Tales of a Wandering Jew: Jewish India's crown jewel

With British Bombay's meteoric rise in the 19th century, the Jewish community of Bombay flourished. Now called Mumbai, the city still possesses a dynamic Jewish community.

In the days when the sun never set on the British Empire and Pax Britannia ruled the waves, the great port city of Bombay rose like a light in the East. With British Bombay's meteoric rise in the 19th century, the Jewish community of Bombay flourished. Now called Mumbai, the city still possesses a dynamic Jewish community. Sir David Sassoon arrived in Bombay from Baghdad in 1833, and quickly built up a mercantile empire without rival.The company established branches in Calcutta, as well as in Shanghai, Canton and Hong Kong. Of his business empire, it was said: "silver and gold, silks, gums and spices, opium and cotton, wool and wheat - whatever moves over sea or land feels the hand or bears the mark of Sassoon and Company." While I was in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Shaul Sapir, a professor of historical geography at Hebrew University. An expert on the Bombay Jewish community, he was there working on an upcoming book on the impact of the Jewish community on the city's landscape. He noted that Sassoon and his progeny were philanthropic to the highest degree. "What was Bombay, and is now Mumbai, still bears the imprints of the Sassoon donations and their landmark legacy," Sapir stated. For his adopted home, Sassoon built the Victorian-style Mechanics' Institute, as well as a school for juvenile delinquents. He also endowed 60,000 rupees for a library, which was completed in 1870 and posthumously named after him. In appreciation for all his philanthropic deeds, the citizens of Bombay had a marble bust of him placed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Meanwhile, Sassoon built the Magen David Synagogue, a beautiful blue synagogue complete with clock tower and frontal pillars, in the Byculla area in 1861. He built a second synagogue in Pune, his resort home, in 1863. He also built an elementary school on the grounds, dedicated to the study of Torah. The school was later expanded by his grandson Jacob Sassoon to a high school which is still in use today. The Sassoon beneficence continued with David's son, Sir Albert Sasssoon, who built the Sassoon Docks in the Colaba area, the first wet docks built on India's western coast. Sir Albert also gave contributions to Bombay academic institutions, as well as to the Jewish school his father founded. The Sassoon legacy of philanthropy continued with Jacob Sassoon, who contributed greatly to the building of the Gateway to India, a triumphal basalt arch built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. While in Mumbai, I visited the Knesset Eliyahu Synagogue, a sky blue beauty in the Fort area of downtown Mumbai, built in 1884 by Jacob Sassoon in memory of his father Elias. I spoke with Ben Zion, the shamesh (caretaker) of the synagogue on the past and present of the community. According to Zion, 60 years ago the community numbered 15,000 members. "There was no place to stand in the synagogues for the holidays," remarked the caretaker. There were seven synagogues and two prayer halls to serve the community, and all are still in existence. With the founding of both the State of India and Israel, the Jews of Bombay began leaving the country. Today the community numbers between 4,500 and 5,000 Jews. Mumbai is served by the Council of Indian Jewry, which is comprised of various organizations. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee serves the Mumbai community, while Chabad maintains a center here. Mumbai has a ritual slaughterer to produce kosher chickens, and a mohel for circumcisions. There is also a kosher bakery, and kosher meals can be supplied to travelers. For those Jewish travelers requiring kosher food and a place to stay for the Shabbat, there is the Sassoon House, located on the Magen David Synagogue compound, which offers accommodation at nominal rates. On the Jewish community's relations with its neighbors, Zion stated "the community has mixed very well. We speak Hindi and Marathi, and we are all friends." This friendship was evident, as Zion pointed out, in the riots in Mumbai in 1992-3, when communal violence was taking place between Hindus and Muslims while the Jews of Mumbai were safe. Zion casually mentioned that Israel's Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was going to be in Mumbai that evening for a gathering at the Magen David Synagogue. No sooner had he mentioned this, than the chief rabbi walked through the doors and into the synagogue, flanked by Israel's Consul-General to Mumbai Daniel Zonshine. I arrived at the synagogue, where the mood was festive. More than one hundred people packed the synagogue, to hear speakers from the community discuss the Bombay Jewish community's legacy, and to receive a blessing by the rabbi. Mumbai Jewish community leader, Solomon Safir, summed up the Mumbai Jewish community's essence in stating, "As small as the community might be, they are as small as diamonds and pearls." Mumbai's Jewish community will always remain a jewel in India's crown. Paul Rockower served as the Press Officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest in Houston from 2003 until 2006. He is currently on a six month trek around the world. You can read more of his misadventures at his blog: http://levantine18.blogspot.com and see pictures at http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18.