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.

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Joan G. Roland

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