The Bene-Israel and Baghdadi Jews of India: A history of this minority community

The Bene-Israel and Baghdadi Jews of India made a huge contribution to the cities they lived in, Mumbai and Kolkata

Sifra Lentin July 03, 2016 10:32:56 IST
The Bene-Israel and Baghdadi Jews of India: A history of this minority community

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on the Jewish community in India

For generations of Indian school students, especially those from the ICSE stream, Indian English poet, Nissim Ezekiel’s poem ‘Night of the Scorpion’ will always be fondly remembered. Not only is the poem simply written but its multiple themes of good versus evil, superstition versus rationality, and love conquers all ( “My mother only said/Thank God the scorpion picked on me/And spared my children”) were not just easy to learn but easy to score marks on.

What escapes most readers though is the vivid imagery of village life that Ezekiel conjures (“I remember the night my mother/ was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours/of steady rain had driven him to crawl/beneath a sack of rice.”), drawn from Ezekiel’s childhood memories and his community’s roots in the villages of the Konkan coast.

Nissim Ezekiel (b. 1924-d. 2004) belonged to the largest Indian Jewish community on the subcontinent – the Bene Israel (children of Israel) – who are better known in the villages of Raigad district (which includes the north Konkan coast) as shanwar tellis or Saturday oil-pressers. This is a reference to this community’s traditional village occupation as oil pressers who abstained from work on Saturday – the Jewish sabbath.

The Bene Israel Jews of Maharashtra (part of erstwhile Bombay State) will be the major beneficiaries of the Maharashtra state government’s announcement last week notifying Indian Jews as a minority community. Although community numbers have dropped from their peak in the 1951 census (Bombay state 20,135 versus all India 26, 512) to the last census (2011) figures of 2466 (Maharashtra state) versus 4650 all India, the fact remains that Maharashtra is still home to 53 percent of Indian Jews today.

The BeneIsrael and Baghdadi Jews of India A history of this minority community

Mumbai’s oldest and first Bene-Israel synagogue - Shaar Harahamin (Gate of Mercy) – built by Commandant Samaji Hasaji Divekar in 1796, as a thanksgiving and commemoration of his close escape from certain death after being taken prisoner by Tipu Sultan’s soldiers during the Second Mysore War. Image courtesy Jamshed Lentin

Hidden in these census numbers is a small but important community that straddled not just the west coast but also the east coast of India – the Baghdadi Jews. Though most may be aware of the history of the David Sassoon family in Mumbai, not many know of this largely mercantile community’s long history of maritime trade with the medieval ports of the Konkan and Malabar coasts, and the existence of a vibrant and self-sufficient Baghdadi Jewish community in Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta and the capital of British India till 1911).

This community of Arabic speaking Jews from West Asia, who now number approximately 150 members in Mumbai and just 34 in Kolkata, were probably the first Jews to discover the Bene Israel as a Judaic community. The Egyptian physician and rabbi, Moses Maimonides, when writing in 1200 CE to the Jews of Lunel (France) alerted them to the existence of a community without torah scrolls and who look just like their neighbours. Maimonides’ brother David, a maritime trader, is believed to have interacted with the Bene-Israel.

Shanwar tellis, agriculturists, soldiers and mariners

Today, the Bene Israel community, who can be broadly termed as ‘conservative’ but not necessarily ‘orthodox’ Jews, are largely concentrated in the city of Thane, as against their former strongholds in the Konkan and in Mumbai city itself, where even today the community has four functioning synagogues and two prayer halls (one of these belongs to the reform liberal Jews known as the Jewish Religious Union).

The Bene Israel are considered to be the oldest Jewish community on the subcontinent, and the event that foreshadowed the first millennia of their residence in the Konkan was their shipwreck off the coast of Navgaon (a coastal village south of Alibaug), in which just seven men and seven women survived. This destitution led to centuries of isolation from mainstream Judaism for the community.

The BeneIsrael and Baghdadi Jews of India A history of this minority community

The blowing of the 'shofar' (ram's horn) at the Magen Hassidim synagogue (1904) in Agripada (Mumbai), on the occasion of Jewish New Year. Image courtesy Jamshed Lentin

The period of their arrival is dated to after the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel in the year 771-72 BCE. It is pertinent to note that after the death of KingSolomon in 935 BCE, his kingdom was divided into two: the Kingdom of Israel (capital at Samaria) and the Kingdom of Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem.

Although this ancient community of Jews have no evidence of when they were shipwrecked and whether they sojourned for sometime elsewhere before undertaking their perilous voyage to the subcontinent, it is the community’s oral history transmitted down generations that sustained their identity as a Judaic community.

Their memory of the daily Jewish prayer – Shema Israel — a declaration of faith in monotheism, their observance of Jewish festivals, like Passover, even in a state of pristine isolation, adherence to the Jewish dietary laws (like not eating crustaceans and pork, not cooking meat and milk together), were responsible for the discovery of the Bene Israel as one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

There are two milestones in the religious revival and integration of the Bene-Israel into the global Jewish world. The first occurred sometime in the 10th to 12th century, when one David Rahabi, who had been shipwrecked, lived among the community and re-tutored them in the basic tenets of Judaism.

The BeneIsrael and Baghdadi Jews of India A history of this minority community

A Bene-Israel father with his two sons. It is evident that the older son has had his Bar Mitzvah (rite of initiation into the Jewish faith) because he has draped over his shoulders a prayer shawl, which means he can be counted as an adult Jewish male for the minyan (quorum of 10 Jewish men) necessary to conduct prayers in a synagogue. Image courtesy Jamshed Lentin

The second religious revival occurred when the community immigrated to British Mumbai in the early 18th century, in search of jobs in the army of the East India Company. Intriguingly, the Bene-Israel even before their stellar service to the British Indian and independent India’s armed forces, already had a legacy of being a martial race as they were employed in the armies and navies of various native kingdoms, like those of the Marathas and the Sidis of Janjira.

In Mumbai, there were two influences on the community, that of the Anglican missionaries (notably Rev John Wilson of the Scottish Presbyterian Mission) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, who translated the Jewish religious texts from Hebrew to Marathi, the language of the Bene-Israel; and the coalescing of community life around the first Bene-Israel synagogue in 1796 – Shaar Harahamin (Gate of Mercy) – on Samuel Street (Mumbai). This is a model followed by the Jewish diaspora the world over.

The transition from a rural setting to urban centres in erstwhile Bombay Presidency, like Bombay, Ahmadabad, Karachi, Aden, transformed the community into a professional one, with many community members becoming lawyers, doctors, teachers, professors, and higher ranked officers in the armed, police, and administrative services.

Some well-known Bene-Israelis are Vice Admiral Benjamin A Samson, head of India’s Western Fleet during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, Dr Elijah Moses, physician and mayor of Bombay (1937-38), the Hindi film actor David (Reuben), Dr Jherusha Jhirad, obstetrician and head of the Cama & Albless hospital from 1928 to 1949, and more contemporary names are Bharat Natyam danseuse Leela Samson, and Ahmedabad based writer Esther David.

The BeneIsrael and Baghdadi Jews of India A history of this minority community

The minton tiled flooring and the 'tebah' (akin to a pulpit) are seen in the foreground, while large stained glass windows are seen above the Holy Ark of the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue (1884) in Fort , Mumbai. Image courtesy Jamshed Lentin

The Baghdadi Jews of India: a merchant community

The popular narrative history of the Baghdadi Jewish community on the subcontinent is largely confined to colonial British India. However, this community of Jewish merchants were active in trade with the subcontinent since the early medieval period.

Though the term Baghdadi is used to refer to this community, it simply connotes that Baghdad was their spiritual, religious and community nerve centre, after the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

This community is drawn from various Jewish diaspora settled in towns along the overland trade and sea routes connecting the eastern Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, like Aleppo, Tunis, Cairo, Alexandria, Cyprus, and Basra. These Jewish traders had a flourishing trade in spices with early medieval port cities on the west coast, like Mangalore.

The earliest evidence of this active India trade are the numerous business and personal letters written in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic by these traders, dated from the 9th to as late as the 19th century, discovered in a synagogue in Fustat (old Cairo), known as the Cairo Geniza records.

The earliest evidence of a Baghdadi Jewish settlement on the subcontinent was in the erstwhile Mughal port city of Surat. Till two years ago there existed a medieval Jewish cemetery at Katargam (Surat), which has now been levelled into a lawn, thereby effectively wiping out the only archaeological evidence (the tombstones) that there was once settled a merchant community of Jews here.

The BeneIsrael and Baghdadi Jews of India A history of this minority community

David Sassoon built the first Baghdadi Jewish synagogue in Mumbai – Magen David (1861) – at Byculla. Image courtesy Jamshed Lentin

It was this Baghdadi Jewish community in Surat that spawned the two most important Baghdadi communities on the subcontinent in Mumbai and Kolkata.

The Kolkata Jewish community was founded by the wealthiest Surat merchant of his time, Shalom Ha-Cohen, who sensed the economic and political decline of Surat, and journeyed with his large family and servants to Calcutta. Cohen and his entourage arrived in the year 1798, which is taken as the founding year of the Calcutta Jewish community.

Additions to this minuscule community were made through immigration by family members or arranged marriages, for example Shalom Ha-Cohen sent for a bridegroom, Moses Duek Cohen, for his daughter Luna. Moses Duek was the son of his overseas business partner and he succeeded Ha-Cohen as head of the Kolkata Jews. In this way, not only were community ties strengthened but more importantly, trade ties. It is said that every Kolkata Jewish family, whether the Elias, Ezras, Callanders or Sillimans, can all trace their roots back to Shalom Ha-Cohen.

Just as there was a leading family in Kolkata, the history of the Mumbai Jewish community centres on David Sassoon and his sons, notably Albert (Abdullah) and Elias, daughter-in-law Flora, grandson Jacob, and the last of the Sassoons - great grandson Victor.

Although there existed a small community of Baghdadi merchants in Mumbai, as early as the 18th century, this nascent community did not come into its own till the arrival of David Sassoon to the city, whilst fleeing persecution in Baghdad, in 1832.

The economic prosperity of this community took place under the leadership of Sassoon, with the Sassoon trading empire expanding across West Asia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Great Britain. David Sassoon and his descendants preferred to recruit staff for their trading operations from the community pool rather thanlooking elsewhere.

By the late 19th and early 20th century, the two branches of this family (David Sassoon & Sons and ED Sassoon & Co) owned 11 mills in the city that employed 15,000 workers.

The BeneIsrael and Baghdadi Jews of India A history of this minority community

The David Sassoon Library & Reading Room (completed in 1870) was donated to the city by David Sassoon but completed after his death on 4 November 1864. The library has a beautiful sculpture of the Sassoon patriarch by Thomas Woolner, and a large oil portrait that is now hung just above the staircase leading to the reading room. Image courtesy Jamshed Lentin

A rich urban tapestry: civic institutions, synagogues and the cultural legacy of the Jews of Mumbai and Kolkata

Just like the Parsis, the contribution of the Baghdadi Jews to the built heritage of Mumbai and Kolkata has been far in excess of their small numbers. Some notable contributions are the Sassoon Docks in Colaba and the David Sassoon Library & Reading Room in the Kala Ghoda precinct (both in Mumbai), and the Sassoon General Hospital in Pune.

The imposing clock-tower of the Lal Deval (Ohel David) synagogue of Pune has been an important landmark of that city for 150 years, and it is in the compound of this synagogue that David Sassoon lies buried. In Mumbai, the community has two impressive synagogues – the Magen David at Byculla and the Keneseth Eliyahoo off Rampart Row. In Kolkata, there survives three beautiful synagogues, the Magen David, Neveh Shalom, and the Beth El synagogues, all three a testimony to the former prosperity of Kolkata’s small community.

Another legacy of this community has been their contribution to the Hindi film industry by Baghdadi Jewish actresses, like Sulochana, Nadira, Pramila; and to the world of Indian documentary films by film director Ezra Mir.

Though the population of Baghdadi Jews are critically low, their efforts to keep prayer services going in their synagogues, to host weekly Sabbath dinners for the congregation and visiting Jewish tourists, and to maintain the annual community Passover seder service, have kept alive the religious, social, and cultural legacy of this important minority in Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata.

Minority status for this community will only aid the efforts of community members to preserve their legacy and protect community properties in Maharashtra. Interestingly, the state of West Bengal was the first Indian state to grant minority status to its Jewish community back in 1995.

Read part 1 of this series here.

Sifra Lentin is adjunct fellow, Mumbai History, Gateway House

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