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Stories of Calcutta Jews, as others in the Baghdadi diaspora | Jael Silliman

7 August 2016

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The Telegraph (Calcutta, India) 4 August 2016

The rivers of Babylon

— The lifestyle of Baghdadi Jews under the Ottoman rulers was much like that of the Jews of Calcutta, discovers Jael Silliman

I grew up in the Calcutta of the 1960s, when much of my community - the city’s Baghdadi Jews - had already emigrated to other parts of the world. Unlike my mother and aunts, I did not attend the Jewish Girls’ School, but studied at Loreto House. There were about four other Jewish girls in the entire school, and the Jewish Girls’ School was no longer all Jewish. Beyond school, too, my family had friends from many other communities. We attended services in the synagogue and went, during festivals, to the homes of the few relatives who remained in Calcutta, but for the most part I lived in a non-Jewish world.

My family was proud of their Syrian Jewish and Baghdadi Jewish roots. While the Jews of Calcutta were from many countries of the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Syria, we were known as Baghdadis because we followed the liturgy of Baghdad, a site of great Jewish learning. Iraqi Jews are among the world’s oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities. After the fall of Jerusalem, Babylon became the focus of Judaism for over a thousand years. The Talmud Bavliwas compiled in Babylonia in 500 AD.

From the Babylonian period to the rise of the Islamic caliphate, the Jewish community of Babylon thrived as the centre of Jewish learning. I grew up hearing stories of not just how learned in the Torahmy ancestors were, but of how strictly they kept their religious observances. The Calcutta Jews, as others in the Baghdadi diaspora, sent their religious questions to learned rabbis in Baghdad. When the Jews in Calcutta were building the Magen David Synagogue and wished it to have a clock tower and steeple, they wrote to Baghdad to see if that was consistent with the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and oral Torah.

It was only on a recent trip to Israel, when I was invited to speak at a seminar at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center (photographs courtesy the Center), that I felt I was part of the Baghdadi community now spread all over the world. The Center (picture, bottom) is a museum cum research centre that documents and features the history of the Jews of Babylon over a period of 2,700 years, from the time of their exile from the Land of Israel (721-586 BCE) until their return. The exhibits at the Center feature the lifestyle of the well-established Jewish community of Iraq, and their customs, art and culture. It is evident that they made many contributions to Iraqi society.

By World War I, the Jewish community of Baghdad accounted for one third of Baghdad’s population. When Iraq became independent in 1932, its Jews numbered 120,000; Hebrew was listed as one of Iraq’s six languages. Yehezkel Sasson, a Jew, was independent Iraq’s first minister of finance. The Baghdadi Jews played an important role in the early days of Iraq’s independence and were represented in the Iraqi Parliament. The Center displayed photos of some of Iraq’s Jewish cultural icons, including some of the most famous Iraqi musicians. In 1932, for example, all the instrumentalists who attended the first Arabic music congress in Cairo were Jews, and when Iraq Radio was established in 1936, the entire instrumental ensemble, apart from the percussion player, was Jewish. Jews were also dominant in the playing of Western music. As I took in the exhibits, I was reminded of my elderly uncles singing our prayers so melodiously to Arabic tunes. I also remembered Bernard Jacob, the conductor of the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra.

On the guided tour through the museum, we learned that artefacts from our community in Calcutta had been integrated among the other items and photos of the Iraqi community in Baghdad and of other parts of the diaspora that spread (to London in the West and Shanghai in the East). I was unable to distinguish between items from Calcutta, Baghdad and other port cities. The lifestyle of Jews under the Ottoman rulers and then under the British Mandate (1922) was very much like the lives we led in Calcutta. I learned that, under the Ottomans, Baghdadi Jews had established modern schools in the second half of the 19th century, just as they had in Calcutta; the Jewish Girls’ School here was founded in 1881.

The ritual items displayed were almost the same as ours, and the photos of women in their sports uniforms closely resembled some of my mother and aunts. The framed pictures of the elders of the community and their clothing were very much like those that hung in Calcutta’s Jewish homes. Walking into the recreated Iraqi synagogue, I felt as though I were in the synagogue in Calcutta. I felt the same way when I walked down a narrow lane that replicated the ones in Baghdad. In a small tailor shop, a man was selling fabrics and laying them on the gaddi for customers to select. There was a living room of an Iraqi home, and I was taken back in time to my grandmother’s place; even the cutwork on the cushion covers was styled exactly as I remembered it. The food served at brunch could have come out of Nahoum’s when it catered for Jewish functions; on offer were date babas, cheese sambusaks, plaited cheeses, almond rings and Iraqi sweetmeats.

When the British left India, most of the Baghdadi Jews of India were unsure of their economic futures and chose to emigrate to the United Kingdom, America, Canada, Australia, and - in smaller numbers - to Israel. They always remember India fondly for it was a country where they thrived, were respected and never faced any anti-Semitism. The departure of the British from Iraq led to the terrible persecution of the Jews. In June 1941, the mufti-inspired, pro- Nazi coup of Rashid Ali al-Gaylani sparked rioting; a pogrom against the Jews ensued and 180 Jews were murdered while 1,000 were grievously wounded. The creation of Israel in 1948 led to regular outbreaks of anti-Jewish rioting in Iraq between 1948 and 1949. In 1950, the Iraqi Jews were permitted to leave the country within a year - provided they forfeited their Iraqi citizenship. In 1951, the property of those who left was frozen and economic restrictions were placed on those who chose to remain. From 1949 to 1951, 104,000 Jews were evacuated from Iraq to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Another 20,000 were smuggled out through Iran. In 1963, additional restrictions were placed on the Jews who remained in Iraq. They were forbidden to sell their property and forced to carry yellow identity cards. More repressive measures were imposed on them after the Six-Day War, and this persecution reached its peak in 1968.

An exhibit of suitcases (picture, top) poignantly spoke of how the Iraqi Jews were forced, practically overnight, to leave behind the country where they had lived and thrived for 2,700 years. One half of a suitcase on display was filled with prayer shawls and ritual items, as they were religiously very observant, as were their counterparts in Calcutta. Whereas the majority of the Jews of Iraq moved to Israel, where they have flourished, the Baghdadi Jews of India moved across the world and have also successfully integrated themselves into many host societies. Being at the Heritage Center made me feel one with an ancient past to which I belong.


The above article from The Telegraph is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use