The Jewish heritage of Mumbai

Somewhere in Basra, c. 1831

The room was dark and the only light, feeble as it was, came from a flickering oil lamp placed in a corner of the room. But it was enough for the fortune-teller to recognise the man being ushered in by his son.

“Salaam, Master,” the fortune-teller greeted the robed man.

You know who I am, ” the robed man said. It was a statement and not a question.

“Who doesn’t know you, Master?” said the fortune-teller. “Everyone knows you and about you.”

“Then you also know why I have come here.”

“I can guess, Master,” the fortune-teller bowed.

“I have no choice but to leave this region. Where should I go? London? China? Where does my future lie?”

The fortune-teller was silent for a long time. Just when the man was about to ask him again, the fortune-teller said.

“Your should leave immediately for Bombay in Al-Hind [Arabic for India]. A bright future and fortune lies awaits you there.”

The robed man was surprised with the response, but he knew better than to ignore the fortune teller’s advice. After paying him handsomely and thanking him, the robed man left. His mind was already planning for the move to Bombay.

And sometime later in 1832, the man arrived in Bombay and over the next 32 years made a phenomenal contribution to the city that Bombay was developing into. That man was David Sassoon

David Sasoon, Baghdadi Jew, Bombay, India
A bust of David Sassoon (1792-1864) at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai

David Sassoon was a Baghdadi Jew and a very prominent member of the community. He was the treasurer to the Governor of Baghdad, Dawoud Pasha. Due to increasing persecution of Jews in Baghdad and increasing tension between Pasha and himself, David Sassoon decided to leave Baghdad. He first moved to Basra, but soon realised that the treatment of Jews was no better there than in Baghdad. That was when he decided to leave the region altogether and based on the fortune-teller’s advice shifted to Bombay.

David Sassoon was a shrewd man and was aware that he would have to contend with the English when he came to Bombay. In a strategic move, he arrived in Bombay with two commodities guaranteed to endear him to the English — horses and opium. As Sassoon had expected, this was the right move and it put him in a favourable position with the English. Within no time, Sassoon had set up his businesses and with his connections enjoyed a complete monopoly in the textile industry.

David Sassoon, almost single-handedly brought about self-respect and visibility to the Jewish communities residing in the region — the Bene Israel and the Baghdadi Jew. He maintained that for a community to grow and sustain, all it needed was a school, a hospital and a place of worship — literally food for the mind, body and soul. By building schools, hospitals and synagogues, Sassoon ensured that the Jewish community in Bombay prospered. He also donated generously towards the construction of various landmarks, educational institutes, libraries in the city — the clock tower at Byculla, the Gateway of India, the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room…  are just a few of them; the complete list is quite long.

While I had heard of David Sassoon before and had an idea of the his and the larger Jewish community’s contribution to the history of Mumbai, it was pretty vague and sketchy till I went on a heritage tour of 4 of Mumbai’s 9 synagogues on October 20, 2013 (I didn’t even know that Mumbai had so many synagogues !). Organised by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, I was lucky to be on that tour thanks to my friend Rupal, who heard about the tour and then got us registered for it. The tour was conducted by Ralphy Jhirad, who not only walked us through the various synagogues and Jewish customs, but also introduced us to the history of Jews in India, David Sassoon’s immense contribution, and much more.

Ralphy Jhirad
Ralphy Jhirad

It was a fascinating tour and while I remembered most of what he said about the Jewish community (and have shared the more interesting bits here), the synagogues got a bit confusing. Unfamiliarity with Jewish terms, rituals, customs and the religion itself ensured that I was left dazzled, overwhelmed and a little mixed up about the various details shared. Therefore, I am only presenting what I am reasonably sure of.

The Magen David Synagogue in Byculla is one of the two synagogues built by the Sassoon family in Mumbai. It was completed in 1861 and cost of its construction was borne entirely by David Sassoon. This synagogue is a single storied structure with the upper gallery reserved exclusively for ladies.

Magen David Synagogue, Jewish Community in Mumbai
Magen David Synagogue
Magen David Synagogue, Jewish Community of Mumbai
Inside the Magen David Synagogue
Magen David Synagogue, Jewish Community of Mumbai
From the women’s section on the in the upper gallery of the Magen David Synagogue

The Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue, in Jacob Circle, is a Bene Israel synagogue. It began in 1896 as the Jacob Circle Prayer Hall to cater to the growing population of Jews in the area and got its present name a decade later in 1896. The Synagogue moved to its current premises in 1923 and was consecrated on 23rd March 1924. Here, though segregated, the men and women are seated on the same level.

Jewish Community in Mumbai, The Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue
The Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue
Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue, Jewish Community in Mumbai
The donation box at the Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue
Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue
Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue: Candle holders and the Star of David
Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue, Jewish Community in Mumbai
The Holy Torah Scroll at the Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue

The “Shaar Harahamim” or “The Gate of Mercy” Synagogue, in Samuel Street, is the oldest synagogue in Mumbai. Samaji Hasaji Divekar (or Samuel Ezekiel Divekar) from the Bene Israel community took the lead in the construction of this synagogue in May 1796.

The 'Shaar Harahamim' or Gate of Mercy Synagogue, Jewsish Community in Mumbai
The modest entrance to the ‘Shaar Harahamim’ or Gate of Mercy Synagogue

The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue at Kala Ghoda is, without doubt, the most beautiful synagogue in Mumbai. Built by the Sassoon family in 1884, it is also the only synagogue to have some stunning stained glass windows. A two-storied construction, it has a spacious hall on the ground floor and provisions for a community centre. As the photo below shows, it also had very tight security.

The Kenseneth Eliyahoo Synagogue, Jewsish Community in Mumbai
The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue
The Kenseneth Eliyahoo Synagogue, Jewish Community of Mumbai
Stained glass windows of the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue

At every stop we made, Ralphy Jhirad would share a little more information about the community. Information that touched upon the present day lives of his community.

He told us about the droves who migrated to Israel or the UK or the US; he also told about those who returned to India.

He told us about the uniformity in prayers in all synagogues across the world; he also told us about the little local touches that each synagogue adopted.

He told us about how diminishing numbers have often led to prayer services being cancelled; he also told us about how the community rallies in keeping synagogues running.

Prayer Books
Prayer Books

This heritage tour has set me on a quest to read up on and know more about the Jewish heritage of Mumbai. I have started reading up on the Jewish community in Mumbai and am discovering just how vast their contribution has been. I look at this post as the first of the many that I hope to write on this blog. There is a walk on Jewish History being organised by the Kala Ghoda Association this week and I hope to be on it. If I do manage that, you can expect another post. 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post.

PS: Though David Sassoon is supposed to have consulted a fortune-teller about a place to relocate, the dramatisation at the beginning of the post in entirely mine.

16 thoughts on “The Jewish heritage of Mumbai

  1. I was once making a quiz on Mumbai, and I stumbled upon some beautiful snippets of information about the Gate of Mercy synagogue:
    – Once known as ‘Juni Mashid’ in the vernacular, this synagogue is the ‘mosque’ of ‘Masjid’, the Central/Harbour Line suburban railway station, better known as the centre of the ‘Masjid Bunder’ area. Supposedly, locals still call it Juni Masjid.
    – Samaji and his brother Issac were officers in the East India Company’s army, and fought Tipu Sultan. They were captured and were about to be executed, when Tipu asked them which caste they belonged to. They said ‘Bene Israel’, and Tipu’s wife intervened, saying that the tribe was mentioned in the Quran. They were spared, and built the synagogue as thanksgiving when they returned to Mumbai.

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    1. A descendent of Samaji Divekar’s narrated this story at the Juni Masjid. I am ashamed to say that I was too engrossed in the interiors of the Synagogue to pay full attention to the narration. Thank you, Harshal for sharing the full story and for refreshing my memory. 🙂

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  2. Enjoyed reading your post. I have never visited a synagogue and really would love to visit one. Lovely pictures. My memories of Jews are always associated with the confectioneries of Calcutta. Some of the best cakes and cookies were made by Jews. Also, some of the old rambling mansions were built by the Jews.

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    1. Thank you very much, Neena. The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synangogue may be the one with the most security, but they are also the most welcoming. They welcome visitors except on Fridays and Saturdays. You need to go with a photocopy of a photo ID and they will let you in. Photography charges are Rs.100/-

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  3. Marvellous! Can’t but help restating the cliched: we are losing our ability to even notice, leave alone accept and celebrate diversity. Sad, no? I think you must take a few schoolteachers around, especially those living in the suburbs.

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    1. There is a display on the 1st floor of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum (to which David Sassoon contributed handsomely) which has models of different communities living in Bombay in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The diversity is astonishing. I had initially dismissed the display as too childish and cliched, but after the Synagogue tour, I am thankful for that. Where has all the diversity gone ?

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  4. Amazing post and I love it how you start it. I was aware of the Jewish influence in Mumbai but not to this extent. I just find is fascinating how Mumbai has so much to offer than just cinema and I can’t wait to discover it. Cheers

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    1. Cinema is just one of the many contributions that Mumbai has made and when you come here, you will also see how we Mumbaikars actually ignore this aspect. 🙂

      Coming to Jewish history, in my opinion, their contribution to the growth of Bombay has been overshadowed by the Parsi community for one main reasons – the Parsis have stayed back while the Baghdadi Jews, particularly the Sassoons, left. The other Jewish community, the Bene Israelis have integrated so well with the local Marathi community that even their names and last names have a local flavour. In 2013, a massive media and PR exercise has bee undertaken by the community and walks, meetings, books, talks, et al. are happening. Suddenly, Jewish Heritage is the flavour of the season. Not that I’m complainng, mind you 🙂

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  5. I feel proud to from a nation where the persecuted of the world have found refuge for centuries, be it Parsis or Jews. Hope we do not forget our duty towards them.

    BTW, now I know what Sassoon road in Pune might be named after. Thank you 🙂

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    1. I agree with you, though we now seem to have forgotten what our ancestors practiced. :-/

      Sassoon Road, Sassoon Hospital… Do try and visit the Laal Deval or the Ohel David Synagogue in the Camp area. I visited it many years back and it is quite beautiful.

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  6. wow this is amazing … i went earlier this year to be greeted by cops at each and every one of the synagogues not even letting me take photographs … kenneseth eliyahu was the first one i started with and the only one to let me in .. at all others it was cops, questioning and more questioning …
    after trying nicely once or twice we thought it better to just have seen them and left

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