Jewish Bombay (1): Baghdadi Jews and the Sassoon Family

A little down the road from my field site there is a cemetery with an entrance plaque that reads: “Set apart for ever by Elias David Sassoon Esq in January 1878 as a Jewish burial ground in memory of his beloved son Joseph, who died at Shanghai in China”.

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Plaque outside Jewish Cemetary on Delisle Road (N M Joshi Marg)

So who was Elias David Sassoon, and what was his son doing in Shanghai? Both questions cut deep into the heart of Bombay history in a surprising way.

The Sassoons were a family of Middle Eastern Jewish bankers, often called the “Rothschilds of the East”, who initially rose to prominence in Baghdad. Following a change in political climate, patriarch David Sassoon fled to Bombay in the 1830s and rapidly established a business empire, based partly on the textile trade. He lived in a handsome residence in Byculla, now reincarnated as the Masina Hospital (named after Parsi philanthropist Jerbai Masina), and the family have left a visible legacy across Bombay’s built environment.

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Masina Hospital, formerly the private residence of David Sassoon

This includes two beautiful synagogues: the Magen David synagogue in Byculla, built by David Sassoon himself, and the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue in Kala Ghoda built by his grandson Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon. They are a testament to the growing “Baghdadi” Jewish community in 19th Century Mumbai, drawn from Middle Eastern centres of Jewry such as Baghdad, Basra and Aleppo. Both are still operational today, although the Baghdadi community has dwindled to microscopic levels following emigration to Israel and the West.

Better known is the David Sassoon Library, initially a Mechanics’ Institute which was funded by David Sassoon and completed in 1870. Still functioning as a popular library, its garden provides a magical setting for panel discussions during the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in February. Further south, off Cuffe Parade, are the Sassoon Docks, established by David’s son Albert Sassoon. Although now a fish market, it was initially Bombay’s first “wet” dock, which facilitated the loading of cotton, thus playing a vital part in the cotton trade which dominated Bombay’s economy from the late 19th century until the mill strikes of 1982-3. Indeed, the Sassoons were heavily involved in Bombay’s cotton industry, opening several mills under the auspices of “E D Sassoon and Company” (named after Elias David who we met at the entrance to the cemetery) which were later nationalised under Indira Gandhi as the India United Mills 1-6. One of these has been razed to make way for an Ambedkar Memorial while another is slated for a textile museum.

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Inside Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue

Like many of Bombay’s heavyweight cotton merchants, the Sassoon family had originally plied another trade, which brings us back the Shanghai question. It is an uncomfortable fact that many of Bombay’s philanthropists, such as Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, a venerable Parsi who established the Sir J J School of Art and Sir J J Hospital, made much of their money through trading opium in China. Sir David Sassoon was no exception, and in the 1840s branches of David Sassoon and Co were established in Hong Kong and Shanghai primarily to expand the family narcosphere. The human cost of this trade, and the far-reaching effects of the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars, are important topics that I’m simply not able to do justice to here, except to reiterate that Bombay’s grand tradition of public philanthropy was not without a serious dark side. Likewise, I will leave it to the interested reader to do further research on the close relationship between the Sassoon family and the city of Shanghai.

It would be doing the Baghdadi community a disservice to focus only on the Sassoons, although I will note in passing that the British war poet Siegfried Sassoon was a great-grandson of David Sassoon; that the hair stylist Vidal Sassoon was not; and that another iconic Mumbai landmark, the Gateway of India, was in part financed by Sassoon Jacob Hai David, the son-in-law of Elias David Sassoon.

A rather surprising arena in which Baghdadi Jewish talent flourished was that of film, and some of the earliest Indian film heroines came from Baghdadi families at a time when acting was mostly taboo for women in other communities. These include many from the silent era who could not transition to the age of sound due to lack of spoken Hindi, as Baghdadi families tended to speak Judeo-Arabic, or later English, at home. However, renowned Jewish Hindi film actresses include Sulochana (the stage name for Ruby Myers) and Baghdad-born Nadira (Florence Ezekiel) – both of whom can be seen playing Anglo-Indian women in the 1975 Bollywood hit Julie. Meanwhile Pramila, born Esther Victoria Abraham to a Baghdadi family in Kolkata, became the first Miss India.

Other famous Baghdadi Jews (not all of whose families came through Bombay) include David Marshall, first Chief Minister of Singapore; J F R Jacob, who led the Indian Army in the 1971 Bangladesh War; and, through his mother’s side, sculptor Anish Kapoor. Another talented figure in Bombay’s creative landscape, the poet Nissim Ezekiel, was also Jewish, but belonged to the city’s other sizeable Jewish community, the Marathi-speaking Bene Israel…

At this point I’m going to leave the story, but I very much hope to pick it up in a Part 2 at a later date!

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Salt Beef and Synagogues: London through a Jewish Lens

A slightly altered version of this post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in December 2014 (print only).

Some time ago my uncle opened the door to a flustered neighbour who asked, somewhat sheepishly, if there was any chance he could come round and turn on her dishwasher. It was a Friday night in the heart of Barnet, North London, and the neighbour was observing the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath). This meant that a range of activities, or melakhot (loosely translatable as “work”), were forbidden.

I will not attempt to unpick the complex Rabbinical Law that enabled the neighbour to ring a doorbell but not switch on her dishwasher. Nor will I speculate on the legitimacy of getting the goy next door to do it for her. I do know, however, that her being able to carry her house keys around came courtesy of a phenomenon called the eruv, a ritual enclosure within which certain Shabbat prohibitions are relaxed.

Of the handful of eruvim in the UK, the North-West London one is by far the most famous. It is also the most controversial, with criticisms that include visual intrusiveness, de-secularisation of public space and risk of promoting religious segregation as more and more Jewish families move to be within in an eruv. Whether or not this last point has any factual basis, the location of the eruv is hardly surprising given the high concentration of Jews in this part of London, sometimes referred to as the “Bagel Belt”.

Golders Green in particular is renowned for its Kosher Restaurants (try Grodzinski’s bakery for braided challah bread), as well as numerous synagogues and a late Victorian Jewish Cemetery in which the cellist Jacqueline du Pré is buried. Nearby Finchley Road was previously dubbed “Finchleystrasse” when it became a magnet for German and Austrian Jews – amongst them Freud – fleeing Hitler’s regime. Now it is home to a new Jewish cultural hub, JW3, which offers talks, films, music and comedy as well as “Zest” café, run by Tel-Aviv born disciple of Ottolenghi, Eran Tibi.

As well as hosting refugees from Nazi Germany, this area has traditionally been a staging post for upwardly mobile Jewish families from the East End. Now synonymous with hipsters and Bangladeshi curry, Whitechapel and Stepney formed the epicentre of London Jewry in the early 20th Century. Hard as it is to imagine today, the aroma of brisket would have wafted up Brick Lane while Shoreditch echoed with the sound of Yiddish.

While the East End Jewish community has dwindled, a fascinating legacy remains. Some of London’s most beautiful synagogues can be found in this part of town, such as the Congregation of Jacob Synagogue on Commercial Road and nearby Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in Britain. In fact, the Jamme Masjid (Friday Mosque) on Brick Lane is said to be one of the only buildings outside the Holy Land to have served all three Abrahamic faiths. It started out life as a Huguenot and subsequently Methodist Chapel before becoming the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, which it remained until the 1970’s.

For some context, visit 19 Princelet Street just round the corner, an old Huguenot weavers’ house, briefly a synagogue and now hosting occasional exhibitions on the area’s rich past. If that’s not enough, why not check out Stephen Burstin’s Sunday morning Jewish walking tours?

Staying on Brick Lane, a more tangible relic can be found in that quintessentially Jewish institution, the bagel shop. Of the two establishments at the top of the road make sure to go to Beigel Bake (the queues are longer for a reason) and opt for salt beef if your diet permits.

Meanwhile, at another institution over on Charing Cross Road, Gaby’s Deli, named after its Iraqi-born proprietor, the bagels are best passed over in favour of the delicious range of salads and hummus. As famous for its surly staff as for its food, the place looked set to be ousted by a chain restaurant until a Who’s Who of West End stars descended for a weekend of protest, cabaret-style, in 2011. Saved from encroaching neoliberal blandness, at least for now, you would still be wise to visit sooner rather than later.

Due to its long-standing history, amongst other factors, the city’s Jewish community is less obviously visible than some of its other religious minorities. One can forget the Jewish provenance of household names such as Marks and Spencer, Fish and Chips (look it up!) and Lord Sugar. Dig deeper and you will find plenty of Jewish Societies. These include SOAS’ own J-Soc which holds Shabbat events and is committed to combatting anti-Semitism on campus, a London Jewish Male Choir and even a Gay Jews in London network. And for a blast of high-vis why not check out Chanukah in the (Trafalgar) Square on December 16th? It promises free doughnuts, live music and an appearance from Boris Johnson to light London’s Brightest Menorah. Mazel Tov!