On Jewry duty
Dr Shaul Sapir's book, Bombay: Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage, is a fantastic testimonial of the lesser documented connect and contribution that the Jews had in the making of the city, as Fiona Fernandez finds out
“A little bit of the sun in the outdoors won’t hurt,” the towering Dr Shaul Sapir greets me warmly at Flora Fountain, when I apologise for my five-minute delay. “I like soaking in the city,” he adds, as we saunter to a nearby café for our chat.
He must. After all, Dr Sapir spent the first nine years of his life a few km away, in Byculla’s Nagpada neighbourhood and decades later, made numerous trips to rediscover it. This time, the Jewish scholar and professor was in the city for the release of his labour of love, a 290-page treasure trove on the Jewish community and their nearly-lost identity with Mumbai.
Moments later, while sifting through the pages of Bombay: Exploring The Jewish Urban Heritage, we are speechless. “A baby takes nine months to be born; this took me nine years,” he chuckles.
For any student, researcher or city lover, this exhaustive, insightful chronicle is a godsend not just for the scale but also for the lucid breakdown of the island city’s history, and the seamless entwining of the Jewish connect. “I had to read over 150 books that contained travellers’ accounts at London’s British Library, primarily. My input is in every element -- from content, to photograph and the design too.
97 per cent of what you see in this book is my contribution,” the pride in his voice justifying the coffee table tome, all 1.5 kilos of it. Dr Sapir is also an expert on architecture, Israeli history, town planning and geography, and, his mastery in all these streams comes through. The magnitude of research is applause-worthy too, from tracking down rare insignia of long-gone Jewish schools in far-off Canada to putting the pieces together of Jewish landmarks in the city, albeit one that has changed dramatically since his childhood.
Dr Sapir’s rattles off the many firsts in his book: “I’ve mentioned birth and death years for almost every person featured in here -- I wanted the reader to get a perspective of period; the design ensures no photographs disturb the text flow and vice versa. I’ve created two indexes for easy reference -- people, and places and organizations. All content does not flow over into the next page, to ensure the thread is intact.” We’re impressed (not that the Bombayphile in us needed any convincing).
For Dr Sapir, who we met during his previous trip to the city in April this year, (this is his 16th trip), his research also included long hours at The Newspaper Archive at Collingdale (connected to the British Library) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). A decade ago, while on a trip to the city, as he stood inside the David Sassoon Reading Room and Library, beside the sculpted statue of the scion, the germ of this book dawned.
Roots mean a lot to him, and throughout our 40-minute chat, his memories crisscross the geographical spread of the Baghdadi Jews that numbered 5000-plus in the 1950s -- from Nagpada’s Jew Garden, to Ballard Estate, and Masjid’s Samuel Street, the famed Israeli Mohalla, Sassoon Docks, JJ Hospital and Parel’s sprawling Sassoon Mills.
Without doubt, the book is an outstanding tribute to the philanthropic contribution that the Jews had in shaping the island city. “David Sassoon was a visionary; he had great plans for Bombay,” recalls Dr Sapir, of his most famous ancestor. The city must not forget.