A few days back, this journalist was pleasantly surprised to receive an invite to what promised to be an engaging talk where a respected Fulbright scholar would be discussing Jewish narratives, right here in the city. A few more events centred on the community, according to the invite, were scheduled to take place in the city in October. It brought a smile to the face. After all, how many in Mumbai are aware of the innumerable contributions that the Jews — be it the Baghdadi Jews or the Konkani Jews, have made to the island city from the time they arrived at its welcoming shores for better prospects all those centuries ago?
A few months ago, we were fortunate to interact with a Jerusalem based research scholar and educationist,
Dr Shaul Sapir, who was in the city to provide the finishing touches to his book on Baghdadi Jews and their contribution to the city. Interacting with him opened a whole new vista about the community’s impact on the socio-economic and cultural fabric of the city during its formative years, in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. While Jews in the city account for a few hundred today, it’s fascinating how they silently went about doing their bit for the city that gave them the right climate and entrepreneurial opportunities to not only feel at home but also thrive and give back.
The Sassoon family comes to mind, in an instant. Since that day in 1832 when scion David Sassoon set foot in the city, to the generations of his family who went about with their enterprise and vision to etch their contribution to the city, it’ makes for a fascinating advertisement of the ‘City of Dream’s adage, the oh-so-familiar signature for Mumbai to this day. After all, the Jews at the time were merely following the vision of Bombay Governor Gerard Aungier in the 1600s — an open invite to all communities and castes from across the Subcontinent and beyond to settle down in the city, and make it a profitable centre where trade and commerce flourished.
The David Sassoon Library & Reading Hall, the Kalaghoda statue of Prince Albert (at Rani Baugh, Byculla), the Masina Hospital (formerly David Sassoon’s home — Sans Soucci Mansion), Sassoon Dock — the city’s first wet dock, are just some of the examples of this contribution to the city’s landscape. “The Jews are often referred to as Rothschild’s of the East for their philanthropic efforts in India and beyond,” the wise Dr Sapir told me during our walk around Kalaghoda and beyond. And in later, recent times, from actress Nadira Ezekiel, film critic Bunny Reuben to poet Nissim Ezekiel, the community contributed to the arts.
Interestingly, there was a time when Mumbai boasted of a substantial Jewish population, such that the stretch from Jacob Circle (named after David Sassoon’s grandson, Jacob Sassoon) to today’s Masjid locality had six synagogues! The Hindi and Marathi spelling at Masjid Bunder railway station read as ‘Masheed Bunder’. Jews refer to their synagogue as Mashed; that’s how the name emerged and has remained till date. Byculla and its adjoining areas were thriving nodes for the community; perhaps, reason why the scion Sir David built his palatial home there.
Today, except for the few city landmarks, including its surviving synagogues, there’s little to remind Mumbai of the indelible Jewish imprint on the city — decadent yet unmistakably decisive in the pages of our city’s glorious evolution that was built on its communal diversity.
— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY