Tracing The Cultural Legacy & Heritage Of India's Baghdadi Jewish Community

The Baghdadi Jewish community fundamentally enriched Indian society.
The Baghdadi Jewish community fundamentally enriched Indian society.Jewish Women's Archive

In the vibrant tapestry of India's diverse history, one finds the captivating tale of the Baghdadi Jewish community, whose journey from the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates to the bustling streets of Mumbai and Kolkata encapsulates themes of diaspora, community, a quest for forging identity, and a search for roots in a new country. These enterprising merchants, with their Sephardic Jewish roots in the Iberian Peninsula and Spain, carved a unique path in the subcontinent, leaving an indelible mark on its social, economic, and cultural fabric.

It was in the 18th century that the Arabic-speaking Jewish community embarked on their transformative voyage to India. For some, this journey was an escape from persecution under the rule of Muslim Turkish leaders in Baghdad. Others sought the allure of British-controlled trade and commerce, sensing boundless opportunities. Thus, they settled in the bustling ports of Surat, where close to 100 families established an Arabic-speaking Jewish merchant colony.

As the British presidencies of Calcutta and Bombay increased, so did the Baghdadi Jews' influence and prosperity. Mumbai and Kolkata became their new homes and they thrived as successful merchants, financiers, and pioneers in industries such as cotton, jute, tobacco processing, and even the opium trade. The Baghdadi Jews chose to embrace their Iraqi religious and social traditions, perpetuating rites that remained 'Baghdadi' in nature.

The Baghdadi Jewish community fundamentally enriched Indian society.
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Religiously identifying themselves as Sephardic, Baghdadi Jews kept alive a cultural heritage influenced by centuries of coexistence with Islam. Their art, architecture, music, and language bore the imprint of Islamic traditions. Magnificent Sephardic synagogues graced their cities, boasting Islamic architectural elements, while unique festive traditions, such as the Rosh Hashanah Seder and the use of amulets or kamiyot in mystic rituals, further showcased their distinctive identity.

The Magen David synagogue in Jewish compound, Byculla
The Magen David synagogue in Jewish compound, BycullaShaul Sapir, 'Bombay: Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage'
A wedding ceremony at the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue, circa 1950s
A wedding ceremony at the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue, circa

Culinary traditions also bore witness to the Baghdadi Jews' roots, with Arabian dishes like Koobe (stuffed dumplings) remaining popular even today. Arab cuisine mingled with Indian spices and tropical vegetables to create a delectable fusion; creating a rich cultural and culinary synergy. Till date, the Baghdadi families in India serve Arab-influenced cuisine.

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Though a small minority, the Baghdadi Jews wielded great influence in Indian society. The illustrious Sassoon family, naturalized British citizens, played a pivotal role in leading the Jewish community in Mumbai. Their legacy of building synagogues, financing educational and medical institutions, and fostering communal well-being garnered them the title of the 'Rothschilds of the East'. Beyond philanthropy, many Baghdadi Jews engaged in public life, serving as sheriffs, municipal councilors, and legislative councilors. Their involvement in various facets of society endeared them to their British counterparts but also fueled tensions with native Indian communities.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons
David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Wikimedia Commons

The Baghdadi Jewish community also fostered a vibrant youth culture to preserve their distinctive identity. The Habonim League Youth Movement, established in 1933, became the focal point for Hebrew classes, Israeli songs, folk dances, and sports activities like volleyball and running. Embracing their Indian surroundings, they also enjoyed local games like bug bug dolla and lungri, marbles, and gili dandu, creating a harmonious blend of tradition and assimilation. There was another youth club, called the Judean Club, which operated from the Jewish compound specifically for graduates of the Sir Jacob Sassoon School. All of these spirited Baghdadi youths epitomized unity, bridging their roots and interweaving themselves with the Indian diversity.

Members of the Habonim League Youth Movement outside Sir Jacob Sassoon school. 1942
Members of the Habonim League Youth Movement outside Sir Jacob Sassoon school.
Judean Club members at a party, circa. 1944
Judean Club members at a party, circa.

However, the winds of change blew when India achieved independence in 1947. Having always aspired to assimilate among the Europeans in India, and having rebuffed identification with Indians, the Baghdadi Jews were not sympathetic to the cause of Indian nationalism. They doubted that they would be comfortable in the new India. For the Baghdadi Jews, the allure of new regulations and political shifts in the Middle East prompted mass migration to Israel, as they seeked to preserve their businesses and livelihoods. Wealthy Baghdadi families like the Sassoons found refuge in England, while others sought new beginnings in far-flung lands.

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With each departure, the community's numbers dwindled, and their once-thriving presence in India became a mere remnant of the past. Today, only a few hundred remain, scattered across the globe. As the last chapters of this remarkable journey unfold, the Baghdadi Jewish community's legacy remains etched in India's history. Even though they had differing political views from the rest of India and their community is nearly extinct in our nation, with only a few dozen Baghdadi Jews left in Mumbai, there is no denying that they have fundamentally enriched Indian society, embodying the essence of coexistence and the power of cultural cross-pollination.

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