Interviewed by Eli Keren
27 November 2019
I am a Baghdadi Jew. My forebears came from Baghdad (in Iraq) and, on my grandmother’s side, from Aleppo (Syria). They were Arabic-speaking Jews. And then they came to India. My grandfather set up business and trade in Calcutta, export and import stuff. I think he also bought properties. My dad was born in Calcutta and later he took over the business. I was born in Calcutta, in 1940.
The Baghdadi Jews in India
Why did the Baghdadi go to India? They had been doing very well in Baghdad right up to 1822, but then Dawud Pasha, the ruler of Iraq, began to persecute the Jews. Before that, the Sassoons were the Treasurers and had tremendous standing – not only in their own community, but with everybody. When they decided to leave Baghdad, they went first to Pusha (a trading port of the East India Company on the Persian Gulf) and when that company gave up its monopoly on trade in India, my family moved to India. It was a British possession: they knew they wouldn’t be persecuted for their religion and there were tremendous trading opportunities, so that was the attraction.
David Sassoon was the pioneer of the settlement of Baghdadi Jews in India – and then in China. He had a commercial empire and set up a school and synagogues. His greatest asset was his family of 14 children, which included eight sons from two marriages (his first wife died and his second wife was only 12 years old when they married). So, he used his sons as agents – very much like the Rothschilds did – and sent them all over to oversee branches of his business.
His firm attracted Jews from Baghdad because they used Judo-Arabic (Arabic language written in Hebrew script) for business. Sassoon did everything to make sure they could maintain their Baghdadi identity in their alien surroundings. The Calcutta community wasn’t built up like that –another person built it up – and the community grew over there as well. My mother’s parents were in Rangoon in Burma –another trading post in the East where Baghdadi Jews settled – but later they came and lived in Calcutta. My grandfather in Rangoon was a very educated man and so were his children – even his daughters had BA degrees.
The Baghdadis and the Bene Israel
When the Baghdadis got to India, they had a choice. They could be like the Bene Israel, who had come to India a long time before [after being shipwrecked off the coast near Mumbai in the First or Second Century] and had maintained their religion but identified strongly with the Indians. The women wore saris, and you couldn’t tell them apart from Indians. But the British owned the world when the Baghdadis arrived, so they decided to be pragmatic – they dressed like the British, followed the British school curriculum and distanced themselves from the Bene Israel. There was very little intermarriage with the Bene Israel – I only knew of one couple. The Baghdadis doubted some of the Bene Israel religious practices, but they did try to help them. They still wouldn’t let them use their synagogues though.
This identification with the British gave the Baghdadis lots of advantages, but it meant that in 1947, when India got its independence, many, many, Baghdadi Jews left. They were working in British firms, and they didn’t know how they would get on in an independent India. There was no antisemitism or anything, but nationalism became very rife. So, the prospects in England seemed better.
Our family spoke English at home in Calcutta – my grandmother spoke Arabic and my mum knew a few words, but gradually the culture got Anglicised. I knew some words in Arabic, but we never made it a point to learn Arabic. Anyway, I was too busy learning Hindi and Bengali, which is how we spoke to the servants. We had a whole load of servants over there. Learning Hindi and Bengali meant learning two different scripts. I used to be first in class because I learnt it off by heart – even the Indian kids didn’t do that!
We loved my grandfather a lot and he used to spoil us rotten – my grandmother spoilt us as well, but she was more sedate. She’d sit down and pray after reading all day. She’d take us to the sweet man in the car; she’d take us to buy dress materials and stuff.
My parents were both very young when they got married. My father was an only child. My mother had about eight siblings. The story goes that my mother just heard my father’s voice and she said then, ‘That’s the man I’m going to marry!’ It sounds like it’s from Alice in Wonderland, but it’s too strange not to have been true. I mean, you don’t make that sort of thing up.
My father was a trader. He used to import and export things – Moorish perfume, olive oil. And then in England he bought property – which was very clever, for rent, you know. He bought some good property.
My mother was very strong. She was very spiritual, always with a prayer book. My dad was more playful – he’d take us to the movies. He was a fun person. I loved him very much. But she was the one who made the family decisions. She made up her mind to do something and she did it – that dogged perseverance is a trait of hers that I try to emulate. I don’t give up easy and that’s because of my mum. For sure.
She didn’t have such a high formal education, but my goodness she was clever. She used to do the crosswords in the Daily Telegraph like a piece of cake in the morning. She was on the Board of Deputies when she came to England, and she was made the Chairman of our community. She was also on the Ladies’ Guild, and she did a lot of charitable work. She spoke beautifully and she wrote beautifully. She was a lovely person – I think she managed to influence my father more.
In the last five years of her life, she’d had a stroke so she couldn’t do very much, but she could still use her right hand and I encouraged her to write her autobiography. She’s written thick exercise books of it that I am just now going through.
Moving to England
My parents didn’t want the Indian culture for us. And, as we were brought up with a very British education, it was seamless coming to Britain. I moved here in about 1960. I was 20 and I had almost completed my English degree in Calcutta anyway, and we had a ready-made community to join by that time, in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
My older sister came first and she got an apartment on Temple Fortune Hill.My other sister also bought a house. And my husband, who I had met in India – we lived on the same street, but he was studying engineering and was working as an engineer in England – he was already here. We got married within a year of me coming. My family came over from India for the wedding.
I didn’t get a culture shock at all: I spoke English better than most people. The freedom of going on London transport was just wonderful. It was the best thing that had ever happened to me. On the tube I’d see people reading the Jewish Chronicle. I identified with them so much. I had loads of Ashkenazi friends – I didn’t really like their gefilte fish,but I was eating their food! I was on a committee with them. It wasn’t a problem.
I didn’t miss the very Indian weather, not at all. I love the cold. I was certainly not as thrown as some of the people I was mixing with. But I missed the luxury of my life in India.
Family religion and identity
We were very traditional Jews. My family was religious, but in our way – we kept the festivals, but in India on the Sabbath, we would go by car to the synagogue. Baghdadi Judaism was more relaxed like that: we were very tolerant – you did what you did. If you wanted to come to Yom Kippur once a year, no one was going to tell you that you couldn’t come. So, there was no need for a reform movement in India. But we knew where we came from. I went to a boarding school in Kurseong, in the foothills of the Himalayas, but I still felt very, very Jewish.
It totally changed when we came to London. We walked to synagogue and became, in that respect, more Orthodox. When I got married to my husband Bennie, we made the conscious decision to bring up our kids with a stricter Orthodox life. There was a family from Letchworth who helped us to do that. It annoyed some of our friends that we were going on this stricter path – they didn’t particularly like it.
We have completely Baghdadi services for the festivals. Our prayers are different; the pronunciation is totally different – it’s Hebrew but spoken in the correct accent, not the Ashkenazi accent. There are different Baruch ah tah[i] forRosh Hashanah, for example, and, instead of having charoset for Pesach, we have the most wonderful thing called halaec[ii], which is made from the extracts of dates. It’s delicious.
I don’t see myself as an immigrant anymore, but I still identify as a Baghdadi Jew, though I don’t go to the Baghdadi synagogue. I’ve been going to the Ashkenazi service for a long time now. My children have married non-Baghdadi Jews, but I’d definitely like them to feel part of the Baghdadi community – that’s their roots. You give up your roots, you give up your identity. Both my sons trained to be rabbis – but they don’t practice as rabbis. at one stage My son David, he became the head of the Hasmonean school[iii], which is Ashkenazi. That tells you something about my family. My grandchildren do what they like, but for Pesach we all go away and have a very Baghdadi celebration. But they’re free to marry who they want.
When we first arrived in London, my mother had never cooked for her family. In India we didn’t go in the kitchen: my mother just gave the order in the morning and the cook would go to bazaar to buy whatever we needed… We had two bearers and they would serve the food at the table. We didn’t pass dishes. My grandmother lived with us, and she used to supervise and see that we were doing things according to the religion.
In India, the hospitality is unbelievable. We didn’t lock our doors, people popped in any time of day… Anybody used to come and it was no problem: 30 people for dinner – you just tell the cook and they do it. So, my parents landed up in London and they thought that was the same stuff they were going to do here. My mum went from being in charge to being in the kitchen, very hands-on, cooking the most lovely banquets. She didn’t know that she didn’t need to cook so many dishes, so on Friday nights she just prepared everything for us.
She brought an ayah[iv] along with her to England, and my husband had a bearer who came and stayed for a while, until the cold winters got too much for him. They taught us how to cook the traditional Baghdadi foods. But then we gradually started to roast chicken – more Ashkenazi stuff that was easier to cook. But still we’d have curries and that sort of thing.
The Baghdadi cuisine is just unbelievably delicious. It’s not spicy – it’s normally a sour-sweet taste and mostly with onions and ginger, garlic, turmeric. You do all sorts of things with okra and beetroot and chicken.
Learning about the Holocaust
I was 16 years old when I read Exodus by Leon Uris and that’s when I realised there had been a Holocaust – I only learnt about it then and it was such a shock. Here, they are taught about the Holocaust when they are only four years old at school. That I didn’t get – and I’m happy I didn’t get that education. My parents knew about it, of course, but they didn’t tell us, and I wouldn’t have told my kids.
[i] Baruch ah tah translates to ‘Blessed art thou’ and is the beginning of any blessing. The tunes for prayer are different during the high holy days.
[ii] Halaec – halek Iraqi communities, including India’s Calcutta community made up of Middle Eastern immigrants, cook dates down into a syrup and sprinkle this with chopped walnuts or almonds
[iii] Hasmonean High School (2 schools in London – one for boys and one for girls)
[iv] Indian maidservant