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BENE ISRAEL

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Jews in India

BAGHDADI JEWS

In the late 18th century, Jews from Arab countries and Iran arrived in India. And they are called collectively ‘Baghdadi Jews’. Most of ‘Baghdadi’ Jews did arrive from Baghdad but there were among them Jews who arrived from Syria, Iran, Yemen and other places in Iraq. Sometimes these Jews are collectively called ‘Iraqi Jews’. And as stated earlier the Bene Israel Jews were called ‘Israel’ and the ‘Baghdadi’s as ’Yehudi’.

The ‘Baghdadi’ came to India because of religious persecutions in their countries and also because of commercial reasons. Most of the ‘Baghdadis’ were big merchants and businessmen before they arrived in India. They settled in the main commercial cities of India. First in the city of Surat (in present day Gujarat) and later on as the commercial importance moved to Bombay and Calcutta the ‘Baghdadis’ moved to these two cities and also to Rangoon, now capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma and part of British India). These Jews were successful businessmen and they brought their families and other Arab country Jews to India.

Some of the Baghdadi Jews had small businesses like clothes shop. But there were also Baghdadi businessmen who were the main figures in the Indian economy. Many Baghdadis owned factories all over India mainly in the textile section. One of the famous rich families of the Baghdadis was the Sasson family. Besides their business activities, the Sasson family contributed many things to India. In many cities of India they built hospitals, schools, libraries, monuments and other things.

But alongside with their contribution to India the Baghdadi Jews kept themselves aloof from Indian society including the veteran Indian Jews. The rich Baghdadis built synagogues, schools, cemeteries and departments in hospitals where the rights were reserved for the Baghdadi Jews only. The Baghdadis whose mother tongue was Arabic slowly started adopting English as their first language. They also adopted other English customs like dressing. They even began to identify themselves with the British culture. Sometime in the late19th century, the richer Baghdadis began immigrating to England and were very active in the upper classes of the British society. The Baghdadis who remained in India slowly started approaching the Indian society and culture and also to other Indian Jews. In some sense the Baghdadis who emigrated from India, became more Indianized outside India than they were in India. The Baghdadis at their height numbered about 7000 and that was in the 1940s. Today there are less than 50 Baghdadis in India.


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Aharon Daniel

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