Aspects of Babylonian Jewish Life in Iraq


    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.


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