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Aspects of Babylonian Jewish Life in India During the 19th and 20th Centuries

by Sara Manasseh

Religious and communal life were of foremost importance in India. The early Baghdadian settlers combined keen business acumen with the religious traditions of Baghdad; commercial interests with the study and observance of the Torah. Houses of prayer were established, and in time, beautiful synagogues were erected. David Sassoon built the Maghen Dawid synagogue in Byculla, in 1861, and the Ohel Dawid Synagogue, a famous landmark in Poona, in 1863. Later, his grandson, Sir Jacob Sassoon built the Kenesseth Eliahoo Synagogue in the Bombay Fort area in 1884. In the same year, in Calcutta, the Ezra family built the Maghen Dawid synagogue, a magnificent structure and the largest synagogue in the East. The Ezra family had also previously built synagogues in Calcutta, including the Beth El (c. 1861). In 1893, Hakham Shlomo Abid Twena from Baghdad went to Calcutta, and in time set up a prayer hall in his own home; he is remembered for his profound knowledge of Jewish Law and for his inspiring sermons, delivered in Arabic.

Philanthropic work by the Sassoon family included the Sassoon General Hospital in Poona, and in Bombay, the Jacob Sassoon High School and the Sassoon Mechanics Institute, later renamed the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room. In 1994, in recognition of the charitable works of David Sassoon, the road leading from the Library to the Law Courts, was renamed "David Sassoon Marg" (David Sassoon Way). In Calcutta, the Jewish Girls School achieved special distinction under Miss Rahma Luddy, who had trained in England, and who was appointed headmistress in 1929.

In Bombay, the Jewish Women's League was founded during the 20th century to assist needy families. Mrs Hannah Gourgey was one of the early members. The league made major headway with the coming of Mrs Georgette Ani (my grandmother). Not content with attending to letters of application for assistance at the committee's meetings, she would visit the poorest families with one or two other ladies, and talk to them in the Jewish Baghdadian Arabic dialect - the common lingua franca. Visiting the Sir Jacob Sassoon High School it was found that the School Feeding Fund was totally inadequate to meet the rapidly rising costs in the World War 2 years. Sir Victor Sassoon was approached, and with the assistance of the E. D. Sassoon funds, a good daily hot lunch was organised for the whole school. With the coming of the refugees from Singapore, the Jewish Women's League organised the refugee centre at Dharbanga Mansions (in Malabar Hill; provided by the government of Bombay), and assisted the families to get settled. The League also played its part in equipping children who went on Youth Aliyah groups to Israel.

Wizo (Women's International Zionist Organisation) was founded in Bombay after the arrival of European Jews before and during World War 2, for raising funds for Israel. The Jewish Relief Association was set up by European immigrants to assist members of this community who had come to Bombay as refugees from Nazi persecution.

Relations with Israel

The Bombay Zionist Association was founded in 1920 by three young Baghdadians: Judah Gubbay, Joseph S Ezra and Ezekiel S Somekh, inspired by newspaper reports of events in London to celebrate the Balfour Declaration, 1917.

The Central Jewish Board of Bombay was founded in 1943, with representatives from the synagogues, initially to deal with anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish attacks in the press. It was succeeded by the Council of Indian Jewry founded 1978.

Jewish publications included the Jewish Advocate and the Jewish Tribune, and in later years, The Indo-Israel Review. The BZA arranged lectures and fundraising for the national institutions in Palestine, and then Israel, and initially, 'Aliyah (immigration) to Israel. From 1948-1958 Mr F W Pollack personally published and edited a monthly magazine, India and Israel, which was highly regarded.

Youth organizations

In 1935, Habonim (retained as a religious organization in India, unlike its development elsewhere) was founded in Bombay by H"R Albert Manasseh, with the assistance of Mr Solomon Ezra. The movement grew, and continued always as a religious organization. Centers were opened in Calcutta with the support of Sir David and Lady Rachel Ezra, and the leadership of Sally Meyer (now Dr Sally Lewis); in Cochin, led by Mr Koder and in Poona. A number of the members later made 'Aliyah' to Israel. Habonim initiated the first Youth Aliyah groups from Bombay to Kibbutz Lavee and other religious centers.

Bnei Akiva was founded by the Jewish Agency who sent shlichim (emissaries) from Israel to organize the work.

Maccabi, founded in Bombay by Mr Starosta, a European immigrant, with Sass Moses, as Chairman, captured the interest of the youth, and contingents were sent to Israel to take part in the Maccabiah competitions. In Bombay, for 50 years, Albert Manasseh (1907-1991) was the Chairman and Life President of the Sassoon Trusts - which included the three synagogues - of which he was the spiritual head, schools and burial ground. He devoted much attention to youth in school, Bnei Akiva and Habonim. He accompanied the first Youth Aliyah group to Israel from India to ensure that they were settled in religious Youth Aliyah centers. In recognition of his dedication and guidance the trustees of the EEE Sassoon school recently opened (c.1993) the Albert Manasseh Memorial Nursery School.

from "The Jewish Babylonian", the Newsletter of Midrash BEN ISH HAI



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