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Baghdadi Trade Diaspora: Jews in Bombay

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Despite the name, the Baghdadi Jews are not exclusively of Iraqi origin: many came from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen as well. These Jews emigrated to India around 250 years ago and settled in the city of Surat and established Synagogue and Cemetery after they move to Bombay (Mumbai). They were traders and quickly became one of the highest earning communities in the city. As philanthropists, some of them donated their wealth to public structures. The David Sassoon Docks and a Sassoon Library are some of the famous landmarks still standing today.

It is believed that the first Jews settled in Bombay as early as the 6th century, though they were small in number. By the 18th century, Jews began to arrive en-masse to Bombay from the nearby Konkan coast area.

The Jews of Bombay were mainly comprised of two very distinct groups, the Bene Israel and the Baghdadi Jews. he Baghdadi Jews, actually a composite of Jews from Iraq, Syria, Iran and other surrounding areas, settled in the city in the 1800s. These Baghdadi Jews came to India both to escape religious persecution and in pursuit of the enormous mercantile opportunities that this port city offered. Under British rule, the Jewish community of Bombay flourished.

The Baghdadi Jews were well positioned to move between the worlds of East and West and they especially flourished during this time as traders and bankers. They retained their own distinctly Baghdadi identities, spoke Arabic, maintained the traditional Baghdadi style of prayer and deferred to the Baghdad Beit Din. Many later on they came to choose English over Arabic and they often began to don clothing in the style of the English.

The rapid merchantile boom in Bombay resulted in an expansion of the city and further development of surrounding suburbs and the fort area as well. Jacob Sassoon, the grandson of David Sassoon, built the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in the Fort in 1884 near Mahatma Gandhi Road.

The synagogue was named in memory of his father Eliyahoo Sassoon. When it was built, this was an elite and fashionable district and a key location for the businesses-minded Jews.

A history of the Jews of Bombay more often though reads as a history of the legacy of David Sassoon. This legacy extends far beyond the city of Bombay and into the histories of the Jews of Myanmar, Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

Bombay and the Sassoons

The history of the development of Bombay and its benevolent institutions is inseparably associated with the name David Sassoon. The Sassoon Dock, constructed by his firm, was the first instance of a wet dock built in western India; and it stimulated the Bombay government to promote the construction of the large Prince's Dock. The Sassoon factories of silk and cotton goods at Bombay furnished employment for a large amount of native labour; and the Sassoon’s were also the managers of the Port Canning Company, with estates lying at the mouth of the River Mullah, in Bengal.

Sir Albert Sassoon

Sir Albert Sassoon made many donations to Bombay, his benevolence lying mainly in the promotion of education among every class and creed. He founded scholarships at the university and the art school of that city and maintained the David Sassoon Benevolent Institution, a school affording instruction to many hundreds of Jewish children.

In 1872 he received the honour of knighthood. November of the following year the corporation of London conferred upon him the freedom of the city, he being the first Anglo-Indian to receive it. The shah, whom he entertained at the Empire Theatre in London (1889), conferred on him the Order of the Lion and the Sun; and in 1890 Queen Victoria advanced him to the dignity of a baronet.

He was a vice-president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, and in Bagdad erected the school of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, presenting it to the community free of all encumbrances.

In 1867 Sassoon was appointed a companion of the Star of India, and a year later he became a member of the Bombay legislative council, a position which he continued to hold for some years. It was mainly through his contributions that a colossal statue of Edward, then Prince of Wales, was erected in Bombay.

One of the most important of his public institutions is the Sassoon Reformatory and Industrial Institution for Juvenile Offenders. He built and endowed the Infirm Asylum at Puna; and another charitable institution erected by him was the General Hospital at Puna, founded in 1863, for all castes and creeds.

In appreciation of Sassoon's philanthropic labours the citizens of Bombay placed a marble bust of him in the Victoria and Albert Museum, to which he had presented an illuminated clock-tower. His last public act was the erection of a statue in memory of Albert, prince consort.

David Sassoon

David Sassoon, known as the merchant prince, was forced to flee from his ancestral home in Baghdad in 1829 under the threat of a death sentence imposed by the then Pasha. Packed among his small belongings were a prayer shawl, his phylacteries and a copy of the Pentateuch. Strictly orthodox, he adhered to the dietary laws and the rituals of the Jewish faith. His two natural languages were Hebrew and Arabic.

His father Saleh Sassoon (mother Amam Gabbai) a wealthy businessman was chief treasurer to the pashas (the governors of Baghdad) from 1781 to 1817 and leader of the city's Jewish community. Following increasing persecution of Baghdad's Jews by Daud Pasha, the family moved to Mumbai via Persia.

David Sassoon was in business in Mumbai no later than 1832, originally acting as a middleman between British textile firms and Gulf commodity merchants, subsequently investing in valuable harbour properties.

He was the treasurer of Baghdad between 1817 and 1829, and became the leader of the Jewish community in Mumbai after Baghdadi Jews emigrated there. The family were Sephardim whose ancestors once lived in Spain. After a traditional education in Hebrew, Sassoon married Hannah in 1818. They had two sons and two daughters before she died in 1826.

Two years later he married Farha Hyeem (who was born in 1812 and died in 1886). The pair had six sons and three daughters.

Hannah’s children: (see Hannah Sassoon)

  1. Albert Abdullah David Sassoon, 1st baronet of Kensington Grove (see Sir Albert Abdullah David Sassoon, 1st Baronet of Kensington Gore)
  2. Elias David (see Elias David Sassoon)
  3. Amam Moses (see Amam Moses)
  4. Mazaltob (see Mazaltob Sassoon)

Fahra Hyeem’s children: (see Farha Flora Sassoon)

  1. Reuben (1835-1905) (see Reuben David Sassoon) m. Kate Ezekiel (see Catherine "Kate" Sassoon)
  2. Arthur Abraham (1840-1912) (see Arthur Abraham David Sassoon) m. Louise Perugia (see Eugenie Louise Judith (Jadilk) Sassoon)
  3. Solomon (twin) (1841-1907) (see Sir Solomon David Sassoon)
  4. Aaron (twin) (1841-1907) (see Aaron David Sassoon)
  5. Kate (1844- ) (see Catherine "Kate" Ezekiel) m. Solomon Ezekiel (see Solomon Ezekiel)
  6. Rebecca (1847-1918) (see Rebecca Shellim) m. her 2nd cousin, Shellim E. Shellim (see Shellim Ezekiel Shellim)
  7. Simha (1850-1857) (see Simha Sassoon)
  8. Frederick (1853-1917) (see Frederick David Sassoon) m. Jeanette Raphael (see Jeanette Sassoon)
  9. Mozelle (1855-1952) (see Mozelle Hayeem) m. Jacob Meyer Hyeem (see Jacob Hayeem)

An Orthodox Jew, David Sassoon continued his Jewish religious observances, observing the Jewish Sabbath throughout his busy life. He was also a member of the Legislative Assembly of the time. He built one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues of India, the Magen David synaguogue at Byculla, Mumbai.

He lived with his family at Byculla's Bungalow which was in fact actually a Palace named Shin Sangoo. This was later donated to the Parsi Trust and is today's Massina Hospital. Nearby Rani Bagh was also the property of the Sassoons and was donated to the Mumbai Municipal Corporation for the construction of the Albert Museum, designed by the most prominent architect of the time. The interior is exactly like the Magen David synagogue of Mumbai and Ohel David synagoague of Pune. It also has the famous Victoria clock tower.

The first mill was named E.D. Sassoon Mills from which he became exceedingly prosperous. Later the Sassoons were the largest mill owners and were known as Badshah of the business community of Mumbai. Overall there were 17 mills, each mill having around 15 to 20,000 workers. Later, David Sassoon also entered the cotton, fabrics and various other industries on a large scale.

He died in his country house in Pune in 1864 never learnig to speak English. His business interests were inherited by his son Sir Albert Sassoon; Elias David Sassoon had established a rival firm. He had created an utopian dream.

Buildings contributed by David Sasoon and their family:

  • Sassoon charity funds
  • David Sassoon Library & reading room, Fort Mumbai
  • Jacob Sasooon High School, Byculla, Mumbai
  • EEE Sassoon High School, Byculla, Mumbai
  • David Sassoon Hospital, JJ Hospital Premises, Byculla, Mumbai
  • Asina Hospital, Byculla, Mumbai
  • Magen David Synagauge, Byculla, Mumbai
  • Kenneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, Colaba, Mumbai
  • Sassoon Dock, Colaba, Mumbai
  • Elphiston Technological School, Parel, Mumbai
  • The Gateway of India
  • The Bank of India, Fort (head office), Mumbai
  • The David Sassoon Reformary and Deaf school, Matunga, Mumbai
  • The Victoria Garden and Albert Museum (today's Rani naugh)
  • Ohel David Synagogue, Pune
  • Sassoon Hospital, Pune
  • Lady Rachel Sassoon Dispensary, Pune
  • David Sassoon Vridha Ashram, Pune
  • Royal Institute of Science – free medical dispensary

J.J. Hy. David Sassoon Sassoon

David Sassoon Sassoon was an Indian merchant, born in Bombay in 1832; died in London in 1867. At an early age he was sent to Baghdad where he was initiated into Biblical and Talmudic lore. Thence he proceeded to Shanghai where he conducted the mercantile operations of the China branch of David Sassoons, Sons & Co.

Jewish Chronicle July 19, 1867

Sir Edward Albert Sassoon

The eldest surviving son of Sir Albert Sassoon and of Hannah, daughter of Meyer Moises (Moses) pf Bombay. He was born in Bombay on June 20 1856, succeeded to baronetcy in 1896 on the death of Sir Albert Sassoon. He is a graduate of London University, a major in the Duke of Cambridhe Hussars Yeomanry, and a deputy lieutenant. In February 1902 on resignation of Sir Joseph Sebag Montefiore, Sir Edward was elected president in the London Spanish and Portugese Congregation. He is a vice-president of the Jew's College and of the Anglo-Jewish Association. He married Aline Caroline, daughter of Baron Gustave de Rothschild in 1887.

Harris, Jewish Year Book 1901 Who's Who 1905 Jewish Chrinicle March 3, 1899 and February 9, 1900

Notable Indian Jews

  • Lieutenant General J F R Jacob - Former Chief of Staff of the Indian Army's Eastern Command; Former Governor of Punjab and Goa
  • Jacqueline Bhabha - Lecturer at Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School
  • Eli Ben-Menachem - Israeli politician
  • Lalchanhima Sailo - Rabbi and Founder of Chhinlung Israel People's Convention.
  • Ezekiel Isaac Malekar - Bene Israel Rabbi
  • David and Simon Reuben - Businessmen
  • David Sassoon - Businessman
  • Albert Abdullah David Sassoon - British Indian merchant
  • Ellis Kadoorie and Elly Kadoorie - Philanthropists
  • Horace Kadoorie - Philanthropist
  • Joseph Rabban - Was given copper plates of special grants from the Chera ruler Bhaskara Ravivarman II from Kerala
  • Sassoon David Sassoon - Philanthropist and benefactor of greater Indian Jewish community
  • Anish Kapoor - Sculptor
  • Gerry Judah - Artist and Designer
  • Farhat Ezekiel Nadira - Bollywood actress
  • Ruby Myers, Bollywood actress of the 1920s known as Sulochana
  • David Abraham Cheulkar - Bollywood actor
  • Samson Kehimkar - Musician
  • Pearl Padamsee - Theatre personality
  • Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - Writer
  • Solomon Sopher - Jewish community leader in Mumbai
  • Abraham Barak Salem - Cochin Jewish Indian nationalist leader
  • Bensiyon Songavkar - Professional cricketer
  • Ranjit Chaudhry-Bollywood actor
  • Nissim Ezekiel - poet, playwright, editor and art-critic
  • Esther David (March 17, 1945— ) is a Jewish-Indian author, an artist and a sculptor
  • Reuben David- Industrialist who built famous zoo Near Kankaria Lake in Ahmedabad

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