For the Refuah Shelemah of Rabbanith Ruth Bath Ahubah

Historical Insight into the Baghdadian Jews of Bombay and the Sassoon Synagogues

By Rabbi Ya’aqob Menashe

Based on excerpts from the highly acclaimed book by M”I Mrs. Rachel Menashe, “The Baghdadian Jews in Bombay – Their Life and Achievements: A Personal and Historical Account”. More information may be found at http://www.BaghdadianJewsofBombay.com.

David Sassoon and sons
David Sassoon and three of his sons, Elias, 'Abdallah (Albert) & Sasson
In the early 19th century the Baghdadian Jews in Bombay comprised a small community of individual traders. The Bene Israel and the Cochin community settled in India centuries before. By the middle of the 19th century, the Baghdadian Jewish community was recognized as a body of great commercial importance and influence, largely due to David Sassoon and his sons.  

David Sassoon’s migration to Bombay evolved as follows. Escaping from persecution in Baghdad by the extortionate governor Daoud Pasha, (Dawid) David son of Sheikh Sasson, managed to escape to Persia in 1829 after the payment of a huge ransom by his father. His father and family joined him there. Later, David Sassoon visited Bombay on a business matter. It was still an unhealthy settlement over 7 islands, but the British India Company had built a fort, around which the City of Bombay developed. Parsis, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Europeans, Americans and others followed the development of the city, all of whom engaged in commerce, in freedom under the British flag.

David Sassoon decided to migrate and arrived with his family in 1832. Over time, after a modest beginning, the business gradually developed. His two older sons joined him first. Individuals from Baghdad came on their own. Some remained and set up their businesses and families in Bombay. The Sassoon family were the leaders in the community, building textile mills, employing numerous workers, Jews and non-Jews alike. Albert (Abdallah) Sassoon, David’s eldest son, built the first docks in Bombay, called the Sassoon Docks.

The Baghdadian Jewish community, which included Persian, Afghan, Russian Jews and others, reached its peak about the middle of the the 20th century, amounting to some 8,000 persons. The Synagogues and institutions which were built by the Sassoons in Bombay, The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in the Fort, the Magen David in Byculla and the Ohel David in Poona, were the nucleus around which the community flourished. In addition to the mills and other industries which were created by the Sassoons which employed many of the community, many others had their own businesses. Textiles was a popular and successful trade. Some had stores and other businesses. The community, as we mentioned, included many Jews from different parts of the world, Mashad, Afghanistan, Persia, and different Ashkenazi lands, all of whom blended homogenously into the community.

There were publications for the Jewish community in general, which included The Jewish Tribune, The Jewish Advocate, India and Israel, and the Habonim magazine. A special word is in place concerning Habonim in Bombay. It was started in Bombay, by my father, H”R Albert Menashe and Solomon Ezra. My father related to me that once a representative of Habonim in England came to India and was very displeased to find that it was a religious organization. He stated that it was not meant to be so. My father, ‘a”h, responded that in the rest of the world Habonim was a non-observant organization, but that in Bombay it was religious.

Membership of the organization was open to the youth of the community as well as to all the Jewish students of the Sir Jacob Sassoon School which, at the time, was comprised primarily of students of Baghdadian descent, but also included some Bene Israel and Cochini youth. Habonim, in Bombay organized many activities that held the youth closely together, including camps to Mahableshwar and Matheran. Saturday afternoons, the youth would come for study sessions including the learning of songs and the like.

Over the years these activities were run by various highly competent volunteers. The bond that has remained between the members of the community, even though today they are spread far and wide, and the fondness for its traditions, can be traced to the Synagogues and Habonim and to the Jacob Sassoon School which made a lasting impression on the community and its youth.

The emigration of Babylonian (Baghdadian) Jews started after the Second World War and the establishment of the State of Israel. There was a slow but steady exodus of the Jewish community from that time. By 1965, very few remained. However, the Synagogues and institutions which were built by the Sassoons in Bombay, The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in the Fort, the Magen David in Byculla and the Ohel David in Poona, are still maintained.
While initially intended to serve the Baghdadian Jews, in time, they served the wider Jewish population, including Jews from Central Asia, Cochin, The Bene Israel community and European Jews. My father, ‘a”h, who was Chairman and Life-President of the Sassoon Charity Trusts, including the Synagogues, for some fifty years, was succeeded by Mr. Moshe N. Sultoon, ‘a”h, until his demise. Today the Trusts are being handled admirably by Mr. Solomon Sopher.

Attendance at these synagogues is maintained today by Jewish people living in Mumbai and visiting Jewish businessmen from abroad.

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Rabbi Ya’aqob Menashe can be contacted via the Midrash BEN ISH HAI websites of www.midrash.org and ATorahminute.com.

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