A Childhood Passage to Israel for Baghdadi Jews of India (NY) TIMES) By DEBRA KAMIN 04/04/12)
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Shaul SapirShaul Sapir with his sister Rachel Sapir in Bombay, 1953.
Shaul Sapir, a professor of historical geography at Jerusalem’s
Hebrew University, knows a thing or two about his field.
At age 8, seeking out a Hebrew chewing gum he had seen in an
advertisement, Mr. Sapir went to his father and insisted he be
allowed to move to Israel. Despite the fact that the Sapir family was
living a comfortable life in Mumbai, his parents, Mumbai-born
descendants of Jews who had migrated from Baghdad several generations
India was newly independent, and the Sapirs, like many within the
Jewish community of the city, formerly known as Bombay, were
concerned that a post-British India might become an unwelcome place
for Jews. So Mr. Sapir and his older sister, at the boy’s bidding,
were sent to live with an aunt. “They were used to it,” Mr. Sapir
says of his request to make “aliyah,” the term Jews use for
immigrating to Israel. “They had sent me to a boarding school, so
what was it to send me to Israel?”
Debra KaminShaul Sapir, professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem,
Mr. Sapir’s childhood passage to Israel was part of a flood of
immigration by Baghdadi Jews – Indian Jews who, like his family, had
moved to the subcontinent from Syria, Iraq and other Arab countries,
as well as Iran, in late 1800s – to the newly minted Jewish state in
the 1950s and 1960s. Mr. Sapir and his sister, under the watchful eye
of their aunt, learned Hebrew, enrolled in Israeli schools and grew
up as Israelis. His sister now lives in the southern city of Eilat
while Mr. Sapir, after a stint as a paratrooper in the Israeli Army
and many years of academic work, happily instructs his students on
the movement of peoples across time and space.
The elder Sapirs joined their children seven years later. They, too,
were far from alone. At their height, the Baghdadi Jews of India, who
had flourished dually in Kolkata and Mumbai, numbered close to 7,000.
Three large synagogues still stand in Kolkata, previously referred to
as Calcutta. Yet there are hardly enough Jews to form a 10-
person “minyan,” the minimum number of worshippers Jewish law
requires for certain ceremonies.
“Once upon a time there used to be a rich community in Calcutta,”
says Isaac Ashkenazy, the director of public relations for the Indian
Jewish Heritage Center in Israel and himself a Kolkata-born Baghdadi
Jew. Mr. Ashkenazy came to Israel considerably late – in the 1970s,
at age 22 – and believes his community’s migration was based more on
fear than fact. “I think it was more paranoia than anything else.
Because the Indian community in general is a very tolerant
civilization,” he says.
Economic factors also played a role. Many Baghdadi Jews had
flourishing businesses in colonial India, and with the departure of
the British came the rise of communism. The Baghdadi Jews of India,
whose grandparents and great-grandparents came to the country as
traders and passed significant empires of wealth and enterprise onto
their grandchildren, were now looking for new opportunities.
To Mr. Ashkenazy, the trajectory of India’s Baghdadi Jews is a story
as old as Judaism itself. “Jewish people, all our culture, our
religion is very tribal. It’s very hierarchical. It comes from father
to son, and that’s why my fatherhood is India, and my motherhood is
Israel,” he says.
Debra Kamin is a journalist living in Tel Aviv. She is the Tel Aviv
stringer for Variety and a freelancer for The New York Times and a
few other publications. You can read more of her work at
www.debrakamin.com , or follow her on Twitter @debra_kamin.
(Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 04/04/12)
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