Saturday, June 27, 2015

Once upon a time in Bombay-when Baghdadian Jews were a thriving community

Once upon a time in Bombay

Nonagenarian Rachel Manasseh, who grew up in Bombay when Baghdadian Jews were a thriving community in the city, has written a book that captures the history of the people. The project was a labour of love, she tells Shrabani Basu
  • Telling tales: Sara Manasseh with her mother Rachel; Pic: Shrabani Basu
One of the earliest memories of Bombay that Rachel Manasseh has is of her family going for picnics to Juhu beach, covering the 18 miles from Colaba Causeway to the suburbs by train and bus over bumpy dirt roads. The family house was called Rehem Mansions, a building that is still standing, directly opposite Leopold Café. Her mother would supervise the cooks and bake many Baghdadi specialities herself, which would all be packed for the outing to Juhu.
"There, with Parsi friends at the colony, we would enjoy the quiet expanse of the beach, the coconut palms and sea air, while we picnicked on mekhbuz (pastries) and coconuts, sitting on the long stone bench facing the sea, then down to paddle in the water."
This was in the 1920s and Juhu beach was not the same as it is today. In 1987, when Rachel returned to Juhu, her handbag was slit open and purse stolen as she dozed on the train. Times, as she said, had changed.
At the age of 93, Rachel has written Baghdadian Jews of Bombay, Their Life and Achievements, a book that captures the history of the community that made their homes in the city from the early 19th century. The book is also a personal family story. Her late husband Albert Manasseh was the great great grandson of David Sassoon, the founding father of the Baghdadi Jewish community in Bombay. The Sassoon family gifted the city with such landmark sites as the Sassoon Library and Reading Room, Sassoon Docks, the David Magen Synagogue in Byculla and the famous equestrian statue of Edward VII which gave its name to the area as Kala Ghoda.
  • Rachel (right) with sisters Violet (left) and Marcelle in 1941; Courtesy: The Manasseh family collection
"I wish I had started writing the book earlier, when Albert was still alive," she says, her face breaking into a charming smile. "He knew so much more." She still has her lilting Indian accent and, except for the walking stick in her hand, shows no signs of her age.
It was when she was giving a talk in London in the 1990s about the Jewish community in Bombay that she was approached to write a book on the subject. "I was told that no books had been written about the Baghdadian Jews of Bombay and that if someone didn't write it, it would all be forgotten," Rachel says. That was enough to set her off.
In January 1994, armed with a laptop and a recorder, she travelled to Bombay, now Mumbai, recording the stories from the few families still left there and researching in the archives of the Sassoon Library. Trips to Israel to meet other families helped piece together the Jewish tapestry of life in the city. "It was a labour of love," she says. "I used to pray that I live long enough to write this book and see it published."
Manasseh was born in India and grew up in Bombay seeing the city through the war years, followed by the traumatic events of World War II and finally the euphoria of Indian Independence and the creation of Israel. Her parents Reuben and Georgette Ani were active in the Jewish community which in those days would have consisted of 5,000 Baghdadi Jews. During World War II, Georgette worked tirelessly looking after the Jewish refugees who came from Europe, Singapore and West Asia.
"She did everything for them," Rachel recollects. "If the children needed a school, she would arrange it; if someone was ill, she would get them to the hospital."
After the war, the Jews began to emigrate to Israel, Australia, Canada, Britain and the US, leading Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to ask, "Why are all the Jews leaving India?"How did it feel to see everyone go? "It was an inevitable trend," she says. "My sister took the first plane to Israel. We knew in our hearts that they would leave."
  • David Sassoon (seated) with sons in Bombay in 1858; the Magen David Synagogue in Byculla; Courtesy: The Sassoon family, Jerusalem
The Baghdadian Jews had arrived in India around the beginning of the 19th century and established themselves as a community of traders. The man whose efforts made the greatest impact was David Sassoon (1792-1864), who had left his native Baghdad in 1828, fleeing from the oppression of ruler Daoud Pasha. Sassoon arrived in Bombay in 1832 and started a modest office in the Fort area exporting cotton to Persia. A philanthropist, his gifts to the city included Byculla's Magen David Synagogue and the impressive Victoria and Albert Museum, which has now been renamed Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. David's son, Sir Albert Sassoon, helped build the David Sassoon Library and also presented the giant black marble statue of Edward, Prince of Wales, to commemorate the Royal visit to the city in 1876.
The Baghdadian Jews lived mostly in the neighbourhood of Byculla and the Fort area including Colaba with a few families around Malabar Hill and Nepean Sea Road. Some members of the community even joined the cinema industry. Sulochana (Ruby Myers), Nadira and Rose Musleah were well-known actors, and Jewish musicians often provided the soundtracks for Hindi films.
After their marriage Rachel and Albert lived in Colaba and remained active in the community. It was difficult adjusting to London when the family moved there in 1965. "I missed India terribly," Rachel says. "Everyone in London wore dark colours — black and grey. It was so different from the colours of India." Over the years the family settled in, building a community of Baghdadian Jews in North London and those from other Jewish communities from India: the Calcutta Jews, the Bene Israel and the Cochin Jews.
  • The Magen David Synagogue in Byculla
The 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, which included an attack on Nariman Point, the Jewish community centre, had filled the Manasseh family with a feeling of shock and sadness. "It was our city, it was terrible," says Rachel's daughter, Sara, who has helped her with the book. "We heard later that the next on the list would have been the synagogue."
"It was an attack on a part of Bombay that our family was associated with. It was very sad," Rachel adds. For the first time, she looks wistful.
What was her favourite food in India, I ask, moving away from painful topics. Rachel lights up again. "My mother cooked Baghdadi food. She baked specialities such as masafan (almond pastry) and kahi (puff pastry), but we also ate Indian food. It was wonderful, spicy food," she says.
"We had the best of both worlds," she adds.

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