Background: A rich history now stained with blood
David Sassoon, who led Mumbai’s Jewish community during some of the 19th century.
It is a bitter historical irony that while Jews never suffered anti-Semitism throughout a long sojourn in India, the terrorists in their devastating attack in Mumbai targeted and murdered innocent Jews.
The Jews at the Chabad House were not indigenous to Mumbai. Nariman House, the Chabad headquarters in Mumbai, acted as a drop-in center for Israeli tourists, businessmen seeking a hot kosher meal or a minyan, and some down-and-outs.
Chabad in Mumbai is a relatively new phenomenon. Whereas Chabad has attracted thousands of followers in the northern parts of India where Israeli back-packers tend to trek, the center in Mumbai was of an entirely different nature. It was established five years ago and only in recent years was its impact being felt on the local scene.
There are over 4,000 Jews in India today, the vast majority of them living in Mumbai. The Holtzbergs’ Mumbai mission was to engage with overseas visitors but also, emphatically, with those locals.
Perhaps the most famous of India’s Jewish communities is the minuscule community of Cochin Jews. They numbered no more than 2,400 souls in 1947 and less than 30 remain on the Malabar Coast today.
The biggest Indian Jews community is that of the Bene Israel; 60,000 live in Israel. Less than 200 “Baghdadi: Jews remain in India.
Jews first settled in Bombay, as Mumbai was known until recently, in the 18th century. The first “Baghdadi” Jew, Joseph Semah, moved there from Surat in 1730. The first member of the Bene Israel community to move from the Konkan villages south of Bombay to the cosmopolitan city arrived in 1749.
The Bene Israel claim ancient settlement in India. According to their tradition, they arrived in a shipwreck off the Konkan coast from the Kingdom of Israel, probably in the year 175 BCE.
The flourishing city of Bombay offered the Jews new economic and trading opportunities. By 1796, the first Bene Israel synagogue, known as “Shaar Rahamim,” had been established by one Samuel Ezekiel Divekar, testifying to the existence of at least a minyan in the city. Other Bene Israel synagogues and prayer halls quickly sprang up in Bombay and its environs.
In 1832, the Prince of the Exilarch, David Sassoon (1792-1864), fled with a large following from the pogroms of Daud Pasha of Baghdad. Within a few years, the “Baghdadis,” as they came to be known, were called the “Jewish Merchants of Arabia, Inhabitants and Residents in Bombay.”
The Sassoons traded in cotton, yarn, and opium with China, and set up cotton mills and other industries in Bombay. They became the “Rothschilds of the East” and donated huge funds for philanthropic causes.
Many of today’s famous Mumbai landmarks can be attributed to David Sassoon and his descendants. In the mid-nineteenth century, David Sassoon constructed the David Sassoon Mechanics Institute, the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room , the David Sassoon Industrial and Reformatory Institution, the Clock Tower at the Victoria Gardens (now the Veermata Jijimata Udyan), and the Statue of the Prince Consort at the Victoria and Albert Museum (now the Bhau Daji Lad Museum).
In 1875, David’s son, Albert, built Bombay’s first wet dock, Sassoon Docks, at Colaba, near where this week’s terrorists may have arrived in rubber boats. In 1884, Sir Jacob Sassoon built the Knesseth Eliyahu Synagogue at Fort, in close proximity to today’s Oberoi and the Taj Mahal hotels.
Until 2006, when the Lubavitch movement purchased the Nariman House building at 5 Hormusji Street (opposite 4th Pasta Lane) in Colaba, Knesseth Eliyahu was the nearest synagogue, frequented by upscale Jewish and Israeli visitors staying at the prestigious hotels.
Even more significant – and a fact rarely known – is that in 1924 Sir Jacob Sassoon was the largest individual donor to the Gateway Of India, the landmark of India, which is just a few steps away from the Taj Mahal hotel.
The Gateway of India was constructed to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911. According to news reports, the terrorists may have disembarked at this spot and walked across to the hotel.
(Tags: Indian Jews, History, Anti-Semitism)