The Jews of India

A history of the Baghdadi Jews--who actually lived in India, not Baghdad.

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The capital of British India until 1911, Calcutta became the second-largest center of Baghdadi Jewish settlement. Although most of the community consisted of Iraqis, particularly those who had arrived in the early 19th century fleeing the oppressive rule of Daud Pasha (1817-1831), Aleppo also contributed a number of leading members.

By the end of the 19th century, the community numbered over 1,800, and some of its members had moved into the stock exchange and become major urban landowners.

Initially, most of the Baghdadis lived in an area of Calcutta north and west of the trading center, and three synagogues were built in close proximity. The Neveh Shalom synagogue was completed in 1831, and when it was no longer large enough to accommodate the community, Beth El was erected in 1856. Finally, in 1884, Magen David, the largest synagogue in the East, was dedicated.

Until the 1880s, all power relating to the religious, communal, and social affairs of the community was vested in the synagogue committees, which also acted as liaison between the Jewish community and the government of India. However, towards the end of the 19th century, internal rivalry led to the disintegration of the system. A number of new bodies developed, and eventually a Jewish Association was founded in 1945 to coordinate the various activities and groups.

Social and Communal Life

The merchant elite that dominated community life in both Bombay and Calcutta consisted of fewer than 40 families out of a community that, at its height, numbered less than 5,000. The rest were shopkeepers, artisans, brokers, clerks, or factory workers. Some subsisted on the charity of the community trust funds. As a rule, Baghdadi Jews confined themselves to trade, finance, and industry; relatively few entered the professions.

indian synagogue

Keneseth Eliyahu
Synagogue, Bombay

Intellectual activity in Calcutta revolved around the Hebrew presses, which, in the last half of the 19th century, published religious, historical, and literary works, as well as anti-missionary tracts. After the turn of the century, religious and intellectual activity in the city seems to have waned.

Like the Bene Israel and Cochin Jews, the Baghdadi Jews in India did not have ordained rabbis of their own. They remained attached to the teaching and traditions of Baghdad, seeking guidance from that city's hakhams (sages) on questions of ritual and law. After World War I, they tended to refer their questions to the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Enqland.

The Baghdadi Jews in Calcutta and Bombay maintained a very strong sense of community and perpetuated most of the Iraqi Jewish traditions they had brought with them. Rites for protection of the newborn, special circumcision services, binding betrothal before marriage, certain marriage and funeral custom--all followed the ways of Baghdad. Baghdadi families in India today still serve an Arab-influenced cuisine.

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Joan G. Roland

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