The Jewish Community in Shanghai

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.

Our community began to get organised at the end of the last century through the efforts of the Sassoon family wihch 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 esablished. 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 Jewish life in Baghdad and Bombay. One could see there the close ties 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, shohet, or melamed. They spoke Iraqi Arabic among themselves, but educated their children in Biritish 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 system, and that whoever could afford it began adopting a grander style of living owning horses and enjoying all the pleasures of high society.

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. 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.

We were an Iraqi 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. Our home in Shanghai was on the same street as that of the Ohel Rahel Synagogue built by the same Sir Jacob Sassoon who built the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong. I brought with me the booklet which was published in 1920 for the inauguration ceremony of the synagogue and I 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. We used to 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 diffictult 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 Rahel Synagogue and turned it into a weapons storehouse. 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. The synagogue library was stored in our house. Some of our Chinese servants remained with us 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. 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 after the war was over to study at yeshivot in America. We, the children, 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 Shanghi. By that time there was a political upheaval by Chinese communitsts 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.

I have been trying recently to locate our former community members in order to hold 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.