Few people would draw the connection between the rich businessman and philanthropist from Bombay, Sir David Sassoon and the first Miss India (1947) Esther Abraham, popularly known as Pramila from Calcutta. What they shared in common, was the fact that they belonged to the small community of Baghdadi Jews in India.
Today, numbered in a few hundreds in the country, this small and under the radar, community once controlled powerful businesses and the Hindi film industry. During the 18th century the Persian Gulf port of Basra in Iraq became a trading centre of the British East India Company and it was from here, that the Baghdadi Jews made their way to India.
In the late 1800s, the first settlement of the Baghdadi Jews from Aleppo, Baghdad and Basra was established at Surat in Gujarat. Originally, the term Baghdadi or Iraqi as used in India, referred to Jews who came from the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. However, over time the name became so generic that it referred to all Arabic speaking Jews from Syria and other parts of the Ottoman Empire like Aden and Yemen. as well as beyond, from Persia and Afghanistan.
Many of the community, like Mr Solomon Sopher, trustee of three Baghdadi synagogues in Mumbai and Pune, have a close link to their past. Mr Sopher tells us how he is a third-generation Jew in Mumbai.
By the mid 18th centuries as the British Presidencies of Calcutta and Bombay developed, Surat’s importance as a port declined, and the Jewish merchants living there moved to these fast-growing commercial centres. Encouraged by the British, prominent Iraqi families – such as Sassoons, Ezras, Eliases, Gubbays, Kadoories, Musleahs, and Abrahams – prospered as merchants or as middlemen for the large cotton, jute and tobacco processing plants. Each city had its own Baghdadi elites.
At the peak of the Baghdadi Jewish presence in Bombay in the 1920s, prominent families like the Kadoories and Sassoons dominated Mumbai’s Business circles, and and funded school and other institutions for Indian Jews.
The Baghdadi Jews were prominent not only in Bombay, but even in Calcutta, were there were a whole clutch of prominent Baghdadi Jewish families like the Musleahs, Judhas, Eliases and the Ezras. These prosperous traders mostly dealt in indigo, jute, cloth, silk and opium. By the end of the 19th century, the community was over 1,800 strong and soon Calcutta became the second largest center of Baghdadi Jews.
The Baghdadi Jews in Calcutta and Bombay maintained a very strong sense of community and continued most of the Iraqi Jewish traditions they had brought with them. Jael Silliman – an author, scholar and activist, through her digital archive on Calcutta Jews ‘Recalling Jewish Calcutta’ has documented the life of the Kolkata Jews through photographs, recipes, personal memories from the community and historical data. During the early years, the Jews of Calcutta followed the rituals and traditions they had brought with them from their homeland. Though, over the years, their food started adapting local ingredients to create a unique Calcutta Baghdadi Jewish cuisine, it still retained its distinct Jewish identity through Jewish religious dietary laws called kashrut, which makes the food suitable or kosher for the community to eat.
The Baghdadi Jewish community thrived in India till 1940s. However, lack of economic opportunities and increasing migration to places such as Israel, UK, Canada, the United States and Australia, led to sharp decline in the population.
Today there are only about a few hundred Baghdadi Jews in India. Other Jewish communities like the Cochin Jews and Bene Israel can also be found in Maharashtra and Kerala. Most have moved out, but those who remain say they are deeply connected with this land, that has given them so much.
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