Jewish Daily Israel Today


Tuesday, August 25, 1987



Baghdadi Jews of India and the Sassoons


In the accounts of the historic role played by the Jews of Cochin and the Bene Israel, ancient Jewish communities in India, which date back, over 2,000 years, little reference is made to the Baghdadi Jews, Iraq, another important segment of the Jewish community established about 150 years ago in India. Very little is written and known about their remarkable achievements, their phenomenal success and their invaluable contribution to the economic growth and welfare of India in a short period of time, particularly in the field of two of its most important industries, at one time, cotton and jute. They were the builders of these two staple industries. They also rose to prominence in commerce and banking in which they were actively engaged and in which they distinguished themselves. They acquired an excellent reputation and were highly respected and admired.

The Baghdadi Jews. of Sephardic origin, came to India from Baghdad, Iraq, as individual traders in the early I 9th century and settled in Bombay and Calcutta, two large seaport cities, where they flourished and prospered. Once numbering about 12,000, today only a few hundred are left, most leaving of their own volition in 1948 for lsraels, England. Canada. the United States and Australia.

The Jewish association with Baghdad began long before its rise to lame with the Caliphate. Mesopotamia had been the second home of the Jews from the time of the exile by Nebuchadnezzar. In its golden age the Jewish population was the most influential community in the Middle East. It was the seat of the Exilarch, the Prince of the Captivity, the Academies of Sura and Pumbeditha, the birthplace of the Babylon Talmud, the home of the foremost scholars and personalities who left an indelible mark in the annals of Jewish history.

The Jews enjoyed an eminent position in the social and political life of the country rendering outstanding services to successful Ottoman rulers and Caliphs. Many of them became rich in banking and commerce. Their fortunes changed at the whims of the rulers, some of whom persecuted them, and from time to time, extorted large sums of money from them.

It can well be claimed that no Jewish community in the world whose integration was then the general background, has been as complete as Baghdad, by virtue of age and achievement. There was a time when one-quarter of the population was Jewish. Iraq, whose capital is Baghdad, was the first Arab state to gain independence after World War I, and individual Jews played a prominent role in the emergence of the Arab nation. How times have changed! This once large prosperous community numbering over 100,000, because of persecution and brutal assault, found it necessary in 1950-51 , to flee to Israel leaving wealth and possession.

When the Baghdadi Jews came to India in the early 19th century, they were quick to realize the great potential for the development of lucrative trades and with their experience, acumen and foresight, opened new foreign markets for indigenous products which were exported on a massive scale and were not only well received hut steadily increased in demand.

In turn they imported the products of the many countries with which they traded and built a very successful business. The pioneering efforts of the Sassoons, the leaders in the field, the Ezras, the Ezekiels. the Gubbays and others were a great boon to India and contributed in a large measure to the economic, political and diplomatic stability, widely recognized. They were primarily engaged in the gum trade, cotton. jute, opium, tea, spices, silk, wheat, wool, rosewater, silver, gold and the import of Arabian horses.

The famous House of Sassoon, the Rothschilds of the East, in particular, was actively engaged in the opium trade, which was legitimate in those days. Opium produced in India was exported on a large scale and exchanged for tea and other commodities in China, which were then shipped to England. In the early 19th century, the opium trade was very lucrative and volatile. Opium, only second to cotton, were the two keys which rapidly increased their treasuries and a vast fortune was accumulated.

India has grown Cotton for centuries using primitive methods for cleaning, ginning and manufacturing. There was a very heavy demand for raw cotton, so they took advantage of the situation and opened large, pressing, spinning and weaving mills and became the largest exporters of cotton. They built their own docks in Bombay, the Sassoon Docks, a landmark, to facilitate the handling and shipment of cotton bales. By the end of tile 19th century the Sassoons represented the largest conglomeration of cotton mills in India. giving employment to thousands, including many Jews.

The founder of the House of Sassoons. David Sassoon, known as the merchant prince, was forced to flee from his ancestral home in Baghdad in 1829 under the threat of a death sentence imposed by the then Pasha. Packed among his small belongings were a prayer shawl. his phylacteries and a copy of the Pentateuch. Strictly orthodox, he adhered to the dietary laws and the rituaas of the Jewish faith. His two natural languages were Hebrew and Arabic. The Sassoons were founders a  spectacular international trading empire based in Bombay, with offices in England, the Middle East. extending to the far East. They were the first to open branches in Japan after a new treaty was negotiated in 1858. They dominated Jewish life in Bombay in which they took a close an active interest. The history of the community centered around the Sassoons to whom it was largely indebted. They fathered the community which looked up to them for its needs from very earliest days and their philanthropy and generosity of a far reaching nature, widely spread, also benefited those of other sects and creeds.

The Jews lived literally in a “welfare state” established by the Sassoons and the many amenities enjoyed by them were provided “on a platter” by the good grace of she Sassoons. Several large Sassoon Charity Funds, richly endowed, unique its origin and Jewish history, were crested by them for the advancement of Jewish education, religion, culture and social welfare. Communal institutions vital to Jewish life were built by the Sassoons at their own expense with iuhstantial funds provided by them with perpetual maintenance made available free of cost .  Highlights included the Sir Jacob Sassoon Free High School. the David Sassoon Hospital in Poona with 200 beds for Jews and non-Jews, well equipped with a hostel for doctors and nurses, the David Sassoon Benevolent  School, the David Sassoon Industrial Reformatory, the Sassoon Mechanics Library, the Royal of Institute of Science, a Free Medical Dispensary for medical aid and medicines, cemetery with free lots and burial ;facilities, and the distribution of matzos and other products for Passover. An Utopian dream.

Prayers and worship were regarded of paramount importance and in the beginning they set aside a room for daily services where they assembled a “minyan” in devout worship. This was later followed by the building of three large attractive synagogues with ample seating accommodation (men and women seated separately), officiated by “Hakamim” maintained with funds provided by them and with no membership dues. 

The Ohel  David Synagogue in Poona. she Magen David Synagogue, and the Kenesseth Eliahoo Synagogue, both in Bombay, gifts to the Jewish community, glorify she devoutness of she Sassoons and well exemplify their Jewish consciousness, their piety and pride in their Jewish heritage.

It is significant to note that the Kenesseth Eliahoo Synagogue celebrated its centenary in 1984 when many distinguished guests, including the president of  India, Zail Singh, lauded the Sassoon family for the building of the synagogue and for the development of Bombay.  He stated, “The presence of Jews in India since ancient times has enriched Indian heritage and contributed immensely to our composite culture.” He referred to the visit  to the Cochin Synagogue of the at. prime minister of India, Indira, Gandhi, on the occasion of ii 400th anniversary, when she stated, ‘‘The Jewish community of India has rendered and continued to render notable service in many fields, it has contributed men of distinction to business and industry, to the civil service and the armed forces end so the world of scholarship.”

In the course of the years the Sassoons changed their Baghdadian richly embroidered turbans and flowing robes for Western attire and adopted language and manners of the English. They had gone long way from the time of David Sassoon. They became Anglicized, had close ties with the British, and associated with British royalty, aristocracy and the elite.

Their royal circle of friends included, among others. King Edward VII, the Duke of Windsor (laser King Edward VIII), and the shah of Persia. who were guests in their homes in England. Two branches of the family were knighted separately. Their history was one of success and outstanding achievements—a household name. They had is rabbi. a poet and scholars in the family who distinguished themselves, “a dynasty respected for centuries as defenders of sIte faith.”

Sir Victor Sassoon, the last in the family line of Baronets. raised she firm to “a pinnacle of world power and influence.’’ Well known magnate and philanthropist, considered the richest man in Asia, he was in the forefront of the war efforts of the British.

Very substantial funds and gifts were contributed by him and he was most outspoken in his denouncement of Nazi Germany and Japan. Propaganda Minister Goebells singled him out for vehement abuse in which he was joined by Goering with warnings of grave consequences supported by Japan. At that tune, practically all of she huge Sassoon interests were transferred from India so China with headquarters in Shanghai where he had very large holdings. He suffered very heavy losses in Communist China and Japan and his huge enterprises were confiscated.  He played a major role in the habitation of about 20,000 Jewish refugees who arrived in Shanghai, China to escape Nazi persecution. Food, shelter, and medical aid were provided on a massive scale and many lives were saved.

Other Baghdadi Jews who rose to eminence were Sir Sassoon J. David, his son Sir Percival David, Sir Alwyn Ezra, the Gubbays, Meyer Nissim. were also engaged in commerce sitd banking, In a population teeming with millions, it is incredible that this small community, established in Bombay a little over 150 years, not more than 7,000 in its height, brought so much benefit so the country, played a significant role, made its influence felt, flourished and prospered.  It enjoyed an excellent relationship with its Indian neighbors, also the British who ruled India at that time, did not suffer persecution or discrimination at any time, enjoyed religious freedom and equal opportunities.  India’s anti-Israel position did not disturb them, They dwelled in an environment as a separate entity without let or hindrance, observed Jewish laws and customs with an awareness of their Jewish identity, no intermarriage, and proud of their heritage. There was riot a single ordained rabbi but Hebrew scholars who were called “Hakamim.” They were contented and happy. Unlike the other Jewish communities in India, they were entirely unaffected by the creed or culture of their neighbors. They dwelled in neighborhoods in close proximity to one another, concentrated around the Sassoon Headquarters and the two synagogues in Bombay. They were staunch supporters of the British, took an active interest in the Zionist movement and got on splendidly with the Indians. A number of them were in the import-export business in which they did very well.  Amongst them were eminent doctors, lawyers, teachers, a judge, a mayor, movie stars and a noted film director.  They had their own social clubs and Anglo-Jewish publication.

Special mention muss be made of Abraham D. Sofaer, a Baghdadi Jew from Bombay, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter.  A scholar and prolific writer. he was an assistant U.S. attorney in New York City. As judge, he presided over the Sharon libel case against Time Magazine. In June 1986 he was appointed legal adviser to the State Department. He has expressed legal opinion relative to the handling of terrorism. Last December he headed the eight member U.S. Mission to Israel that worked out U.S. Israeli cooperation in handling the Jonathan Jay Pollard espionage case. The Washington Post stated, “An excellent achievement for a Jew born its Bombay, to end up as being a federal judge. a federal prosecutor and legal adviser.”

The departure of the British from India in 1948 and the creation of the State of Israel caused a large scale emigration which was completely voluntary, and brought an end to the fascinating history of a Jewish community which rose so great heights. Now they number no more than 500.


Joseph I. Sargon, born in Bombay, India, where he lived for many years was managing editor of the Jewish Tribune.  He was representative of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the World Jewish Congress.  He now resides in Brookline, Mass.