Indian Jewry is comprised of three distinct groups. The Bene Israel Jews, primarily centred in and around Mumbai, trace their Jewish ancestry back to the 1st century BCE. The Cochin Jews, primarily centred in and around Kerala, can trace their roots in India back to at least the 1stcentury CE. Both groups have distinct cultures and traditions.
The third group of Indian Jews, the so-called Baghdadi Jews, are the group that Sephardi Voices UK has carried out interviews with, due to their roots and connections to the Jewish communities of the Middle East.
Despite the name, the Baghdadi Jews arrived in India from all over Iraq, as well as from Syria, Yemen, and even Afghanistan. Fleeing persecution and seeking economic opportunities, the first arrivals to India came from the 1730s onwards and settled in Surat. However, as Calcutta and Bombay grew as commercial centres, Jewish merchants and their families moved to these fast-growing towns. Throughout the 19th century the Baghdadi Jewish community flourished, benefiting from their position as middlemen and merchants under the British Empire in India. A small number of Baghdadi families amassed vast fortunes as traders of jute, tobacco, cotton, and opium. However, the vast majority of the Baghdadi Jewish community remained small time shopkeepers, traders or factory workers. Very few members of this community chose to enter professions over trade.
Wealthier members of the Baghdadi Jewish community quickly adopted British dress and culture, whilst holding on to their Jewish faith. They dropped Arabic in favour of English, joined British-style clubs, and held positions on municipal councils. Despite these efforts, they were never fully accepted as European by the British community in India. Poorer members of the community held onto their Middle Eastern culture and dress more readily.
Throughout its history the community held onto its Iraqi Jewish customs and traditions, with prayers being said in Iraqi style and traditional Iraqi foods blending with local cuisine. The community experienced little to no antisemitism, and synagogues, Jewish schools and newspapers were established. The community opted to remain under the auspices of the Baghdadi Beth-Din (Jewish law court), in Iraq until the end of WWI, when they began to defer to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in England.
India gained independence in 1947 and the new government quickly changed laws relating to imports and foreign exchange. This meant the businesses belonging to the wealthiest Baghdadi families were no longer as commercially viable or profitable. Throughout the 1950s the changing politics of the Middle East meant that previous markets of Iraq and Egypt closed to Jewish trade. As leading families began to leave India, many of their Jewish employees were left without work and followed. As the community dwindled, marriage prospects lessened, and thus more and more Baghdadi Jews chose to leave the country.
It is estimated that less than one hundred Baghdadi Jews remain in India, out of a total Jewish population that numbers just under 5,000.