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Baghdadi Jews, also known as Indo-Iraqi Jews, is the traditional name given to the communities of Jewish migrants and their descendants from Baghdad and elsewhere in the Middle East, who settled primarily along the trade routes of ports around the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Baghdadi Jews
David Sassoon and sons.jpg
Prominent Bagdadi Jewish patriarch David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah), and Sassoon David Sassoon
Total population
5,000 Historical peak in 1930s [1]
Regions with significant populations

India 250 (chiefly Mumbai, Madras, Gujarat and Calcutta)

Israel, Europe, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Traditionally, Arabic and Persian, now mostly English, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and Hebrew
Related ethnic groups
Iraqi Jews, Arab Jews, Persian Jews, Syrian Jews

Beginning under the Mughal Empire in the 18th century, merchant traders from Baghdad and Aleppo established originally Judeo-Arabic speaking Jewish communities in India, which followed Mizrahi Jewish customs. Expanding in the 19th century under the British Empire, these grew to be English-speaking and British-oriented. Smaller Baghdadi communities were established by migrants from Iraq in the mid-nineteenth century in Burma, Singapore, and China.[2][3]

Until the mid-20th century, these communities attracted a modest number of Jewish emigrants from Iraq, with smaller numbers hailing from Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Iran, and Turkey.[4] Before and during the Japanese occupation of Burma, many from the Jewish community emigrated to India. In the decades following the rise of nationalism due to Indian Independence and the end of the British Empire in Asia, the Baghdadi Jewish communities emigrated almost in their entirety to Britain, Israel, Australia, and the United States.[5]

Today synagogues and associations upholding Baghdadi Jewish traditions exist in Britain, Israel, Australia and the United States. But the historic Baghdadi communities in India and Myanmar (formerly Burma) have all but disappeared.[6][7] Only the synagogues originally founded by Baghdadi Jews in both Hong Kong and Singapore continue to operate regular services.[8][9]



The earliest Baghdadi Jews were merchant traders who settled in communities along trade routes and formed new immigrant Jewish communities in their new homelands. Baghdad and Iraq in general used to have one of the largest, if not the largest Jewish community in the Middle East and Central Asia. These new immigrant communities also included Jews as part of the Mughal courtiers.[10] Records of Jewish tradesmen traveling from Baghdad can be found from the early 17th century. But it was around the mid-19th century, in response to pogroms, that a large portion of the community started emigrating to South and Southeast Asia, as well as to the West, creating new communities while preserving their unique traditions.

Though Jewish traders from the Middle East had crossed the Indian Ocean since antiquity, sources from the Mughal Empire first mention Baghdadi Jewish merchants trading with India in the 17th century. The first permanent Baghdadi merchant colony in India was established in 1730 in Surat, after the British East India Company had begun trading with Basra in 1723.[11] In the early 18th century, trade between Basra and Surat grew whilst it was the main base of the British East India Company until it decamped to Bombay. Joseph Seemah from Baghdad opened the Surat synagogue and cemetery in 1730.[12] The Baghdadi community in Surat grew and by the end of the 18th century, as many as 100 Jews from Baghdad, Aleppo and Basra made up the Judeo-Arabic speaking merchant colony of Surat.[13]

With the rise of British power in India, Surat declined in importance as British-controlled Calcutta and Bombay became more important in trade.[13] Baghdadi settlement shifted first to Bombay and then principally to Calcutta, then the capital of British India and the centre of the jute, musil, and opium trades.[13] Jewish merchants from Aleppo, traditionally the end of the historic caravan route from India, played an important role in founding the Calcutta Jewish cemetery, which was opened in 1812.[14] By the end of the 19th century, more than 1,800 Baghdadi Jews were living in Calcutta.[13]

Baghdadi Jews' presence in AsiaEdit

The main Baghdadi Jewish communities in Asia were historically found in India,[15] Yangon (Rangoon), Burma, Singapore, Malaysia, and Shanghai, China. The majority of Baghdadi Jews lived in the Indian cities of Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta), with the community peaking shortly before the Second World War. They declined after nationalist movements and independence. In the early twenty-first century, many of these historical Baghdadi communities are at the point of disappearing completely. As of 2017, fewer than thirty Baghdadi Jews still live in Kolkata.[16] The ethnic Jewish community in Penang is now extinct following the death of its last member in 2011. Some smaller Jewish communities, such as the one in Bangkok, trace their first founders to Baghdadi Jewish traders who worked and settled in the region. Only one or two Baghdadi Jews remain in Bangladesh.[17]


Though there had been significant Persian Jewish communities in India since early Mughal times, the first Arab Jews arrived in India in the 18th century. In 1730, Joseph Semah arrived in Surat from Baghdad and established the Surat Synagogue and Cemetery. There was already an established Baghdadi Jew community by then with its center in Surat. Surat was a main trading port in the 16th and 17th centuries; the East India Company used the city as a trade transit point, beginning in 1608. Surat is located in Western India, in Gujarat State, and is the modern commercial capital of Gujarat. Arab Jews came to India as traders in the wake of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. These "Baghdadis," as they came to be known, especially the Sassoons of Bombay and the Ezras of Calcutta, eventually established manufacturing and commercial houses of fabulous wealth.[18] The majority came from Iraq, thus giving the community its name, though smaller groups came from other countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, and assimilated into the Baghdadi group. Unlike other Indian Jewish communities, whose oral traditions attest to their presence in India as long as 2000 years ago, the Baghdadi communities were established comparatively recently (in the past few centuries), with most of the people arriving in the nineteenth century.[19]

Sir David Sassoon is the most illustrious name of this community of Jews.[20] In Mumbai, the Jewish community was concentrated in the Jacob Circle (now renamed Gadge Maharaj Chowk) area in Central Bombay. They had totally integrated themselves with the society around them. Their dress used to be traditionally Indian. Their womenfolk wear saree and bangles. Their surnames and family names were like those of other Indians. Their culinary habits are also influenced by Indian.[15]

Persian-speaking Jews, closely related to Baghdadi Jews from Afghanistan and Iran, came with the Ghaznavad, Ghori and Mughal invasions of Mahmud (11th century), Muhammad (12th century), and Babur (16th century). The most obscure of Indian Jews, they were traders and courtiers of the Mughals. Jewish advisors at the Court of Akbar the Great in Agra played a significant role in Akbar's liberal religious policies and built a synagogue there. In Delhi, one Jew was tutor to the Crown Prince, Dara Shikoh; the teacher and student were later assassinated by Aurangzeb. These Jews were assimilated into the local population as no trace or community remains.[10]

The community largely emigrated abroad following Indian independence, the rise of religious tensions during Partition, and the pull of Zionism.[21] They primarily feared that an independent India, like Pakistan, would become hostile to Jews after Partition and with the rise of nationalism.[citation needed], and also emigrated out of economic concerns, fearing that India would become communist once the British left.[22] After Indian independence, there was a continuous migration of Baghdadi Jews to Israel. Many others went to the United States and United Kingdom.[23]

Cultural evolutionEdit

Initially the Baghdadi Jewish communities that developed in India retained close cultural and religious links to Baghdad. Intellectual life was strong enough in the mid to late-19th century to sustain a printed press in India of the Baghdad Jewish dialect of Judeo-Arabic.[24] Centered on Calcutta small Baghdadi Jewish publishing houses translated literary, historical, religious and anti-missionary tracts into Judeo-Arabic whilst religious texts were also printed in Hebrew.[25] Baghdadi newspapers and periodicals in Judeo-Arabic, with some Hebrew portions, were also published in India.[26] This Baghdadi printed press began in 1855: with the support of David Sassoon a periodical started in Bombay catering to the merchant elite of the community.[24] This was joined by four other Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic newspapers and periodicals in Calcutta.[24] Novels and literature from the European Zionist and Haskala movements were translated into Judeo-Arabic in Calcutta. At the turn of the 20th century, Jewish intellectual life in Calcutta appears to have waned.[25]

In the 20th century Baghdad declined, and the British Empire became more important to the Baghdadi Jews. The wealthier Baghdadis adopted European clothes and sought British education for their children whilst the poorer Baghdadis, especially women, continued to wear Arabic dress.[25] The rise in British education and working in the British Empire resulted in Baghdadi Jews turning to English as their first language, both for international trade and cultural prestige in India.[27] In the 20th century the Baghdadi Jews wanted to assimilate into colonial European society and be considered culturally and ethnically European. Aside for religious observances, the Baghdadi Jews began to adopt elements of Western European lifestyles.[25] But the Baghdadis remained marginal to colonial European society and were excluded for the duration of the Raj from many social clubs that limited admission to Europeans.[25]

Such Westernization resulted in the closing of all Judeo-Arabic publications in India by the start of the 20th century.[27] These were succeeded in Calcutta in the 1920s and 1940s by three English-language communal newspapers sympathetic to Zionism.[25] Whilst many of the wealthiest Baghdadi families remained aloof from Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th century, the community's middle class established Zionist associations in Bombay and Calcutta.[25]

Religiously the Baghdadi Jews did not train their own rabbis but sought guidance and resolutions on matters of Jewish law from the rabbis of Baghdad, preserving the traditions and rituals of Iraqi Jews.[28] Sermons up until the First World War were given in Judeo-Arabic, after which the use of English became predominant.[28] After the First World War, the Baghdadi Jews began to refer their religious questions to the Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Britain.[13] Rites concerning circumcision, betrothal, and protections of the newborn preserved Iraqi Jewish customs.[13] Baghdadi Jewish wedding celebrations gradually grew less Middle Eastern and more European in style in the 20th century.[29]


Indian Baghdadi cuisine is a hybrid cuisine, with many Arab, Turkish, Persian and Indian influences.[30] Famous Baghdadi dishes include beef curry, Baghdadi biryani and Baghdadi Jewish parathas. A Baghdadi version of tandoori chicken is also popular (using lemon juice to cook the chicken instead of the cream used in the usual Indian recipe). Other Jewish Baghdadi communities in Southeast Asia have mixed their original Iraqi Jewish dishes with influences from the local cuisine where they settled.


Notable Baghdadi JewsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Calcutta", Jewish Virtual Library
  3. ^ [1], Google
  4. ^ "The virtual Jewish world". Retrieved 22 February 2015. 
  5. ^ "The Rise and Fall of Calcutta Jews", The Forward
  6. ^ "The Last Jews of Kolkata", New York Times - India blog, 24 October 2013
  7. ^ 2015 "Exploring the Jewish community of India", Jewish Ledger, May
  8. ^ "About Our History", Ohealleah
  9. ^ [2]
  10. ^ a b ""The Last Jews in India and Burma" by Nathan Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg". Retrieved 23 March 2016. 
  11. ^ [3]
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b c d e f "The Jews of India"
  14. ^ "Jewish Cemetery in Kolkata/Calcutta", Rangandatta blog
  15. ^ a b Weil, Shalva. 2009 India's Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle, Mumbai: Marg Publications [first published in 2002; 3rd edn.].
  16. ^ [4], CNN, 15 June 2017
  17. ^ Weil, Shalva. 2012 “The Unknown Jews of Bangladesh: Fragments of an Elusive Community”, Asian Jewish Life, 8:16-18.
  18. ^ Lentin, Samuel Sifra (ed) Shalva Weil. " The Jewish Presence in Bombay." India's Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Style. Marg Publications: Mumbai. 2009.
  19. ^ Weil, Shalva. 2009 'The Heritage and Legacy of Indian Jews' in Shalva Weil (ed.) India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle, Mumbai: Marg Publications [first published in 2002; 3rd edn.], pp. 8-21.; Weil, Shalva. (2008) 'Jews in India', in M. Avrum Erlich (ed.) Encyclopaedia of the Jewish Diaspora, Santa Barbara, USA: ABC CLIO.(3: 1204-1212)
  20. ^ 2014 “The Legacy of David Sassoon: Building a Community Bridge”, Asian Jewish Life, 14:4-6.
  21. ^ Weil, Shalva. 1994 'India, Zionism In'; 'Indian Jews in Israel', in Geoffrey Wigoder (ed.) The New Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, Associated University Presses, pp. 651-653.
  22. ^ Kamin, Debra. "A Childhood Passage to Israel for Baghdadi Jews of India". 
  23. ^ Weil, Shalva. 2013 "Jews of India" (1: 255-258); "Ten Lost Tribes" (2: 542-543), in Raphael Patai and Haya Bar Itzhak (eds.) Jewish Folklore and Traditions: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, Inc.
  24. ^ a b c
  25. ^ a b c d e f g [5]
  26. ^ [6]
  27. ^ a b
  28. ^ a b
  29. ^ "A Note on Jewish Weddings", Jewish Calcutta
  30. ^ Cooper, Judy and John Cooper. "The Life-Cycle of Baghdadi Jews of India", in India's Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle, (ed) Shalva Weil, Mumbai: Marg Publications [first published in 2002; 3rd edn.], 2009. pp. 100-109.

31. ^Rabbi Ezekiel Nissim Musleah author of "On the Banks of the Ganga"

External linksEdit