Baghdadis’ were big merchants and businessmen before they arrived in India and settled in the main commercial cities of the country, first in the city of Surat (in present day Gujarat) and later on as the commercial importance moved to Bombay and Calcutta. The ‘Baghdadis’ moved to these two cities and also to Rangoon, now capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma and part of British India).
The trading community
The “Baghdadi Traders” refers to Jews coming mainly from Baghdad, Basra and Aleppo, but also from other Arabic speaking parts of the Ottoman Empire. They arrived in India in the late eighteenth century and ultimately formed important diaspora trading communities in Bombay and Calcutta. They were successful businessmen and arrived with their families and other Arab country Jews to India.
The Baghdadi population of Calcutta peaked in the early 1940s at about 3800 including the 1200 refugees who arrived from Burma in 1942. There were perhaps another three thousand in Bombay and Pune. The Baghdadi Jewish community in India was unique. Its people adhered to Iraqi or Syrian traditions and customs but embraced an English lifestyle and education.
Making their mark
In 1730, Joseph Semah arrived from Baghdad to Surat and set up the Surat Synagogue and Cemetery. Surat was a main port for trade in 16th and 17th century and East India company set up its head quarters, located in Western India part of Gujarat State and now the commercial capital of Gujarat.
Arabic-speaking Jews came to India as traders in the wake of the Portuguese, Dutch and British.
These "Baghdadis," as they came to be known, especially the Sassoons of Bombay and the Ezras of Calcutta, eventually established manufacturing and commercial houses of fabulous wealth.The majority came from Iraq, thus giving the community its name, though smaller groups came from other countries such as Syria and Afghanistan and assimilated into the Baghdadi group.
The first recorded Jewish immigrant to Calcutta (Kolkata) was Shalome David Cohen in 1798 from Aleppo in present day Syria. The most influential Jewish family in Kolkata was perhaps the father-son real estate magnates David Joseph Ezra and Elia David Ezra.
They were behind such buildings as the Chowringhee Mansions, Esplanade Mansions and the synagogue Neveh Shalom. Ezra Street in Calcutta is named after them. The community has five independent synagogues in Calcutta, including one in Chinatown, some of which are still active today.
Development of the communities
- The Jews of Cochin are the oldest Jewish community in India. They are believed to have come as traders or as refugees from the siege of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago or more. They were a prosperous community of agriculturalists, soldiers and merchants and a few held high political office under the Hindu Maharaja.
- The second oldest Jewish community is the Bene Israel community, who supposedly were shipwrecked off the Konkan coast and settled in and around Mumbai way before the city existed.
- There was very little interaction among the three distinct Jewish communities in India; they spoke different languages, observed different traditions and were products of very different cultures.
- They also lived in three very different regions of India. While the Baghdadi Jews of Bombay lived in close proximity with the Bene Israel there was very little interaction between them.
History of the Baghdadi Jews
The Baghdadi Jews who came to India as traders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were responding to the new economic opportunities generated by colonialism.
The community flourished under colonial rule. When the first Baghdadi Jewish settler, Shalome Cohen, arrived in Calcutta in the late 18th century, the British had identified Calcutta as an important commercial center. Calcutta's appeal was enhanced by its connection to both river and ocean traffic.
- The Baghdadi Jews partnered both Indian and European commercial interests.
- Their relationship with India and with colonialism was complicated; they played an exploitative role as outsiders in the economic colonization of India, while facilitating the colonial project.
- They were loyal to the British and when the British left they were unsure of their future in India.
- A Jewish exodus was propelled by the Second World War, Indian independence, and the formation of Israel.
- Today there are barely 30 Jews left in Calcutta though three impressive and large synagogues, two prayer halls, two schools, and a cemetery remain, along with a few stately mansions and street names.
- For the most part the Jewish presence has been written over by contemporary India and is visible to only those in search of it.
The Calcutta Jews did not experience anti-Semitism even as the Holocaust raged in Europe.
Baghdadi Jews provided shelter to several European Jews who escaped the Holocaust and lived in India. Several of those European Jews stayed on in Calcutta after the war and did very well for themselves and their families.
Jews have been treated with great respect in India and never been excluded from social or political life. When they have chosen to identify with India and serve the country they have achieved high political office and their Jewishness has never been a political or social bar.
Socially, Jews have been members of exclusive clubs and societies and have not been restricted in any social spaces. They have thrived in their economic endeavors and been writers, artists, political commentators, film stars, army generals and even governors of prominence.
The Calcutta Jews did not experience anti-Semitism even as the Holocaust raged in Europe. In fact the Baghdadi Jews provided shelter to several European Jews who escaped the Holocaust and lived in India. Several of those European Jews stayed on in Calcutta after the war and did very well for themselves and their families.
The women also play their part
Some women were noted for their philanthropy:
- Mozelle Ezra (1853–1922), the daughter of Sir Albert Sassoon and the wife of the community leader and philanthropist Elia Ezra, tried to ease the poverty in the Jewish community and donated a great deal of money to the synagogues and schools.
- In 1887 she established the Ezra Hospital, open to all communities but with special provisions for Jews, in honor of her late husband. It cost 125,000 rupees; and all expenses, save those of doctors, are defrayed by the founder.
- She also contributed to support women, children, students and other causes in Jerusalem, as well as to the maintenance of the tomb of Ezra in Iraq.
- Her son, Sir David Ezra (1871–1947), assumed his father's position in the community and his wife, Lady Rachel Ezra (l877–1952), the daughter of Flora Sassoon of Bombay, continued in the tradition of her mother-in-law.
- The community matriarch in the first half of the twentieth century, Lady Rachel worked for the cause of social welfare, presiding over several of the community’s institutions as well as wider Bengali ones.
- In 1947 the British government awarded her the Kaiser-I-Hind Gold Medal.
- During the two world wars she opened her home to allied Jewish servicemen and women stationed in Calcutta. Over one thousand of these served in the city during World War II and some of the men took home Baghdadi war brides.
- The Ezras also took the lead in welcoming and rehabilitating European Jewish refugees who started arriving in 1939.
The front rank in trading
The great houses David Sassoon & Co.and E. A. D. Sassoon & Co. have branch offices in Calcutta. Other representative men in commercial life are:
- M. A. Sassoon
- Maurice Gubbay
- H. S. Howard
- J. E. D. J. Ezra
The middle-class Jews speculate in opium and stocks, and act as brokers. The poor keep shops and earn a livelihood as hawkers.
The community and its synagogues
Calcutta is the capital of Bengal and seat of government of British India.
The Jews of Calcutta now number about 2,150, of whom 150 are European and the remainder natives of Asiatic Turkey, Persia, and southern Arabia.
Shalome David Cohen is the first permanent settler of whom there is authentic record toward the end of the eighteenth century. He became a favorite of the raja of Lucknow, and even had the honor of riding with him on his elephant.
Cohen built the first synagogue in Calcutta, known as the Old Synagogue.
The second synagogue, Naveh Shalome, situated in Canning street, was built nearly a century ago by Ezekiel Judah Jacob, another Jewish pioneer.
The Magen David synagogue, whose founder Elias David Joseph Ezra, compensated the Naveh Shalome by a permanent income from a trust fund.
Religious questions are sent for solution to Bagdad.
The third synagogue was the Beth-El, on Pollock street, erected in 1855-56 by Joseph Ezra and Ezekiel Judah. It was rebuilt and enlarged in 1885-86 by Elias Shalom Gubbay.
The finest synagogue in Calcutta is the Magen David. It is lighted by gas and cooled by punkas (fans).
Notable Baghdadi Jews
- Edward Isaac Ezra - opium trader and real estate developer
- Edward Shohet
- Lord Kadoorie
- Abraham Sofaer - actor
- Brian Elias - composer
- Nadira - Bollywood actress
- J. F. R. Jacob - Indian military commander in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971; former Governor of Goa and Punjab.
- Anish Kapoor - British Asian sculptor; Baghdadi Jewish mother
- David & Simon Reuben - British Asian businessmen
- David Sassoon - merchant and founder of the Sassoon family
- Albert Abdullah David Sassoon - merchant
- Silas Aaron Hardoon - real estate tycoon
- Sassoon David Sassoon - English merchant
- Siegfried Sassoon - English poet during World War I, grandson of Sassoon David Sassoon
- Sassoon J. David - banker (founder of Bank of India) and member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation
- Brian George - Israeli-born character actor of Baghdadi-Indian Jewish descent; most well known for playing the role of a Pakistani shop owner, "Bhabu", on Seinfeld, US TV series
- David Saul Marshall - the first Chief Minister of Singapore
- Gerry Judah - Artist/Designer
- Tim Judah - Journalist and Historian
- Robin Ghosh - famous composer of Bangladeshi film industry
- Ashok Ghosh - famous film director in Bangladesh
- Joseph Judah - Soldier and Italian shipyard representative
- Jack Dellal - Property Developer
- Moshe Tobi - considered an elder leader of Baghadadi Jew community in India (Died in 1769 Surat)
- Claire Judah - Bletchley park code breaker