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Origins of the Baghdadi Trade Diaspora

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The Baghdadi Trade Diaspora

The Baghdadi Trade Diaspora consisted of a small group of very religious Jewish traders who came to a place that had absolutely no Jewish life at all. They created a very strong community that has had a large impact on Singapore. The Jews today now live in a multi-cultural Republic that provides respect, religious freedom and full integration into society.

Although less than 200 Jews of Baghdadi origins remain in Singapore, they will forever be the foundation on which the community of today’s mix of six hundred Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews has grown.


A storeroom in the Iraqi National Museum was found in 2003 by invading American troops. It was filled with scrolls of the ancient Torah, which is the sacred text of the Jewish religion. The Baghdadi scrolls had been stored for protection in tikim, conical containers that are covered in red or blue velvet and decorated with silver trim. These have been estimated by experts to be hundreds of years old.

Additional Torah scrolls, synagogue records, and rare Jewish books were discovered in the in Saddam Hussein’s headquarters, one of which was a Hebrew text published in Venice in 1568. The artifacts show evidence of a religious Jewish community that lived in Baghdad for 3,000 years.

The Jewish Community in Singapore was founded by the descendants of this Baghdadi community.

 

From ancient Israel to Baghdad

Israel had been split into two countries, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The Assyrians had conquered the capital Samaria, thus bringing an end to the Northern Kingdom of Israel and in 721 B.C.E 28,000 Jews were deported to the Assyrian Empire which today includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Northern Iraq.


721 B.C.E.

  • The seat of power was moved from Damascus (Syria) to Baghdad, a village some 50 miles from Babylon. Baghdad had become the cultural political and economic centre and as the village flourished so did the Jewish community.
  • Some Jewish merchants had been trading spices and silk before this time, but by the end of the 8th century, the caravan route went to North Africa, India, China and through the deserts of the Arab peninsula.

586 B.C.E.

  • Nebuchadnessar destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple and marched an estimated 40,000 captives to Babylon. Thus began the oldest and first Jewish Diaspora who were transported as exiles from Jerusalem.
  • In the homeland of Abraham approximately a million Jews created a highly organised separate nation within Babylon’s pagan culture. For centuries these Jews were indistinguishable from Iraqui Arabs, speaking Arabic and wearing Arab dress.

Late 100 – 200 CE

  • The Jewish community was led by their Exilarch, the “prince” of exile or captivity . During this time Babylonia emerged as the great centre of Jewish studies that eventually reached Jewish communities worldwide.

700 CE

  • The Jews entered a long period of peace under the rule of the Muslim Caliphs. The Jews were valued as a law abiding trading community and was closely lined with others throughout the sprawling Ottoman Empire.

1258 – 1600 CE

There is no record of the Baghdadi Jewish community between these centuries.

  • As Baghdadi Jews travelled through the new empire they also mixed with Spanish Jews and absorbed the Sephardic culture, bringing teachings of the Babylonians to all communities of the Diaspora. A class of rich Jewish bankers emerged from finance needed by the merchants for their ventures.

The origins of the Baghdadi Trade Disapora

The migration of Jews from the Baghdadi community in the 18th and 19th century was known as the Baghdadi Trade Diaspora. It was a migration that surged in 1817 when the cruel Ottoman governor Daud Pasha came to power in Baghdad and for 15 years of his rule, persecuted the Jews. He replaced the Nasi (prince) of Baghdad, a member of the Sassoon family, Sheik Sallah Sassoon. David Sassoon his son, was one of the many Jews driven from their homes by Daud’s oppression in Baghdad.

  • Sheik Sallih Sassoon (1750 – 1830)
  • David Sassoon (1792 – 1864)
  • Daud Pasha (took power 1817)

The other force was the British East India Company which expanded its markets into the Middle and Far East. As the British moved into India, Jewish traders, still adhering to their religious rituals and rites of their faith, followed, landing in Singapore.

  • The Baghdad Trade Diaspora includes not only those from the Ottoman Empire, but also the Arab speaking Syrian Jews , as well as those from Aden, Yemen, even Persia and Afghanistan, most of whom spoke Persian.
  • The first Jews to live in Singapore came from the Baghdadi community in Calcutta.

The British East India Company expanded into India in 1608, and then moved the Indian capital from Bombay in 1668 to Calcutta in 1772. Baghdad followed. The company administered the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malucca and Penang from Calcutta, and designated Singapore as the capital of those settlements in 1826. As a result of lively trade developing between Calcutta and Singapore, some of the Baghdadi traders began moving to Singapore where they would eventually form a Jewish community.

The Baghdadi Jewish community is the youngest of the Indian Jewish communities and was founded in early 18th century in the west coast port of Surat. Due to major trade between the Persian Gulf and India, many Jews of Arab descent coming from the Ottoman Empire, Aden, Yemen, and Syria were drawn to the vast commercial opportunities and religious freedoms of India.

The Baghdadi Jews settled in both Bombay and Calcutta. Early merchants in Surat, Bombay and Calcutta, Poone (India) and Rangoon traded a variety of materials including gems, Arabian horses, rose water, spices, silk and gold based yarn.

The Bombay community was initiated primarily by David Sassoon, a chief treasurer to the governor of Baghdad and an influential businessman. Sassoon was considered the most prosperous of the Baghdadi Jewish Traders in the Diaspora, he and his family single-handedly shaped the Jewish community, building the Magen David synagogue in 1861 which contained a hostel and Talmudic school, hospitals, and employed many Ottoman Jews in his vast textile industry.

The Calcutta community led by Moses Dwek ha-Cohen, was also a center of industry, and depended on the leadership of a few very wealthy families including the Ezras and the Elias, who funded the schools, jobs, and organized worship of the Jewish community.

  • David Sassoon

The most successful Jewish trader of the 19th century Baghdadi Trade Diaspora. His father Sheik Sallah Sassoon became the nasi of Baghdad’s Jewish Community. He was distrusted by Daud and fled Baghdad to go to Basra then to the Port of Bushire on the Persian Gulf, leaving behind generations of culture and his family’s riches.

He started business again with the help of other Baghdadi traders and after moving to Bombay in 1832 created David Sassoon and Sons. He spoke Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Hindi and learned some English. He provided work, food and shelter for those who had fled from Baghdad to join him and his sons on the condition that they remain strict adherents to their Orthodox religious life.

Thus he created a Baghdadi community in Bombay, trading extensively in wool, cotton and yarn, and diversified into wheat, silks and spices. He encouraged cultivation of local tea for export to England.

The trade that made Sassoon a multi-millionaire was opium, grown in India and shipped east to China. In 1894 he sent his 2nd son Elias to establish a permanent base in Shanghai . In 1861 he built Maghen David, the first Baghdadi synagogue in Bombay, located in nearby Byculla. A great philanthropist Sassoon built and endowed Indian and Jewish hospitals, schools libraries, old age homes, docks, civic statues and buildings, many of which still bear this family name. David Sasson was the Orthodox head of a Baghdadi family dynasty that extended to China, Japan and England.

David Sassoon was married twice, first to Hannah Sassoon, and then to Farha Flora Sassoon. They had fourteen children:

  • Albert Abdullah David Sassoon, 1st Baronet of Kensington Gore
  • Elias David
  • Amam Moses
  • Mazaltob
  • Sassoon David
  • Reuben
  • Arthur Abraham
  • Solomon
  • Aaron
  • Kate
  • Rebecca
  • Simha
  • Frederick
  • Mozelle

The brokerage firms of E. Gubbay and D.E.I. Ezra of Calcutta strengthened the family position in the opium market. The Gubbays and Ezra’s became prominent traders and philanthropists in Calcutta. After his death his 8 sons continued the dynasty earning the title “The Rothschilds of the East”. Sassoon's impact was seen on leaders throughout the Baghdadi Diaspora and helped to inspire:

  • Ezra of Calcutta and Hong Kong
  • Elie Kadoorie and Elias Hardoon of Shanghai
  • Manasseh Meyer of Singapore

Connected to each other

Groups of Jewish traders known as Rhadanites criss crossed the branches of the Silk Road to Asia and China. They traded in spices, silk, cotton and amethysts. They all spoke Hebrew and Arabic and brought the teachings of the Babylonian religious academies to the isolated and distant communities of the growing Diaspora.

  • Silas Hardoon

Began as an employee of the Shanghai branch and built his own successful business and performed philanthropic deeds in China and India. His grandson Jacob Sassoon built the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in Bombay. Many of David Sassoon’s descendents became Knights of the British Empire and a good number took up residence in England.

The Opium trade

Opium was introduced in China as a medical treatment in the 8th century by the Arabs. In 1793 British East India Company secured a monopoly whereby it would be the only company allowed to sell opium produced in India’s fields, most of which was then sold into China.

Opium became the single most valuable commodity of the entire 19th century. This monopoly was broken in the 1830’s when other British companies such as Jardine Matheson as well as Parsi, Arab and Jewish traders were able to get into the opium trade. British firms began to withdraw from the market as competition ate into their profits.

  • In the 1890’s Singapore’s Jewish merchants began reinvesting their profits in stocks and property. By the end of the 19th century the Jewish merchants had long been well out of the opium business.
  • The traders were Orthodox Jews, most of whom considered themselves Sephardim. The word Sephard means “Spain” in Hebrew. Baghdadi traders who had traveled as far as Spain centuries earlier called themselves Mizrahi Jews. The origin of European Jews was known as Ashkenazi Jews.

The Jewish leaders kept their faith

In 1841 the government of Singapore recorded the Jewish Synagogue Act, allowing leased property in the town to be used for religious purposes, this rent was known as “popcorn rent”. The act named three of the founding fathers:

  • Joseph Dwek Cohen
  • Nassim Joseph Ezra
  • Ezra Ezekiel

The synagogue was large enough to hold between 30 – 40 men, and no women, who in those days rarely attended synagogue. The rituals of Judaism, and strong family ties made the merchants a close knit group dependent on each other and the network of Jewish communities throughout the Middle East and India, eventually inspiring Baghdadi’s to join them.

For hundreds of years in Baghdad the most powerful man of the Jewish community was its leader, the nasi. Thus Abraham Solomon in Singapore, like David Sassoon in Bombay, became Singapore’s de facto nasi.

As goods and immigrants arrived in Singapore from Europe, Jewish business men came with them. Most came from England and Germany, but some arrived from Eastern Europe and Russia, fleeing the wave of anti-semitism. In that group were:

  • Abraham and Rosa Frankel, arrived in the1870’s from Lithuania.
  • Sir Manasseh Meyer, arrived 1873 from Calcutta
  • Nassim Adis
  • Ezekiel Saleh Manasseh
  • Eze Nathan – Baghdadi Trade Diaspora, county’s first historian
  • Gubbay family – Calcutta
  • Reuben G’loomis
  • G’loomis family

The G’loomis family maintained the mahallah traditions and was one of the largest Baghdadi Jewish peddlers. Reuben and his wife Chala (Rachel) arrived from Baghdad around 1890. He traded in dates and other commodities and was an experienced shochet going from house to house to slaughter fowl for Shabbat and to kosher the chickens. It is thought that Rachel may have been only thirteen when she was given as a bride to Reuben G’loomis. The couple had nine children:.

  • Yahya
  • Solomon
  • Ezekiel
  • Lulu
  • G’hala (Clara)
  • Misoda (Meda)
  • Sophie (Mooda)
  • Regina
  • Moselle

The children lived an Orthodox Jewish Baghdadi life at home in the mahallah, and as they grew up and married the extended family grew to well over 50 people.

Many of the children and grandchildren were held in internment camps during the Japanese Occupation of World War 11. After the war, most of the family moved away to Australia, the United States, England or Israel, but their descendents Harry Elias (attorney) , Moshe Hai Son, Flossie Joseph (Ezekiel Joseph also related to the G’loomis family) and Violet Reuben remain in Singapore today.

Interconnecting families, Baghdad and Calcutta

  • Aaron Shalome Joseph Elias (1849-1902)

The patriarch of one of the wealthy Baghdadi Jewish families in Singapore. He arrived after Abraham Solomon and like Manasseh Meyer was primarily engaged in the opium trade.

Born in Baghdad, he started business in Calcutta and married 17 year old Serena Balzer (1862-1922) a Solonika Jewess raised by Miriam Gubbay, also from a well known family from Calcutta. Aaron and Serena’s first son Joe was born in Calcutta in 1881 and made his own mark on the business and Jewish community in Singapore.

  • Joe Elias

By the time of the death of Abraham Solomon in 1884, the torch had passed to Manasseh Meyer (1843 – 1930). He was the richest Jewish merchant in the east, born in Baghdad in 1843, raised in the Jewish community in Calcutta, stayed at his uncle Joshua Rafael Joshua, a wealthy opium merchant with business connections in Calcutta. Meyer returned to Singapore in 1873 and established Meyer Brothers that grew into the most successful Singapore based Jewish company involved in the opium or “India” trade. His brother Reuben Meyerjoined the firm in Singapore while another brother Elias Meyer headed the branch in Calcutta. Meyer made the switch from opium to other ventures by the end of the late 19th century.

  • It has been thought that Meyer owned more property in Singapore than any other single person, becoming an influential municipal commissioner as well as a board member of the Straits Committee on currency. He built the colony’s first rental apartments located in Katong and hired Baghdadi clerks to collect the rent and bring it to the main office Meyer Chambers on Raffles Place.

His first wife was Khatoon with whom he had three sons and four daughters. His second wife Rebecca died 1915. He also adopted 3 children of a former business associate who had died: Isaac Shooker (later called Stanley), and Sophie Abed ( Abbott). His daughter Moselle helped bring them up.

1900’s - in Singapore

The wealthier Jews had separated themselves from the other Jews , physically and psychologically. The opium marked was tainted by widespread disapproval and thus was out of Baghdadi hands by the time the government took over in 1910.

The Baghdadi Jews now traded tin, rubber and textiles. Jewish businessmen were so prominent in the stock market that trading reportedly closed on Yom Kippur (the most important Jewish Holiday).

  • Joe Elias

Joe's mother Serena died in 1922. Three bachelor brothers Ezra, Isaac (Ike) and Raphael (Ralph). .....to be completed

  • Elias and Grimberg families

Jacob Balzar lived to a ripe old age and died 103 in Palestine, he was the Ashkenazi father of Serena Balzar Elias and her sister Rosina were born in Solonika, Greece. His wife Estrella died when the children were quite young. Miriam Gubbay agreed to take 10 year old Serena, soon Rosina was married to Abraham Grimberg, (grandfather of Joe Grimberg) a German Austrian national who owned a tobacco factory in the Spanish-owner Philippines. Abraham and then Rosina died unexpectedly, leaving their 5 children orphaned :

  • Esther (1897-1957)
  • Maria ( 1889-1971)
  • Heindrick (1890-1900)
  • Emanuel (ca 1891-1948)
  • Frederick (Sunny) Sassoon (1892-1965)

Serena raised Rosina’s five children in addition to her own seven in Singapore. The Grimberg and Elias cousins grew up together, the descendents making an important impact on colonial and post colonial Singapore. Aaron Elias died of cancer age 52, his eldest son Joe Elias became head of the family. Serena’s children:

  • Joseph ( 1881-1949)
  • Ezra (1884-1943)
  • Miriam (1889-1966)
  • Isaac (1891-1968)
  • Raphael (1893-1936)

Ambassadors of Zionism

  • David J. Elias

Born in Calcutta and married his cousin Miriam Elias, the eldest daughter of Aaron and Serena Elias, in 1914. They lived in Singapore and had eight children, four boys and four girls who were sent to school in England. David and Miriam left Singapore before WW11, but returned after it ended.

  • Ezekiel Saleh Manasseh

Another Anglophile, was the owner of S. Menasseh & Company (Gunny Rice and Opium Merchants) founded by his father in Calcutta in 1883. He served as trustee of Maghain Aboth Synagogue, and was interned by the Japanese in Changi Prison during the war. He later died in the Sime Road camp.

  • David Saul Marshall

Singapore’s first Chief Minister. David's father, Saul Nissim Mashal (later changed to Marshall) was on a voyage from Baghdad, stopping in Singapore to visit Manasseh Meyer, and decided to remain. Saul Mashal was the eldest of nine children, once successful in the dyed cloth business in Iraq. Having left his wife Fahra (Flora) behind in Baghdad, his arrival in Singapore was during Ramadan. He noticed that the Moslems did not have any dates from which to break their fast and so started importing dates from the Middle East and gunny bags from India. Like many religious Jews she travelled from Baghdad with her own shochet to maintain the laws of Kashrut on her trip to Singapore.

  • Flora and Saul (now Marshall) had six surviving children, one daughter, five sons. David Saul Marshall was their second son and first son, born in 1908, a most articulate and outspoken member of the Jewish community during the 87 years of his life.

After the shock of war

On the night of 7 December 1941 the morning of 8 December Malayan time, the Japanese destroyed the American Fleet in Pearl harbour, also invading Hong Kong and the Philippines, and landed troops throughout Asia, dropping bombs on Singapore.

When the war ended the British government offered to send internees wherever they wanted. Jacob Ballas and his mother decided to return to Iraq and subsequently had to borrow money to go back to Singapore, unprepared for Iraq’s anti-Zionism. He was selling insurance and living in rented property when he started learning the stock market trade. Within two years and $25,000, J. Ballas & Company had been born.

  • Jacob Ballas

The first Asian and only Jew from an Asian owned- brokerage company to head the Stock Exchange. He served until1968, “being in the right place at the right time”. By early 1960 Jacob had made his first million and the firm J. Ballas & Company had employed 25 staff. He became wealthy and well-known in the region. His eulogy (1921-2000) was delivered by Joe Grimberg.

Ballas was a successful financier, and left a generous legacy to ensure that the history and future of Singapore’s Jews will continue. He was President of the Jewish Welfare Board of Singapore from 1990 – 2000, and was a firm supporter of Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center among many other charities in Singapore and internationally.

  • Yahya Cohen

Born in Singapore on 1 April 1920. He was a descendent of the Jewish priestly class of Cohains, raised by his Iraqui grandmother and school teacher aunt Esther, in a strictly Orthodox home. Yahya and his two younger sisters rarely saw their parents Moselle and Menachem Cohen, due to business commitments. He became a world renowned surgeon, scholar and the first Jewish Clinical Professor of Surgery at the University of Singapore. One of his main achievements was the creation of a fully accredited medical school in Singapore, enabling Asian medical students to become surgeons without having to leave the country. Yahya was 21 years old when the Japanese bombs began to fall on Singapore. He was interned in Changi Prison with the first 100 Jewish detainees and spent the war attending to patients in the makeshift hospital. He married Janina (Nina) Horowitz, a Polish engineer.

  • Joseph Grimberg

Born in 1933 to Sassoon (Sunny) Grimberg, a cousin of the Elias brothers and Sophie David, daughter of the wealthy Baghdadi merchant Brooke David. Sassoon became Joe Elias’ clerk. Grimberg may not have been his family name for long , his father was a Cohain, so it is possible that their name was Cohen. Rosalind Shellim his sister was born 15 years prior to Joe. As war approached, Joe and his mother Sophie were evacuated to India with his aunt Kitty (David) Sayers and her 15 year old daughter Olga. By the end of the was Sophie Grimberg, from coming from an almost poor family, had made more money running a boarding house than the family had even seen before.

Joe Grimberg was the first Singaporean lawyer ever hired by the English firm Drew & Napier. He met and married an English woman while on holiday, MaryLou Lyons, and eventually had four daughters and a son. He was the first and only Jew to hold the position Judicial Commissioner of the Supreme Court. He was also made a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. Active in the Jewish Welfare Board since the 1960’s Joe Grimberg helped write the Board’s constitution, advising the Jewish community on a wide variety of legal matters including re-internment of Jewish graves in the 1980”s.

He has an extraordinary collection of Chinese snuff bottles.

  • Harry Elias

At home Harry was surrounded by Baghdadi culture and Orthodox rituals, while on the street he was surrounded by Chinese, Indian and Malay friends as well as Baghdadi relatives. His father was Elias Jonah, a Baghdadi custom that lasted into the 1930”s of turning the fathers first name into the sons last name. Thus Harry became Harry Elias. His mother died before his Barmitzvah, and on the day of her death Harry made his Barmitzvah so that he could be part of the Minyan praying at her memorial service.

Harry campaigned for David Marshall during the political 1950’s. He refused to take a British passport, obtaining the first ever Singaporean passport issued in 1960. After graduating from the Teachers Training College he served as Honorary Secretary the Jewish Welfare Board , and later pursued a degree in law in England. He obtained his law degree, became a barrister at the Middle Temple, and returned to Singapore to practise.

  • Frank Benjamin

Patriarch of the 21st century and founder of F J Benjamin Holdings Limited the huge fashion empire that has become an icon in Singapore, Frank Benjamin has been president of the Jewish Welfare board since 2000. He has shouldered the primary responsibility for preserving and expanding Singapore’s Jewish community. Frank was born in 1936, to a well off family, the son of Judah and Rose Benjamin, (nee Isaac) who had five children.

Frank met Mavis Ephraim in 1960, a second generation of Singapore. Douglas, their first born in 1964, was followed by two more brothers, Sam and Ben and two sisters Jennie Rose and Rachel. Sadly, Jennie Rose born in 1966 died in a construction accident when a wall collapsed on her in 1974. A Torah in her memory in the Ark at Maghain Aboth Synagogue is often used in services.

  • Douglas (1964 - ) married Odile
  • Sam
  • Jennie Rose
  • Ben
  • Rachel

David Marshall, Cohen, Ballas, Grimberg, Elias and Benjamin were very different as men but they had significant things in common. These 6 leaders felt a responsibility for the rest of the Jewish community. All came from Baghdad and supported Singapore. All six started out poor and rose to become wealthy and successful. The country recognises 8 different religions, including Judaism, all six of them grew up thinking of themselves as Baghdadi Jews living under British rule.

  • Victor Sassoon (1957 - )

One of Singapore’s leading entrepreneurs , Victor is an observant Baghdadi Jew and Vice President of the Jewish Welfare Board and has succeeded in a very diverse career. He was named number 32 on Forbes magazines “Singapore’s 40 Richest list” in 2007 at the age of 49. A former concert promoter he was awarded the Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He manages a thriving luxury watch importing business in Singapore and Indonesia. Victor comes from a Jewish Diaspora that began in Baghdad more than 1,000 years ago. His family history is similar to that of the many Jews who remained in the Middle East during the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Victor’s father Mordechai Sassoon and his wife and daughters moved from Iraq to Dutch controlled Jakarta in 1930 to manufacture watches, and then to Singapore to further expand his watch business. There Mordechai and his wife had two sons, Victor (1957) and Sunny (1958). Victor married Michelle Isaacs, the granddaughter of Aaron and Hilda Isaacs, and great grand daughter of Lulu Isaacs, when she was 18 years old. Sunny runs the parent company based in Los Angeles and his brother in law, Melvin Elias joined him in business as CEO of CBTL in the Asia Pacific region. Both Victor and Sunny’s wives work for the company.

Children of Victor and Michelle:

  • Claire
  • Joelle married to Justin Cohen
  • Cherie
  • Natalia Yael
  • Mordecai
  • Sunny Sassoon (1958 - )

Married Debbie Mizrahie, daughter of Isidor and Joyce Mizrahie. They have five children:

  • Johnathan
  • Daniella
  • David
  • Joseph
  • Sarah
  • F.J. Isaacs - Frederick (Ephraim) Jacob Isaacs (1917-2001)

Dedicated to the Jewish community throughout his life and helped put them on a strong financial footing in the 1970 and 1980’s. He was part of a new breed of Jewish leaders from working and middle class backgrounds who stepped forward to build the future of Jews who stayed in Singapore after the end of WW11.

In the 1890’s, Isaac’s grandparents, '"Manasseh and Rahma Khatoon Eezekiel '" moved from Baghdad to Batvia (now Jakarta) founded an optical business called M. Ezekiel and Sons. In 1908, their daughter Lulu (Fred’s mother) married an older man, Jacob Isaacs. They had five children:

  • Rose (Frank Benjamin’s mother - married Judah Benjamin)
  • Izaac Jacob Izaac (had optometry stores in ISingapore known as Izaac's Optic)
  • Aaron, founder of “Hilda’s” dress stores
  • Hannah
  • Ephraim or Freddie (legal name Frederick Jacob Isaacs better known as F.J. or Freddie) youngest of the family
  • Freddie Isaacs (Ephraim)

Grew up speaking Arabic or Malay with his parents. His two oldest daughters from his first marriage) Renee and Florence, moved to Australia. Tragically Renee was killed in 1969 in a car accident 30 hours after her wedding. His step-son Stan Isaacs who was an oculist, and two daughters, Anita and Lulu (Lilian) live in Singapore. His sonJohn Isaacs a liver surgeon moved to England, and another daughter Elizabeth, known as Mazal, moved to Israel and then to New York.

  • Renee
  • Florence
  • Stanley
  • Anita
  • John
  • Elizabeth (Mazal)
  • Lulu (Lilian)

At the start of the occupation the Japanese appointed Isaacs, then 25, to make glasses for the British prisoners of war. He became a caretaker of the Jewish community until David Marshall formed the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) in 1946. In 1950 he worked to help his friend David Marshall become Chief Minister. He married his second wife Felice (Ezekiel) in 1954, with his two daughters, her son and the son and three daughters they had together, Felice raised seven children while joining her husband in leading the Jewish Welfare Board as a member, trustee, president and vice-president.

  • In 1996 the government of Singapore honoured and celebrated his 50 years of service by making him the first Jewish community members to be given a National Day Award.

  • Eliezer Benjamin - E. B. Solomon (1904-1974)

Typical of many families who left for Australia in the late 1950 and early 1960’s. He had been born in Iraq, his family travelled to Turkey and Egypt before arriving in Singapore in 1913, when he was aged 9. He was partner to an arranged marriage to a 13 year old convent school girl, Jamila Hayeem, the daughter of Iraqi parents. They had nine children, six of whom survived. He supported the family working as a clerk. A year after the Japanese marched into Singapore, he was interned in Changi prison with 100 other Jewish men.

In the camp he formed a friendship with Sunny Katima who had the financial resources for the two to start a business. EB had demonstrated such leadership qualities in camp that the British asked him to organise rations for the impoverished Jewish community housed temporarily near the mahallah.

Eliezer and Jamila had nine children, six surviving:

  • Katie (died of dysentery)
  • Rose Solomon m. Joe Saltoon – settled in Los Angeles
  • Five more children, 4 boys
  • Albert Abraham Lelah (1913 – 1997)

Born in Baghdad in June, 1913. When he was six, his father migrated to Singapore to set up a regional exporting business and settled in the predominantly Jewish area of the mahallah. However his father could not speak English, and found the life in Singapore hard, so he returned to Baghdad with his family. Business was in Albert’s blood and at the age of sixteen he persuaded his father to loan him money to start a business. In 1938 relations between the Arabs and Jews in Baghdad were worsening and rumors were rife about the fate of the Jews. Albert had set his heart on going back to Singapore and began exporting Japanese goods back to Iraq.

He married Leah Elias, who with their first child Herzel Lelah was sent away to Bombay at the approach of the Japanese in 1942. The ship on which they sailed was sunk, but Leah and baby Herzel were saved. Abraham was interned in Changi prison and thereafter in the Sime Road camp. On release, Abraham Lelah headed for Baghdad with Jacob Ballas and Ballas’ mother Grace to check on his parents welfare. Leah and Albert had two more sons, Norman and Donald Lelah . He was a faithful and religious Jew who dedicated his life to caring for the community, and could be counted on to assist with funerals in his position as a member of the Chevra Kadisha.

  • Herzel Lelah married Ilana – Sephardic, from Israel
  • Norman
  • Donald
  • Abdulla Saleh Shooker (1849 – 1942)

Born in Iraq in 1849, Abraham (Abdulla) married Flora Raymond, maintaining an observant Jewish household. They did not have children. Flora Shooker died shortly before WW11. When the Japanese marched into Singapore in 1942 they commandeered Abdullah Shooker’s home and forced the 93 year old man to take refuge in the Talmud Torah with many other Baghdadi Jews, including David Marshall’s mother.

Soon afterwards the elderly Shooker was the first member of the Jewish community to die during the occupation. Welfare remained an important item on Abdulla’s agenda and his bequest to the Jewish community of his home was a visionary legacy that still serves its function today. By 1980 the community desperately needed a home for senior citizens, which Abdullah Shooker had left some four decades earlier to be used as a home for the poor and aged.


(Slapak, Orpa, ed. The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1995. The Jews of Singapore - Joan Bieder Singapore National Archives