Baghdadi Jews

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Baghdadi Jews
David Sassoon and sons.jpg
Prominent Bagdadi Jewish patriarch David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) and Sassoon David
Total population
(5,000 Historical Peak in 1930s [1])
Regions with significant populations

India 250 (chiefly Mumbai, Madras, Gujarat and Calcutta)

Israel, Europe, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Traditionally, Arabic and Persian, now mostly English, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and Hebrew
Related ethnic groups
Iraqi Jews, Arab Jews, Persian Jews, Syrian Jews

Baghdadi Jews, also known as Indo-Iraqi Jews, is the traditional name given to the communities of Jewish migrants and their descendants from Baghdad and elsewhere in the Middle East, who settled primarily on the trade routes of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Beginning under the Mughal Empire in the 18th century merchant traders from Baghdad and Aleppo established originally Judeo-Arabic speaking Jewish communities in India following Mizrahi Jewish customs. Expanding in the 19th century under the British Empire these grew to be English-speaking and British oriented as smaller Baghdadi communities were established in Burma, Singapore and China.[2][3]

Until the mid 20th century these communities attracted a modest number of Jewish emigrants from Iraq with smaller numbers also hailing from Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Iran and Turkey.[4] In the decades following Indian Independence and the end of the British Empire in Asia the Baghdadi Jewish communities emigrated almost in their entireity to Britain, Israel, Australia and the United States.[5]

Today synagogues and associations upholding Baghdadi Jewish traditions exist in Britain, Israel, Australia and the United States but the historic Baghdadi communities in India and Burma have all but disappeared.[6][7] Only the synagogues originally founded by Baghdadi Jews in both Hong Kong and Singapore continue to operate regular services.[8][9]


The earliest Baghdadi Jews were merchant traders who settled on trade routes and formed new immigrant Jewish communities in their new homelands. Baghdad and Iraq in general used to have one of the largest, if not the largest Jewish community in the Middle East and Central Asia, and these new immigrant communities also included Jews as part of the Mughal courtiers.[10] Records of Jewish tradesmen traveling from Baghdad can be found from the early 17th century, and around the mid-19th century a large portion of the community started immigrating to South and Southeast Asia as well as to the west, creating new communities while preserving their unique traditions.

Though Jewish traders from the Middle East had crossed the Indian Ocean since antiquity sources from the Mughal Empire first mention Baghdadi Jewish merchants trading with India in the 17th century. The first permanent Baghdadi merchant colony in India was established in 1730 in Surat after the British East India Company had begun trading with Basra in 1723.[11] In the early 18th century trade between Basra and Surat grew whilst it the main base of the British East India Company until it decamped to Bombay. Joseph Seemah from Baghdad opened the Surat synagogue and cemetery in 1730.[12] The Baghdadi community in Surat grew and by the end of the 18th century as many as 100 Jews from Baghdad, Aleppo and Basra made up the Judeo-Arabic speaking merchant colony of Surat.[13]

The rise of British power in India saw the decline of Surat and the rise of British-controlled Calcutta and Bombay.[13] Baghdadi settlement shifted first to Bombay and then principally to Calcutta then the capital of British India and the centre of the jute, musil and opium trade.[13] Jewish merchants from Aleppo, traditionally the end of the historic caravan route from India, played an important role in founding the Calcutta and Jewish cemetery was opened in 1812.[14] By the end of the 19th century there were over 1,800 Baghdadi Jews in Calcutta.[13]

Baghdadi Jews' presence in Asia[edit]

The main Baghdadi Jewish communities in Asia were historically found in India,[15] Yangon (Rangoon), Singapore, and Shanghai. The majority of Baghdadi Jews lived in the Indian cities of Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta) with the community peaking shortly before the Second World War. Today many of these historical Baghdadi communities are now at the point of disappearing completely. As of 2017, fewer than thirty Baghdadi Jews still live in Kolkata.[16] The ethnic Jewish community in Penang is now extinct with the death of its last member in 2011. Some smaller Jewish communities, such as the one in Bangkok, trace their first founders to Baghdadi Jewish traders who worked and settled down in the region. There are only one or two remaining Baghdadi Jews in Bangladesh.[17]


Though there had been significant Persian Jewish communities in India since early Mughal times, the first Arab Jews arrived in India in the 18th century. In 1730, Joseph Semah arrived in Surat from Baghdad and established the Surat Synagogue and Cemetery. There was already an established Baghdadi Jew community by then with its center in Surat. Surat was a main trading port in the 16th and 17th centuries; the East India Company used the city as a trade transit point, beginning in 1608. Surat is located in Western India, in Gujarat State, and is the modern commercial capital of Gujarat. Arab Jews came to India as traders in the wake of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. These "Baghdadis," as they came to be known, especially the Sassoons of Bombay and the Ezras of Calcutta, eventually established manufacturing and commercial houses of fabulous wealth.[18] The majority came from Iraq, thus giving the community its name, though smaller groups came from other countries such as Syria and Afghanistan and assimilated into the Baghdadi group. Unlike other Indian Jewish communities, whose oral traditions attest to their presence in India as long as 2000 years ago, the Baghdadi communities were established comparatively recently (in the past few centuries).[19]

Sir David Sassoon is the most illustrious name of this community of Jews.[20] In Mumbai, the Jewish community was concentrated in the Jacob Circle (now renamed Gadge Maharaj Chowk) area in Central Bombay. They had totally integrated themselves with the society around them. Their dress used to be traditionally Indian. Their womenfolk wear saree; and bangles. Their surnames and family names were like those of other Indians. Their culinary habits are also influenced by Indian.[15]

Persian speaking Jews closely related to Baghdadi Jews from Afghanistan and Iran came with the Ghaznavad, Ghori and Mughal invasions of Mahmud (11th century), Muhammad (12th century) and Babur (16th century). The most obscure of Indian Jews, they were traders and courtiers of the Mughals. Jewish advisors at the Court of Akbar the Great in Agra played a significant role in Akbar's liberal religious policies and built a synagogue there. In Delhi, one Jew was tutor to the Crown Prince, Dara Shikoh; the teacher and student were later assassinated by Aurangzeb. These Jews got assimilated in the local population as no trace or community remains.[10]

The community largely emigrated abroad following Indian independence following Zionism.[21] They primarily feared that an independent India would become hostile to Jews like Pakistan[citation needed], and also emigrated out of economic concerns, fearing that India would become communist once the British left.[22] After Indian independence, there was a continuous migration of Baghdadi Jews to Israel. Many others went to the United States and United Kingdom.[23]

Cultural Evolution[edit]

Initially the Baghdadi Jewish communities that sprang up in India retained close cultural and religious links to Baghdad. Intellectual life was strong enough in the mid to late 19th century to sustain a printed press in the Baghdad Jewish dialect of Judeo-Arabic in India.[24] Centered on Calcutta small Baghdadi Jewish publishing houses translated literary, historical, religious and anti-missionary tracts into Judeo-Arabic whilst religious texts were also printed in Hebrew.[25] Baghdadi newspapers and periodicals in Judeo-Arabic with some Hebrew portions were also published in India.[26] This Baghdadi printed press began in 1855 with the support of David Sassoon a periodical started in Bombay catering to the merchant elite of the community.[24] This was joined by four other Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic newspapers and periodicals in Calcutta.[24] Novels and literature from the European Zionist and Haskala movements were translated into Judeo-Arabic in Calcutta. However at the turn of the century Jewish intellectual life in Calcutta appears to have waned.[25]

In the 20th century the decline of Baghdad saw Britain replace it as the community's cultural lodestar. The wealthier Baghdadis adopted European clothes and sought British education for their children whilst the poorer Baghdadis, especially women, continued to wear Arabic dress.[25] The rise in British education and English-speaking replaced Arabic as the primary language both of international trade and cultural prestige amongst the Baghdadi Jewish elite in India.[27] In the 20th century the Baghdadi Jews wished to assimilate into colonial European society and be considered culturally and ethnically European. Aside for religious observances the Baghdadi Jews began to adopt European lifestyles.[25] However the Baghdadis remained marginal to colonial European society and were excluded for the duration of the Raj from many social clubs which limited their intake to Europeans.[25]

Westernization contributed to all Judeo-Arabic publications having ceased publication by the start of the 20th century.[27] These were succeeded in Calcutta in the 1920s and 1940s by three English language communal newspapers sympathetic to Zionism.[25] Whilst many of the wealthiest Baghdadi families remained aloof from Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th century the community's middle class established Zionist associations in Bombay and Calcutta.[25]

Religiously the Baghdadi Jews did not train their own Rabbis but sought guidance and resolutions on matters of Jewish law from the Rabbis of Baghdad, preserving the traditions and rituals of Iraqi Jews.[28] Sermons up until the First World War were given in Judeo-Arabic after which English became predominant.[28] After the First World War the Baghdadi Jews began to refer their religious questions to the Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Britain.[13] Rites concerning circumcision, betrothal and protections of the newborn preserved Iraqi Jewish customs.[13] Baghdadi Jewish wedding celebrations gradually grew less Middle Eastern and more European in the 20th century.[29]


Indian Baghdadi cuisine is an Indian hybrid cuisine, with many Arab, Turkish, Persian and Indian influences.[30] Famous Baghdadi dishes include Beef curry, Baghdadi Biryani and Baghdadi Jewish parathas. A Baghdadi version of Tandoori chicken is also popular (using lemon juice to cook the chicken instead of cream used in the usual Indian recipe). Other Jewish Baghdadi communities have mixed their original Iraqi Jewish dishes with influences from the local cuisine where they settled.


Pre-WWII Iraqi Communities in the Far East

City Synagogue Website Year Opened
Bombay Knesset Eliyahoo 1884
Bombay Magen David 1864
Calcutta Magen David None; see 1884
Hong Kong Ohel Leah 1902
Poona Ohel David 1867
Shanghai Ohel Rachel None; see 1921
Singapore Maghain Aboth 1878
Singapore Chesed El 1905
Yangon (Rangoon) Musmeah Yeshua None; see 1896

Post-WWII Iraqi Jewish Diaspora

City Synagogue Website Year Opened
London Ohel David Eastern Synagogue 1959
Los Angeles Kahal Joseph Congregation 1959
New York Congregation Bene Naharayim 1983
New York Babylonian Jewish Center 1997
Sydney Beth Yisrael Synagogue 1962

Notable Baghdadi Jews[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ "The virtual Jewish world". Retrieved 22 February 2015. 
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b ""The Last Jews in India and Burma" by Nathan Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg". Retrieved 23 March 2016. 
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b c d e f
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b Weil, Shalva. 2009 India's Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle, Mumbai: Marg Publications [first published in 2002; 3rd edn.].
  16. ^
  17. ^ Weil, Shalva. 2012 “The Unknown Jews of Bangladesh: Fragments of an Elusive Community”, Asian Jewish Life, 8:16-18.
  18. ^ Lentin, Samuel Sifra (ed) Shalva Weil. " The Jewish Presence in Bombay." India's Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Style. Marg Publications:Mumbai. 2009.
  19. ^ Weil, Shalva. 2009 'The Heritage and Legacy of Indian Jews' in Shalva Weil (ed.) India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle, Mumbai: Marg Publications [first published in 2002; 3rd edn.], pp. 8-21. Weil, Shalva. 2008 'Jews in India', in M.Avrum Erlich (ed.) Encyclopaedia of the Jewish Diaspora, Santa Barbara, USA: ABC CLIO.(3: 1204-1212)
  20. ^ 2014 “The Legacy of David Sassoon: Building a Community Bridge”, Asian Jewish Life, 14:4-6.
  21. ^ Weil, Shalva. 1994 'India, Zionism In'; 'Indian Jews in Israel', in Geoffrey Wigoder (ed.) The New Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, Associated University Presses, pp. 651-653.
  22. ^ Kamin, Debra. "A Childhood Passage to Israel for Baghdadi Jews of India". 
  23. ^ Weil, Shalva. 2013 "Jews of India" (1: 255-258); "Ten Lost Tribes" (2: 542-543), in Raphael Patai and Haya Bar Itzhak (eds.) Jewish Folklore and Traditions: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, Inc.
  24. ^ a b c
  25. ^ a b c d e f g
  26. ^
  27. ^ a b
  28. ^ a b
  29. ^
  30. ^ Cooper, Judy. Cooper, John in (ed) Shalva Weil "The Life-Cycle of Baghdadi Jews of India" India's Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle, Mumbai: Marg Publications [first published in 2002; 3rd edn.], 2009. pp. 100-109.

12. ^Rabbi Ezekiel Nissim Musleah author of "On the Banks of the Ganga"

External links[edit]