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the-south-asian.com                            March 2001

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Jews of India - Baghdadi/Iraqi Jews & Manipur Jews


Aharon Daniel


The Baghdadi Jews first arrived from Iraq, Syria, and Iran around 1796, fleeing persecution in their native lands and settled mainly in the port cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Rangoon. They retained their language, Arabic, and a separate cultural identity. Mostly traders and financiers, their contribution to the industrial growth of Bombay is well documented. The most prominent Baghdadi Jew was Sir David Sassoon who established the Indian House of Sassoon in 1832 and paved the way for the arrival of many other Iraqi Jews in India. Sir David Sassoon was also a well-known philanthropist. 

These communities were then set on a firm foundation by the house of David Sassoon in the second half of the nineteenth century, and by his grandson Jacob Eliyahu Sassoon in the early twentieth century.

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Eminent in Bombay (now Mumbai) - David Sassoon himself had to flee Baghdad in 1826 from the oppression of the Governor and Wali of Baghdad. Starting cautiously, the Sassoon family business gained ground and strength. With increasing wealth, the Sassoons gave huge sums to both Jewish and public institutions. The community was set on a firm foundation by the house of David Sassoon in the second half of the nineteenth century, and by his grandson Jacob Eliyahu Sassoon in the early twentieth century.

 Ohel_david_synagogue.jpg (13914 bytes)"The synagogues built by the Baghdadis still survive. David Sassoon built the Magen David Synagogue in 1861 in Byculla, where the family first lived. This was then the best location in Bombay before other areas were developed. The large synagogue was set in extensive grounds, which were to prove very valuable. Built in the spacious style of Victorian architecture, it was fronted by pillars and a clock tower. David Sassoon also built an elementary school on one side in the same large compound to provide an education for the community's children in Torah and proper behaviour. This was later expanded into a high school by his grandson Jacob Sassoon, and renamed "The Sir Jacob Sassoon Free High School". The synagogue and school grounds became in effect a community centre for the Jewish community of Byculla, where young and old would meet together in the evenings." - Rachel Manasseh

"The Ohel-David Synagogue was built by David Sassoon in 1863 in Poona, where he had his resort home. The synagogue is a well-known landmark in Poona, of impressive architecture in spacious grounds in a central location in Poona cantonment. David Sassoon's Poona home, where he died in 1864 much mourned by Jews and Indians alike, was across the street from the synagogue. His sons buried him in the synagogue grounds in a fine mausoleum. The synagogue and mausoleum were visited by the President of India, Dr. Zakir Hussein, at a special Memorial Service on 10 December 1968, on the occasion of the Centenary celebration of the Sassoon General Hospitals in Poona established by the Sassoons." - Rachel Manasseh

David Sassoon's grandson, Jacob Sassoon, built the Kneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in the Fort in 1884, in memory of his father Eliyahoo Sassoon (founder of E.D. sassoon and Company). While very few Baghdadis now remain in Bombay and Poona, the synagogue buildings are well maintained and services continue to be held.


The Calcutta Story

Shalon Cohen, an ambitious young merchant, was one of the first settlers to arrive in Calcutta (now Kolkata), from his native Aleppo, in 1798. Calcutta was a flourishing centre of trade and commerce at the time. Early Jewish settlers in Calcutta were traders who established trading links from London to Shanghai - dealing in indigo, cotton, yarn, silk, Veniceware, precious stones, gold leaf, ivory and coffee. Calcutta Jewish community was set up by Shalon Cohen and consolidated by his nephew/son-in-law Moses Duck Cohen, who is remembered for his dedicated service to the community. "He played a leading role in framing the first constitution of the community (29 August 1825) and in establishing the first formal synagogue, Neveh Shalome (Abode of Peace) in 1826, as well as first purpose built synagogue, Bethel in Pollock Street, where it still stands." Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the wealthier members of the community began to adopt western dress and etiquette. The first generations of Calcutta Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic at home, but by the 1890s English was widely spoken. They also moved to select residential area South of Park Street and took a prominent part in Calcutta’s public life.

The community increased from 15 in 1799 to 200 in 1825, and in 1860 they numbered 600 and rose to 2000 by the end of the century. "Japanese invasion of Burma (Myanmar) led to an influx of Jews fleeing from that country raising the Jewish population of Calcutta to an all-time high of about 5000 in early 1940." 

David Joseph Ezra is associated with some of the city’s most imposing buildings – Esplanade mansions, Ezra mansions and Chowringhee mansions as well as Ezra street. David Joseph Ezra made his fortune from prime real estate.

Elia David Ezra, son of David Joseph Ezra built the city’s most magnificent synagogue - the Magen David Synagogue.

D.J Cohen and Reverend E.M.D Cohen played a more direct part in civic work and social uplift. Under Reverend E.M.D Cohen’s proprietorship the Hebrew newspaper Pariah had a circulation of 500 copies a week in 1880s.

Calcutta Jews left for Israel, England and the US, and today only a few remain in this bustling city.

Calcutta_synagogue.jpg (7321 bytes)Of the five synagogues, only two remain open for a population of about 60 Jews: Neveh Shalome Synagogue established in 1825, the first Synagogue in Calcutta and rebuilt in 1911, and the Magen David Synagogue, built by Mr. Elias David Joseph Ezra to perpetuate the memory of his father, Mr. David Joseph Ezra who died in 1882. This is the largest Synagogue in the East and is magnificent in architecture and design. There are still about 60 Jews in Calcutta and all are over 65 years of age. Each week on Erev Shabbat, prayer services are held, alternating between the Synagogues.

"The keeper of both these synagogues, the individual who is also the keeper of the sanctum sanctorum, where the Torahs are kept, is a Muslim. Only in India will you witness such a level of spiritual neighborliness between two religions which seem to optimize violence to us, living in the West."




MANIPUR JEWS - Bne Menashe

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Manipur Jews or the Bne Menashe maybe one of the lost tribes.

In east India in the States of Manipur and Mizoram exists a community which sees itself as descendants of the Menashe Tribe (one of the 10 lost tribes). These people claim that after their forefathers were exiled and enslaved by the Assyrians they somehow escaped from slavery and arrived in China. Later on they moved to the Chinese-Burmese border and much later on to the neighbouring east India. Most of the residents of Mizoram and Manipur are Christians. Among the Manipur Jews there are some who believe that all the Manipur and Mizoram residents (about 2 million people) are originally from the Menashe tribe. The Manipur Jews believe that the Christian missionaries in the 19th century forced them to abolish their Jewish identity and adopt Christianity.

1951 onwards, after a local chief, named Tchalah revealed to his people that God had told him that his people should return to their original religion and land (Judaism and Israel), there has been a movement to return to Judaism and immigration to Israel. Some of the Israeli rabbis accept their Judaism and others don’t see them as original Jews. Many of the immigrating Manipuri Jews to Israel have converted to Judaism through strict Jewish laws.



Page  6  (Community Information)



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