The Baghdadi Synagogues in Bombay and Poona

Rachel Manasseh, London




Baghdadi Jews had sailed down the Persian Gulf to Surat, the trading center on the west coast of India, since the mid-18th century for the purpose of trade, often returning home after a few years. It was not till the next century that Baghdadis gradually settled in Bombay and Poona. These communities were then set on a firm foundation by the house of David Sassoon in the second half of the nineteenth century, and by his grandson Jacob Eliyahu Sassoon in the early twentieth century.

David Sassoon himself had to flee Baghdad in 1826 from the oppression of the governor and Wali of Baghdad, the extortioner Daud Pasha, first to Bushire in Persia, then with his family to Bombay in India, where under British rule there was freedom of worship, expanding opportunities for trade, and a good education for the childrern. Starting cautiously, in the course of time and extensive family business developed, while the spiritual and religious traditions of Baghdad were always closely maintained. With increasing wealth, the Sassoons gave huge sums to both Jewish and public institutions.

David Sassoon built fine synagogues in extensive grounds, - the Magen David Synagogue in Byculla, Bombay, and the Ohel David Synagogue, a landmark in Poona, a resort town 120 miles from Bombay. Later his grandson, Jacob Eliyahu Sassoon, built the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in the Bombay Fort area, naming it for his father Eliyahu (David Sassoon's second son). In all three synagogues "Nosah Baghdad" (the Baghdadi mode of prayer) was followed. Hakhamim came from Baghdad and contacts were maintained with the Baghdad Beth Din.

The Magen David Synagogue

This synagogue was built by David Sassoon in 1861 in Byculla, where the family first lived. This was then the best location in Bombay before other areas were developed. The large synagogue was set in extensive grounds which were to prove very valuable. Built in the spacious style of Victorian architecture, it was fronted by pillars and a clock tower. The interior was in the style of the Baghdad synagogue, with the " tebah" for the hazan and the "hekhal" for the sifrei torah, and a spacious ladies' gallery. The prayers were conducted in the Baghdad "nosah". David Sassoon also built an elementary school to one side in the same large compund to provide an education for the community's children in Torah and proper behaviour. This was later expanded into a high school by his grandson Jacob Sassoon, and renamed "The Sir Jacob Sassoon Free High School". The synagogue and school grounds became in effect a community center for the Jewish community of Byculla, where young and old would meet together in the evenings.

The Ohel-David Synagogue

The synagogue was built by David Sassoon in 1863 in Poona, where he had his resort home. The synagogue is a well known landmark in Poona, of impressive architecture in spacious grounds in a central location in Poona cantonment. It is popularly known as Lal Dewil (the Red Temple), as it is built of red brick, - a fine, large structure with a clock tower and 90 foot spire, and a bell that chimed the hours. The interior is equally beautiful with stained glass windows and, again in the Baghdad style, with "tebah" and "hekhal", arches and the women's gallery.

David Sassoon's Poona home, where he died in 1864 much mourned by Jews and Indians alike, was across the street from the synagogue. His sons buried him in the synagogue grounds in a fine mausoleum. The synagogue and mausoleum were visited by the President of India, Dr. Zakir Hussein, at a special Memorial Service on 10 December 1968, on the occasion of the Centenary celebration of the Sassoon General Hospitals in Poona established by the Sassoons.

The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue

With the expansion of the city of Bombay, the Jewish business communtiy was established in the Fort area. In answer to the growing need for a synagogue here, David Sassoon's grandson, Jacob Sassoon, built the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in the Fort in 1884, in memory of his father Eliyahoo Sassoon (founder of E. D. Sassoon and Company). Here land was at a high premium and the synagogue is set in a busy built-up area. Again the structure is outstanding, stone below and brick above. The interior is beautiful, with decorated pillars, the "tebah" and a fine "hekhal" flanked by carved marble and surmounted by a magnificent stained glass arch rising to the high ceiling. This is particularly beautiful in the light of the afternoon sun shining through the stained glass, as the "hekhal" faces west, Bombay being east of Jerusalem. The many sifrei torah, as in the other synagogues, made a grand display on Kol Nidre and Simhath Torah, with the Sassoon family sefarim cased in silver. Very few remain, as many were sent to Israel's new settlements with the establishment of the state. As in the other synagogues, Keneseth Eliyahoo has a spacious wonen's gallery. It also has a mikvah and rooms provided on the ground floor for an elementary school and other community activities.

The synagogue was filled to capacity during the High Holidays, particularly with the influx from Bukhara, Persia, and then numbers from Iraq after the Farhud in 1941. Additional services were then held for the Iraqi community in the neighbouring Cawasjee Jehangir Public Hall for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In conclusion, all three synagogues played a central part in the life of their communities, and are very dear to all who worshipped in them. While very few Baghdadis now remain in Bombay and Poona, the synagogue buildings are well maintained and services continue to be held with minyanim composed of Baghdadis and the Bene-Israel community.