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Aspects of Babylonian Jewish Life in Iraq

Reproduced from the Jewish Babylonian™, The Midrash BEN ISH HAI™ Newsletter

“Aspects of Babylonian Jewish life in Iraq and India during the 19th and 20th centuries”.

By Dr Sara Manasseh[1]

Author’s note: Because my own history is very much part of the Babylonian Jewish community in Baghdad and India, members of my family will enter and exit during the course of these articles. These include the Sassoon, Manasseh (Mnashshi) and later, the Ani families in Baghdad and India.



The Great Synagogue in Baghdad, the Slat-Il-Kbiri, with Hakham Bashi, Hakham Ezra Dangoor

The term “Babylonian Jews” refers to the Jews of Iraq, who may also be referred to as Mesopotamian Jews, or as Baghdad, Baghdadi or Baghdadian Jews. Most Jews of Iraq lived in the capital city of Baghdad, which influenced Jewish life in Iraq and in the Iraqi Jewish Diaspora, particularly with regard to questions relating to religious matters and custom. So, “Baghdad” or “Baghdadian” became a general term to refer to Jews and Jewish custom of the wider region, in some cases, including Jews from other Middle Eastern countries, for example, from Syria.

The Babylonian Jewish Diaspora, the first Jewish Diaspora, was established some two and a half thousand years ago, with the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, and subsequent Jewish exile to Jerusalem. The main chapter of Babylonian Jewish life in Iraq ended abruptly this century, when the majority of Iraqi Jews were transported to Israel in a series of airlifts during 1950-1951. Today, the Jewish community in Iraq numbers only about sixty, mainly elderly, all living in Baghdad.

 During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of satellite communities of Babylonian Jews became established in India and the Far East; most of these communities are now dwindling or have died out, having moved on to a number of countries, including Israel, England, Canada, the United States and Australia. 


 David Sassoon[3]Babylonian Jewish leadership was recognised by the rulers of the country, and respected by both Jews and Muslims. By about the beginning of the 15th century, the head of the Jewish community was known as nasî (“prince”), and under the Ottomans, the office of the Sarraf Bashi (chief banker and financial assistant to the Governor) was usually combined with that of nasi, while, later, that of the Hakham Bashi (the chief rabbi) was created in 1849.

 Jewish life in the Babylonian diaspora was subject to fluctuating circumstances of rough persecution or favourable conditions depending on the policies of successive ruling dynasties. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Iraq was first under Ottoman rule (until 1917), then under the British Mandate (until 1932), the Kingdom of Iraq (until 1958) and finally, the Republic of Iraq. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Sheikh Salah Sasson (1750-1830) officiated as both nasi and Sarraf Bashi (c. 1781-1817). During the reign of the last and most oppressive of the Mamluk pashas, Daud Pasha (1817-1831), the Baghdad Jewish community was subject to perpetual oppression. Sheikh Sasson’s son, David was imprisoned, but succeeded in fleeing the country, eventually reaching Bombay, India (1832), where he was to establish the Sassoon dynasty. Towards the end of Dãûd Pasha’s despotic rule, many Jews fled the province, emigrating east to Teheran, Bushire, Bombay, Calcutta, Sydney and China, and nearer home to Aleppo, Damascus, Alexandria and Masqat. (Sassoon1949:125, Stillman1979:103, 347fn1)


Hakham 'Abdallah Somekh (Somech), 'a"h founded Midrash Bet Zilkha with H"R Hesqel (Yehezkel) Reuben Menashe (Mnashi)

Religious and communal life have been at the heart of Iraqi Jewish values. A number of synagogues have existed in Baghdad, the largest of which is the Great Synagogue, or, in Iraqi Judeo-Arabic, the slat il-kbiri.  During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Talmudic studies were pursued at midrashim (or yeshibas), including the well-known Midrash Bet Zilkha, originally built by Hasqel Ruben Mnashshi (1840), and expanded by his son, Mnashshi (Mnashi) (1850s). It is of interest that the family was known by the name Mnashshi-Zbeida, after Hasqel’s wife, Zbeida, who had continued her husband’s philanthropic work (Melamed 1995:185) and managed the family business in Baghdad, during his long absence in Calcutta (A. Manasseh, p.c.). It is said of one of the sons, Mnashshi, that his house in Baghdad “was open from morning to night; in the entrance hall there were large quantities of bread and halvah [Hlaawa] in the winter, and bread and watermelons in the summer, and whoever wished could enter and eat his fill” (Agassi 1981 in Melamed 1995:185). 

 The Midrash Bet Zilkha was headed by the great Hakham ‘Abdallah Somekh (1813-1889), one of his students being the future undisputed spiritual head, Hakham Yosef Hayyim (c. 1833-1909), (author of Ben Ish Hai), the de-facto Chief Rabbi of Baghdad for fifty years. Other outstanding chief rabbis in Baghdad were Hakham Abraham Hillel (1820-1920), and Hakham Ezra Dangoor (1848-1930). The graduates of the Baghdad Midrashim became rabbis, ritual slaughterers, religious court judges and Talmud scholars for Jewish communities in Iraq, South East Asia and the Far East.

Hakham Ribb Yosef Haim (Ashk: Chaim). The Ben Ish Hai (Ben Ish Chai)

 Education for Jewish children was originally at the istad-s, which provided a mainly religious education; children (mainly boys, but girls could attend as well) from the ages of four to twelve attended the class, often held at the home of the teacher (al-istad). In 1832 the first Talmud Torah school was built, run by a public committee acting for the Jewish community. The school provided mainly religious education, exclusively for boys. The Alliance Israélite Universelle brought a European education— including secular studies—to Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa. Its first school, for boys, opened in Baghdad in December 1864, and was later known as the Albert Sassoon School. The language of instruction was French. The curriculum included  biblical Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and English,  history, geography, arithmetic, physics and chemistry. The Alliance also opened a school for girls—the Laura Kadoorie School (1895), in a building donated by a former Baghdad Alliance graduate, Sir Eliezer Kadoorie, a philanthropist living in Shanghai and Hong Kong. By 1913, the Alliance opened schools in other Jewish centres in Iraq. The Jewish community also established their own schools, including the Silas Kadoorie school for the blind, in Baghdad.

 Under the British occupation of Iraq (1917-1920) and the British Mandate (1921-1932), the Jews were the largest single group in the city; they were also the best

educated, probably the wealthiest, and with a network of commercial connections with fellow Baghdadians who had settled in India, the Far East and England. Under the new British administration, educated Jews were among the first to apply for posts of clerks and senior officers requiring a knowledge of both Arabic and English. Thousands of Jews were employed in the postal service, railroads, ports, customs, banking, courts and elsewhere; Jews also joined the police force and Indian units of the British army, some stationed in Iraq (Shohet 1982:26). Jewish delegates were elected to the Iraqi parliament. 

 Under the British Mandate, in 1921, one month before his coronation, King Faysal I emphasised the equality of all Iraqis: 

There is no meaning in the words Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the terminology of patriotism, there is simply a country called Iraq, and all are Iraqis.

… we all belong to one stock, the stock of our ancestor Shem; we all belong to that noble race… 

 (Ireland 1937:466, quoted Stillman 1991:260) 

Faysal’s insistence on equality was welcomed by the Jews, but opposed by the strong Arab nationalist movement, who as early as 1921 objected to the employment of foreigners and non-Muslims (Stillman 1991:56). 

  A Jewish social club and cultural society were founded. Newspapers were launched—the Hebrew-Arabic weekly, Yeshurun, in November 1920, and the Arabic al-Misbah in 1924. Jewish writers fluent in Arabic began publishing in that language, becoming pioneers of Arabic literature and journalism. European dress gradually replaced the traditional “oriental” costume, mainly in the large cities of Baghdad and Basra, and “emancipated” Jewish women no longer covered their faces in the street (Shohet 1982:27).


A mass grave of victims of the Farhud (Farhoud), the Jewish massacre in Baghdad in 1941


 The Zionist Movement acquired legal status in Iraq. Links were established with the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem and a branch of the Palestine Foundation Fund, (Keren Hayesod) was established in 1923 in Baghdad. Free evening classes in Hebrew were organised, and a public library with Hebrew books was opened. Hebrew teachers from Palestine were invited to teach Hebrew and Jewish history (Ben-Yaacob and Cohen 1996:1450). At the time, Zionism was not considered by many to be an anti-Arab movement. However, Zionist activities were not supported by prominent members of the Jewish community, who warned against openly identifying with the Zionist cause. From the end of 1929 Zionism was officially banned and the government began to persecute Zionists for their beliefs.

 King Faysal died in September 1933, succeeded by his eighteen year old son, Ghazi, who was inexperienced, and gave a free hand to the country’s extremists. During Hitler’s rise to power, there was much Nazi activity in Baghdad, which together with Arab nationalism culminated in extreme anti-Jewish feeling, and during the festival of shabu’oth, in 1941, the farhud[6], the horrific anti-Jewish pogrom in Baghdad.

King Faysal died in September 1933, succeeded by his eighteen year old son, Ghazi, who was inexperienced, and gave a free hand to the country’s extremists. During Hitler’s rise to power, there was much Nazi activity in Baghdad, which together with Arab nationalism culminated in extreme anti-Jewish feeling, and during the festival of shavu’ot, in 1941, the farhud, the horrific anti-Jewish pogrom in Baghdad. This was carried out during a period of political instability, in the absence of a proper government. Many Muslim families provided shelter to their Jewish neighbours, and the spiritual leader of the Shicites forbade his followers to take part in the killing and looting, and refused to issue a call for a ‘Jihad’ (holy war). Despite this, during the farh?d, 179 Jews were killed, 242 children were left orphans, hundreds of businesses and buildings were looted, and the total property loss estimated by the Jewish community’s own investigating committee was equivalent to approximately £680,000. The Commission’s figure of the numbers killed was considerably less. However, as later acknowledged by one of its members, the government wished to underplay the statistics; many Iraqi writers have chosen to gloss over, or ignore the farh?d entirely (Stillman 1991:119).

   Following the farhud, a number of Jewish youth joined the Zionist underground movement, aided by Jewish emissaries from Palestine. The aims of the movement included spreading the knowledge of the Hebrew language and culture, Jewish defence both in Palestine and the Diaspora, immigration to Palestine, and the liberation of Jewish women from social restrictions in all aspects of life. The movement held an attraction for many youth, including young women whose profile within the group was as prominent as that of young men.

    With the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948 martial law was declared throughout Iraq. In September 1948, ShafÅq cAdas, a Jewish businessman with no political affiliations, was condemned to death on the unlikely charge of having supplied British army scrap to Israel; he was also charged with Zionism and Communism. cAdas was fined five million pounds, publicly hanged in front of his palatial home in Basra, and his business and property confiscated. Though many saw the injustice of the hanging, Shohet (1982:80) writes: “His execution was a festive event, celebrated by approximately 12,000 spectators from all parts of Iraq. … It was a day of mourning for Iraqi Jewry.” Jewish persecution continued and illegal emigration to Israel via Iran increased.

    Eventually, in 1950, Iraqi Jews were allowed to leave the country legally, provided they did so permanently, within a year, and on surrender of their Iraqi nationality. Each Jew was allowed 50 dinars and 30 pounds of baggage. Consequently, all valuables including gold and jewellery had to be left behind, and all assets of emigrating Jews were frozen. Estimates of the total value of the frozen Jewish assets at the time ranged from as low as the Iraqi government’s figure of $50 million to as high as $436 million put forward by the Israelis. Overnight nearly 80,000 Jews waiting to be airlifted to Israel were rendered penniless.

    Under the Republic of Iraq (from 1958), all Iraqis were promised equality, but following the Six-Day War against Israel in June 1967, Jewish persecution increased. With the emergence of the Bacth regime in 1969, the hangings of Jews in public squares caused international outrage, and approximately ten per cent of Jews were imprisoned. In the years 1972-73, at least twenty-three Jews were murdered by the secret police. By the mid 1980s, few Jews remained.

    Before we leave Iraq, I would like to mention aspects of musical life in Baghdad. Perhaps because of the low status of instrumental music within Islam, the situation at the beginning of the twentieth century was that Jewish musicians were the country’s foremost instrumentalists and represented Iraq at official events, such as the Congress of Arabic music in Cairo, 1932. A number of recordings of this period exist.

    With regard to women, however, it was considered shameful for any woman to be a professional musician, in the public eye. An exception was the daqqaqa [OHP], a professional woman musician, who sang and accompanied herself on drums, particularly at henna ceremonies (preceding the wedding); she was assisted by a small group of women who sang responses and also played percussion. The henna ceremony was originally an occasion for women only, and perhaps this is why their profession, which was even approved by the chief rabbinate, was considered to be respectable.

    Another occasion when it was not considered shameful for a woman to sing, even in the presence of men, was in the home, when she put her child to sleep.


    Before the arrival of Arabic-speaking Jews in India, who came for trading purposes, two major Jewish communities had been established for a number of centuries—the Bene Israel community who lived along the Konkan coast, and the Cochin Jews, who lived further south, on the Malabar coast [OHP map]. The largest community, Bene Israel claim descent from Jews, in about the 2nd century BCE, when they were shipwrecked off the Konkan coast. They adopted many local customs and dress of Hindu and Moslem neighbours: local language, Marathi. They kept some Jewish trads: circumcision, basic dietary laws, abstention from work on Saturdays: occupation in past = oil pressers and known as ‘shanwar telis’ (Saturday oil pressers)- refused to work on Saturday. They returned to mainstream Judaism by teachers from Cochin who ‘discovered’ them late 16th or early 17th century. Christian missionaries in early 19th century acquainted them with the bible in Marathi translation and promoted study of Hebrew among them. They are the largest single element of the Jewish community in India. The Cochin Jews consist of 2 main communities: Black Jews (Malabaris): regard themselves as descendants of original settlers, who may have arrived during King Solomon’s time, or later; White Jews (mostly descendants of immigrants from Europe and Middle East (came to India, 16th and 17th centuries). The Pardesi synagogue (of White Jews) is a very beautiful, historic building, a protected monument by the Indian government [OHP stamp/synagogue?].

    During the second half of the eighteenth century (when India was under British rule), Baghdadian Jews in Surat (north of Bombay) built a synagogue and bought a plot for a burial ground. In 1790, Shalom Cohen (1762-1836), from Aleppo in Syria, arrived in Surat (via Baghdad and Basra OHPMAP), and soon became the leader and spokesman of the Arabic-speaking Jews in Surat.  He and his descendants were to lay the foundations of the Jewish community in Calcutta which was then the capital of India. By the end of the 18th century the Jewish community began moving from Surat to live in Bombay (now known as Mumbai) and Calcutta. The sea journey (there being no railway at the time) could be tedious and dangerous, subject to weather conditions.

     Shalom Cohen left Surat for Calcutta in December 1797, accompanied by his sho¥et and a cook. Calling at the ports of Bombay, Cochin and Madras, they finally sailed up the river Hooghly, making the last part of the journey to Calcutta by gharry (horse carriage) arriving in Calcutta at the beginning of August 1798 (about 7 and a half months after leaving Surat). His family followed later. Shalom’s arrival in Calcutta marked the birth of the Jewish community in Calcutta. The Baghdadian Jewish community in Bombay began to be established in the early nineteenth century, followed by a community in Poona (now Pune). [OHP map]

    Religious and communal life were again of foremost importance. The early Baghdadian settlers combined keen business acumen with the religious traditions of Baghdad; commercial interests with the study and observance of the Torah. Houses of prayer were established, and in time, beautiful synagogues were erected. David Sassoon built the Maghen David synagogue in Byculla, in 1861, and the Ohel David Synagogue, a famous landmark in Poona, in 1863. Later, his grandson, Jacob built the Kenesseth Eliahoo Synagogue in the Bombay Fort area, in 1884. In the same year, in Calcutta, the Ezra family built the Maghen David synagogue, a magnificent structure and the largest synagogue in the East. The Ezra family had also previously built synagogues in Calcutta, including the Beth El (c. 1861). In 1893, ¡akham Abid Twena from Baghdad went to Calcutta, and in time set up a prayer hall in his own home; he is remembered for his profound knowledge of Jewish Law and for his inspiring sermons, delivered in Arabic.

    Philanthropic work by the Sassoon family included the Sassoon General Hospital in Poona, and in Bombay, the Jacob Sassoon High School and the Sassoon Mechanics Institute, later renamed the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room. In 1994, in recognition of the charitable works of David Sassoon, the road leading from the Library to the Law Courts, was renamed “David Sassoon Marg” (David Sassoon Way). In Calcutta, the Jewish Girls School achieved special distinction under Miss Rahma Luddy, who had trained in England, and who was appointed headmistress in 1929.

    In Bombay, the Jewish Women’s League was founded during the 20th century to assist needy families. Mrs. Hannah Gourgey was one of the early members. The league made major headway with the coming of Mrs. Georgette Ani (my grandmother). Not content with attending to letters of application for assistance at the committee’s meetings, she would visit the poorest families with one or two other ladies, and talk to them in the Baghdadian Arabic—the common lingua franca. Visiting the Sir Jacob Sassoon High School it was found that the School Feeding Fund was totally inadequate to meet the rapidly rising costs in the WW2 years. Sir Victor Sassoon was approached, and with the assistance of the E. D. Sassoon funds a good, daily hot lunch was organised for the whole school. With the coming of the refugees from Singapore, the ladies organised the refugee centre at Dharbanga Mansions (in Malabar Hill; provided by the government of Bombay), and assisted the families to get settled. The League also played its part in equipping children who went on Youth Aliyah groups to Israel.

    Wizo (Women’s International Zionist Organisation) was founded in Bombay after the arrival of European Jews before and during WW2, for raising funds for Israel. The Jewish Relief Association was set up by European immigrants ro assist members of this community who had come to Bombay as refugees from Nazi persecution.

Relations with Israel

    The Bombay Zionist Association was founded in 1920 by three young Baghdadians: Judah Gubbay, Joseph S. Ezra and Ezekiel S. Somekh, inspired by newspaper reports of events in London to celebrate the Balfour Declaration, 1917.
The Central Jewish Board of Bombay was founded in 1943, with representatives from the synagogues, initially to deal with anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish attacks in the press. It was succeeded by the Council of Indian Jewry founded 1978.

    Jewish publications included the Jewish Advocate and the Jewish Tribune, and in later years, The Indo-Israel Review. The BZA arranged lectures and fundraising for the national institutions in Palestine, and then Israel, and initially, Aliyah to Israel. From1948-1958 Mr F. W. Pollack personally published and edited a monthly magazine, India and Israel, which was highly regarded.

Youth organisations

Habonim and later, Bnei Akiva and Maccabi

In 1935, Habonim was founded in Bombay by Mr Albert Manasseh, with the assistance of Mr Solomon Ezra. The movement grew, and continued always as a religious organisation. Centres were opened in Calcutta with the support of Sir David and Lady Rachel Ezra, and the leadership of Sally Meyer (now Dr Sally Lewis); in Cochin, led by Mr Koder and in Poona. A number of the members later made Aliyah to Israel. Habonim initiated the first youth Aliyah groups from Bombay to Kibbutz Lavee.

    Bnei Akiva was founded by the Jewish Agency who sent shlikhim from Israel to organise the work.

    Maccabi, founded by Mr Starosta, a European immigrant, with Sass Moses, as Chairman, captured the interest of the youth, and contingents were sent to Israel to take part in the Maccabiah competitions.

    In Bombay, for 50 years, Albert Manasseh (1907-1991) was the Chairman and Life President of the Sassoon Trusts, which included the three synagogues, schools and burial ground. He devoted much attention to youth in school, Bnei Akiva and Habonim. He accompanied the first Youth Aliya group to Israel from India to ensure that they were settled in religious Youth Aliya centres. In recognition of his dedication and guidance the trustees of the EEE Sassoon school recently opened (c.1993) the Albert Manasseh memorial Nursery School.


Agassi, Eliyahu
1981        “Autonomy and Self-rule of Iraqi Jewry.” Hedim (Sefardic Communities throughout the World) 7(46).

Ben-Yaacob, Abraham and Hayyim J. Cohen
1996 [1972]    “Iraq: History (634-1917) Under the British mandate; Under Iraqi rule; Community life.” in Cecil Roth and Geoffrey Wigoder (eds. in chief) Encyclopedia Judaica, pp. 1444-1452. Jerusalem: Keter.

Leven, Narcisse
1910-1920    Cinquante ans d’Histoire: 1860-1910. Volume1. Paris.

A. Manasseh, personal communication

Melamed, Ora (ed.)
1995 (5755)    Annals of Iraqi Jewry. Jerusalem: Eliner Library, Torah-Education Department and Department of Sephardi Communities in Jerusalem.

Sassoon, David Solomon
1949 (5709)    A history of the Jews in Baghdad. [1932] Letchworth: Solomon D. Sassoon.

Sawdayee, Maurice M.
1977        The Baghdad connection. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 78-3136. Reg. # TX 111-839.

Shohet, Nir
1982        The story of an exile: A short history of the Jews of Iraq. Tel Aviv: The Association for the Promotion of Research, Literature and Art.

Stillman, Norman A.
1979 (5739)    The Jews of Arab lands: A history and source book. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.
1991 (5751)    The Jews of Arab lands in modern times. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.



© Sara Manasseh. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.


  1. By Dr Sara Manasseh: http://www.saramanasseh.com
  2. [Image]: http://../../images/articles/slat-il-kbiri-hakham-dangoor.jpg
  3. [Image]: http://www.midrash.org/world/india/ds.jpg
  4. [Image]: http://www.midrash.org/images/articles/h-abdallah-somekh.jpg
  5. [Image]: http://www.midrash.org/images/articles/farhud3.jpg
  6. farhud: http://www.midrash.org/article/historical/farhud