On Jewry duty

Published: 20 November, 2013 19:55 IST | Fiona Fernandez |

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.

David and Goliathan contributons: Dr Shaul Sapir reads from his book at the David Sassoon Library in Mumbai. Pic/Atul Kamble

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.

Bombay family frame: The author’s family in Bombay. Upon the establishment of India’s independence (15th August, 1947) on the one hand, and the establishment of the State of Israel (14th May, 1948) on the other, we witness a major decrease in the Baghdadi community. A large share of this community has immigrated to Israel, while the others have dispersed throughout English-speaking countries, mainly to England, Australia, United States of America and Canada. Pics courtesy: Shaul Sapir

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.

Inside look: Sha’are Ratzon Synagogue, 2012. The synagogue is located at Tantanpura Street. At present, there are only nine synagogues left in Bombay’s jurisdiction. Seven belong to the Bene-Israel and two to the Baghdadi community

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.

Train your sights: On the Masjid Bunder Railway Station. The Synagogue was locally called Masjid (or Musjid, which both mean Mosque in Arabic). When the first railway track from Bombay to Thane was launched in 1853, one of the stations en route was named Masjid Bunder, meaning the Synagogue Station

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.

Sassoon IANS: David Sassoon with three of his eight sons. From (l) Elas, Abdullah and Sassoon David Sassoon. Bombay owes some of its commercial, industrial, trade and cultural prosperity to the enterprise and activities of the Sassoons. Their liberal philanthropy has made their names known throughout the world and has excited an interest in their achievements

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).

Symbol of the city: The proposed Gateway of India from the sea side, George Wittet, 1914. During 1913-1914, Wittet put up various plans of the Gateway for public review, until the consolidation and approval of the final plan on August 1914. Before the foundation stone was laid, Wittet’s plan was approved by famous architect and designer Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944). Sir Jacob Sassoon donated a sum of Rs 300,000 (equal to 20,000 Pounds Sterling), towards the sum required for building it

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.

Where’s there’s a mill… Emblems of David Sassoon and Co. Mills. The involvement of the members of the Sassoon family n the industry, and in the cotton-textile spheres in particular, was increasingly growing and its owners started assuming high positions in the union. There were also other entrepreneurs from the Baghdadi community who were involved in the textile field

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.

Stony faced: Image of a, 2003, sculpted by John Lockwood Kipling. John Lockwood Kipling, a professor of architectural sculpture n Bombay’s Sir Jamsethji Jeejeebhoy School of Art (during the years 1865-1874), designed this frieze, which was defined by many visitors as a life-like portrait

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. 

Sandy’s handy with thegloves: Sandy Solomon boxing with Sid Greve, 1955. Eighteen-year-old Sandy Solomon (born in 1936), began boxing at the age of eleven, while studying at the prestigious Barnes School in Deolali. (1947-1949). He defeated the national lightweight champion of Pakistan, Sid Greve (whose nickname was ‘the killer’), first in 1955 and later in 1957 and thus became the first Jew to win the title of Western India Lightweight in Boxing

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