In hindsight, we were lucky. A day later, and we would have missed meeting with Dr Shaul Sapir, a Baghdadi Jewish scholar and expert who was on his 15th trip to Mumbai - this time to sign off his spectacular book in the making, Bombay: Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage. After all, like most orthodox Jews, Dr Sapir follows Jewish traditions seriously, and does not step out after sunset on Friday evenings, in preparation for the Sabbath day, which is observed on Saturdays.
We spot Dr Sapir along with city historian Deepak Rao at our decided location - Sir David Sassoon Library and Reading Room. The doctor, a tall, strapping man in his 60s, is speaking to a few visiting Jewish tourists about the scion of the Sassoon family, Sir David’s contribution to Mumbai. Coincidental, then that the genial scholar reveals how his idea for his book was sowed right there - when he saw the marble statue of the visionary Baghdadi Jew, while on a visit to Mumbai, 10 years ago. “It made a huge impression; his impact on the community and Bombay. I decided to document all of it - this was in the beginning but later, it developed into a dedication to the city. Every important building is in the book! Back then, I told my wife, Ann that if I didn’t write it down, nothing would remain.”
Dr Sapir, an expert on Israeli history, architecture, archaeology, geography and town planning, was born in Mumbai. His father worked with Manchester Mills, Chinchpokli and Sapir Jr. studied at Deolali’s Barnes School. Fifty years later, while on a trip to his alma mater, he was thrilled that it still resembled “Little England. The staff couldn’t believe that someone who had schooled there from so long ago, had dropped by!” he recounts. He is now settled with his family in Jerusalem but this book, a 10-year love affair, had its roots much earlier.
Later, sipping on Dukes Soda at the 100-year-old Sassanian Boulangerie in Dhobi Talao, and egged on by historian Rao, Dr Sapir helps us piece together the story of the Baghdadi Jews’ favourite son, his stamp on the city and how this book evolved. “It was very difficult because there was barely any content on Bombay’s Baghdadi Jews. Much has been written about Cochin’s Jews and Bene Israelis, even about Calcutta’s Baghdadi Jews, but the Bombay chapter has no documentation,” he shares.
In 2002, he took a sabbatical to London and spent six months at the British Library’s archives. He sifted through nearly 150 books on Bombay, including several traveller accounts. This familiarised him with the city’s lanes, gullies, streets and buildings. Photographs from publications including The Times of India and Illustrated London News helped him connect with these places. “Also, The Newspaper Archive at Collingdale (connected to the British Library) was a huge resource. Later, in 2006, the archives at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), I was able to further my research,” the scholar reminisces.
In between these trips, Dr Sapir visited the city often. He says, “As a geographer, I realise that fieldwork is important. I met Deepak (Rao) in 2006 and we scoured the city. My thirst for knowledge and for Jewish connects took me to every corner -Sir Jacob Sassoon School, the Maharashtra State Archives, The Times of India archives, the Gazetteer and Pune.” Flipping through the proofed manuscript that is scheduled for a lavish coffee table book release in two month's time, two factors strike us , the intimacy of photographs captured by Dr Sapir -“many areas don’t exist any more!” and the series of detailed maps across sections, “These will be useful; there are maps for Jewish religious places, educational institutions, financial and commercial monuments and city monuments.”
Sassoon and the city
“The Jews are called the Rothschild’s of the East, and rightly so,” Dr Sapir goes on to explain how philanthropy runs deep in the community. “Baghdadi Jews arrived in India in the late 18th century from Iraq. David Sassoon’s father and forefathers were treasurers in Baghdad. David became a Pasha (Governor) at a young age but at the time when the Ottoman Empire was at its peak and bribery, rampant, his father Sheikh Salah Sassoon, suggested that David move away from Iraq to Iran. Eventually, he sailed eastward to Bombay, which was emerging as a trading hub. Sassoon Junior arrived on the island in 1832. Buoyed by a healthy business climate, he stayed on and engaged in cloth trade.”
At the time, opium trade was at its peak, and along with the Parsis, the two communities ensured it flourished. Sassoon and his family won everyone’s trust, and their clean reputation saw them being regarded as safe traders. “They were philanthropists not just for their community, by building schools and synagogues but also for the government (see box: Did You Know?). They wanted to take care of the people.” The contribution of the Baghdadi Jews to Mumbai was spread across three generations and confined largely to the wealthy Sassoon family. By World War II, the communities’ numbers dwindled as most had moved to Israel.
Call of the motherland
“Let me state one thing - India has never been anti-Semitic. The only reason why Jews left India was because of the winds of change that swept both nations around the same time. The colonial British Empire gave way to an independent India on August 15, 1947 while the State of Israel was created on May 14, 1948.
Besides, there is a mention of longing for the motherland (Israel) in our prayer, which played a huge role in calling the flock to the native country,” reasons Dr Sapir, adding that India and Indians has been very tolerant since the old ages. He cites the example of Gerard Aungier, Bombay Governor in the late 1600s, who had first invited different communities to settle in Bombay to populate, promote trade and agriculture and to develop the city into a profitable venture. “These communities built Bombay,” he prophesies.
In the 1950s and 60s, nearly 6,000 Baghdadi Jews lived in and around Mumbai but today, a handful survive. As we ready to leave the quaint Irani landmark, I ask Dr Sapir if he has family in the city, “You know, Moshe Shek? (Moshe is a well-known restaurateur and has the restaurant chain Moshe’s) He is my first cousin’s son!” his eyes widen with pride. “Jews are good bakers too.” Mumbai was blessed that they made it their home, like the philanthropists, all those centuries ago.
Some of Mumbai's biggest landmarks have a Jewish connect:
Kalaghoda: Albert Sassoon funded the statue of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, riding a black horse. It stood there till 1965 after which it was shifted to the Rani Baug. Sir Richard Temple, Governor of Bombay on June 26, 1879, unveiled the statue.
Flora Fountain: Mumbai's Baghdadi Jews believe that the name Flora is none other than Flora Sassoon (1859-1936), the enterprising wife of Solomon Sassoon (1841-94). She continued to man his businesses and legacy upon his death with tremendous success.
Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum: Sir David Sassoon funded the statue of Prince Albert that stands at the centre of the splendid museum. This merchant trader also gifted a 67-foot-high Italianate clock tower to the Victoria Gardens (now Rani Baug) that was erected in 1864 -- the year of his death.
Asiatic Society's Town Hall: It boasted of a spectacular organ gifted by Sir Albert Sassoon.
Did you know?
>> The Jewish Club set up in the 1930s is no longer around. It was for Jews only but later it opened its doors to other communities. It was housed on the topmost floor of Jeroo Building in Kalaghoda; FabIndia is its more popular occupant today.
>> Nadira Ezekiel, a famous Hindi film actress was a Baghdadi Jew who hailed from Nagpada, Byculla, which was the hub for the community. Rose Ezra and Ruby Myers were two other stars who were leading ladies in the 1920s and 30s. (Dr Sapir plans to include the Jewish connect with Indian cinema in the next edition of his book).
>> India sent contingents to the Maccabiyah Games (Jewish Olympics) that promoted sport among Jewish youth from across the world.
>> Between the 1920s and 40s, Jews were the largest mill owners in India. When Bombay had 140 mills, Sassoon Mills constituted nearly 12-14 of them.