Conference on Iraqi Jews in the Far East

Rebecca Toueg:

I consider myself a by-product of Babylonian Jewry living in Shanghai
which had come under the influence of British culture and which had
gradually assimilated itself with the language,literature and social
traditions of the English people. Yet most of those who came to
Shanghai from Baghdad kept guard over their own
communal way of life within the family circle.
They lived, one might say, a double life - inside the home there was
the warmth of oriental customs and loyal family ties. My grandmother
never spoke English, and knew only Iraqi Arabic, so that I was forced to
speak it in spite of my terrible anglicised accent.

I should like to divide my talk into three parts - to tell a bit about
the period before 1920 when the Baghdadian Jews were few in number and
began slowly to organise themselves into a community. Then comes the
period of its greatest flowering, followed by the period of war, and
the many hardships undergone during the Japanese occupation and later
during the Communist takeover of Shanghai. Our community then dispersed
with most of its former members going to English-speaking countries
abroad and some of them opting to make Israel their home.

I have been trying recently to locate our former community members in
order to hold a reunion - we managed to find about 50-60 in Israel and
about 300 abroad, mostly in the USA, and some in England, Australia and
Canada. This was a community which originally comprised no more than
1000 people, but which maintained its coherence through synagogue
attendance and social activities.
We were raised in the Baghdadian version of prayer taught at home. My
brother here is proof of this as he continues to follow the same
liturgical tradition in the Shamash Synagogue in Tel Aviv where he often
conducts the services and trains some of the younger generation in the
Baghdadian style of prayers and hymns.

Our community began to get organised at the end of the last century, as
you have already heard earlier, through the efforts of the Sassoon
family which began trading with the Far East and which trained young men
of their community in Bombay to be sent as clerks to work for the
Sassoon firm in Shanghai. My father was one of the young men who, at
the age of eighteen, was sent from Bombay to Shanghai. Those who were
sent soon brought over their families, and later many of them left their
job with the Sassoons to establish their own business enterprises.

Shanghai was a city of tremendous opportunities, an international city
open and free to all who wished to come there and make a quick fortune.
The Babylonian Jews took full advantage of this and were extremely
successful. But they were also very community conscious, and in 1909
the Shanghai Jewish Communal Association was established. Already in
1904 one of the community leaders, N.E.B. Ezra, had founded an English
newspaper - Israel's Messenger - in which he published many articles on
maintained among the Babylonian communities in the Far East. Learned
and pious men were often brought over from Baghdad to serve these
communities as spiritual leaders or to fulfill the function of hazan,
shochet, or melamed. They spoke Iraqi Arabic among themselves, but educated
their children in British schools, and many of the wealthier families
used to send them on to complete their studies at universities in England.

It was the British who set the tone in Shanghai and the Babylonian Jews
quickly adapted themselves to their style of living: their dress, their
homes which were often built like estates, with high buildings and wide
stretches garden areas surrounding them. The servants had their own
quarters within the compound and the family life style was that of a
well-to-do English family. They also set up clubs and social centres as
well as various public institutions such as schools, hospitals, old age
homes or shelter houses for the less wealthy members of the community.
It is interesting to note that although a Jewish school was founded by
the community, most of the wealthier families sent their children to
British schools. I realise now that the community had gradually
patterned itself on the English model of social snobbery and the class
of living, owning horses and enjoying all the pleasures of high society.

Shanghai has been called a city of sin and corruption, and although this
may be true, our families had little contact with this world. In
Shanghai, each community could choose to live within the framework it
had constructed for itself and completely ignore the existence of other
community groups. The Babylonian Jews created their own style of
traditional, orthodox life within the family circle and of their social
and community life in the outside world, and were able to enjoy both
styles of life at the same time - on Saturdays they went to the
synagogue and studied Torah and on Sundays they went riding or sailing,
and in the evenings they went out dancing. They gave their children
piano and ballet classes etc. There were no barriers between the
different worlds of experience.

Today, when I look back, it seems as though there should have been
conflict between all these things, but at that time it was the most
natural thing for our families to live in this way. The only comparison
I can think of might be the life that was led in Spain during the Golden
Age when the Jews lived their life as Jews in the fullest sense of the
world and yet were fully integrated within the highest circles of
social and and cultural life of that period.

We were an Iraqian community with a very strong sense of
identification. The familiar hymns that you know from Baghdad, we also
sang. The ceremonies, the briths, the weddings - all the songs and
melodies chanted on Shabbat are the same as those I can now hear at the
Iraqi synagogue which my brother attends and they take me back in time
to that world we once knew. Our home in Shanghai was on the same street
as that of the Ohel Rachel Synagogue built by the same Sir Jacob Sassoon
who built the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong. I brought with me today
the booklet which was published in 1920 for the inauguration ceremony of
the synagogue and am donating it to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center
as one of the items for their planned exhibition. You can see inside
how the prayers in Hebrew have the English translation on the opposite
page. My mother always prayed from a prayer book which had Hebrew and
English on opposite pages.

Until 1920 the community was still quite small and became conscious of
itself as an organised community only after schools and social centres
were founded and social activities were held. A drama circle
attend a variety of social functions. A number of wealthy families held
open house during the festive holidays, for example - on Tu Bishvat we
used to go the Abrahams' home where there was a large orchard of fruit
trees to pronounce the blessing on trees, or on Hannukah we used to hold
a large party at our house because the eve of Hannuka was my Aunt
Katie's birthday and nearly everyone we knew in the community was
invited. Purim was also a time to hold house parties at the homes of
those who had a large garden for entertainment.

Those were the grand old days of the community, and this period ended
with the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. The community was split into
two - those holding British passports because they were born in India
and were considered British nationals, such as the Hillaly family, were
sent to various internment camps with other British and American people
in Shanghai. Those, like ourselves, who kept up their Iraqi
citizenship, were considered neutrals, but were forbidden to leave the
house except for essential purposes, and not allowed to remove anything
from it. We were more or less confined to our homes and daily life
became a difficult matter, although many did their best to maintain

community ties. I recall that our home became a community meeting place after the
Japanese took over the Ohel Rachel Synagogue and turned it into a
weapons storehouse. They left it in a very dirty condition and I
remember that when the war ended my brother helped to clean up the mess.
During the war our home substituted for the synagogue
and services were held during the festival
periods for those who could attend. On Rosh Hashana people used to come
over the traditional psalm recitations - the "Hathima" - and also for
the all night readings on Shavuot and Hoshana Rabba, when food and drink
was served out to all. My aunt here could tell you what was being done
for those in the internment camps, the food parcels and the kosher
cooked meat for my uncle and aunt who were sent to the camps.

But I also must admit that as a child of nine or ten, the war period
was a most interesting and enjoyable one - there was no school, we could
stay at home all day and play endless games, and I read a lot of books.
The synagogue library was stored in our house and also many of the
valuable articles belonging to wealthy families sent to camp. It was
the adults who suffered very much. Some of our Chinese servants
remained with use during the war and most families were able to subsist
on income from property they still owned.

When the war ended, some thought they could return to the normal pre-war
style of life, but many of the community began to disperse. My father was by then strongly influenced by the rabbis of the German Jewish
community which had come to Shanghai - you probably know about the
refugees who were confined to the ghetto in Shanghai and who could get
out only if they had employment. A few of these rabbis were employed
by members of the community as religious teachers and under their
influence some of the younger members of our community went with them
were also taken in 1947 for a year's study at a yeshiva in Brooklyn but
found it was not suited to us and we returned to Shanghai. By that time
there was a political upheaval by Chinese communists and in 1949 they
entered Shanghai and took over all the business firms and property that
remained in foreign hands. Whoever could, left for the United States or
elsewhere - we came to Israel because of our Zionist ideals. Our
Zionism was of the religious kind from the very start.

Our community which had grown over a period of fifty years was now on
its way out of Shanghai, leaving behind only memories of what it once
had been. I would like to return there once more if only to
reconstruct for myself the picture of our former life there. Perhaps,
with the assistance of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, I shall get
the much needed support for my research into this community which had
risen to such heights and then descended into oblivion. Their life is
now just one of those stories - a golden page in the history of
Babylonian Jewry in the Diaspora - which I would very much like to see
recorded for posterity.