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Sassoon House

Sassoon House

Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews: A Collection of Biographical Reflections  is a record and interpretation of the lives of individuals and takes a micro-historical approach. The aim is to show that the study of individual lives enriches our understanding of history. Broad in scope, the volume is a personalised social history of a cross-section of the community, presented from varying perspectives and recording aspects and details often disregarded elsewhere. Those discussed lived during a crucial period within Chinese history and the men and women in the pages of these biographical accounts were significant participants in significant events. Some accounts were penned later, but they are voices of the descendants of families who came to Shanghai several generations ago and they tell of lives remembered from long ago. They are authentic voices, allowing us a glimpse of bygone days of privilege that are no more.

Below are three extracts taken from a small section of the book’s 26 chapters:

David Ezekiel Abraham (1863-1945) and Family by Maisie J. Meyer

David Ezekiel Joshua Gubbay (Abraham) (hereafter, D. E. J.) was born in Bombay (1863-1945) and, in 1885 and at the age of twenty-two, he married Mozelle (Mazal-Tov). Three years later, the Gubbays settled in Shanghai with their son, Reuben Ezekiel Reuben (Ruby 1888-1969). In Shanghai, David adopted the surname Abraham, in memory of his pious great-grandfather. His brother, Aaron, retained his father’s surname Aaron Ezekiel Joshua Gubbay.

The Gubbays were not the first members of the family to reside in Shanghai: their father, Ezekiel (Yehezkel) Joshua (Yehoshua) Gubbay (1824-1896), a great-grandson of the patriarch, David Sassoon, is one of the four employees of David Sassoon Sons and Co. listed in the 1850 List of Foreign Residents in Shanghae [sic]. Also included is M. S. Mooshee: Ezra Hayim Meir Sassoon Moshe, grandfather of Mozelle Abraham and the son of David Sassoon’s daughter, Ammam. Their families were connected by marriage: D. E. J.’s father, Ezekiel Joshua Abraham Gubbay, was born in Baghdad and immigrated to Bombay, where he worked in the Sassoon firm. He married Aziza Gubbay, daughter of Sir Abdullah (Albert) Sassoon, the son of the patriarch, David Sassoon, and settled in Shanghai.

Leadership of the fledgling community came from the Sassoon family and men respected for their Jewish learning; notably, D. E. J., his brother, Aaron, and S.J. Solomon. They unofficially catered to the spiritual needs of the community, basing their decisions on the halachaḥ (Jewish law). Ezekiel Joshua Gubbay provided a special scholarship for Yosef Rahamim Elias to become efficient in sheḥita (the ritual slaughter of live-stock), circumci­sion and ḥazzanut (cantoral singing). He served the community for thirty-five years, performing several hundred circumcisions, and trained his successor, J. Moosa, who became an efficient mohel. Thus, future generations of the community benefited from D. E. J.’s prescience and generosity.

Isaiah Jacob (1903-1972) and Family by Leah Jacob Garrick

I am a fourth generation Shanghailander. I was born in Shanghai as was my father Isaiah Jacob (1903-1972). Dad’s family originated in Iraq; where they had lived for centuries. (Today its 2,600 year-old Jewish community is totally decimated)    My paternal grandfather,Yakub ShalomYeshaiah Yakub left Baghdad with his mother, two younger brothers, Ezra and Saleh and sister Rahma for Bombay (Mumbai) India, in the late 1800s due to the farhuds (Arabic: pogroms), which made life for Jews untenable even then. Jidu (grandfather) followed the wealthy Sassoons to Shanghai. He worked as their accountant. Books were kept in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in the Hebrew script) and offices closed on Saturdays, the Sabbath, rare in those days. He was also a scholar in Jewish Law and Torah (Old Testament).

Grandfather and grandmother in Bombay 1800s

Dad’s maternal grandfather, Sasson Ezekiel Abraham, also born in Baghdad, left for Bombay and later Shanghai, with his wife Farha née Nuriel (we called her Yumah) and daughter Aziza (Dad’s mother). He was the ḥazan (cantor) of Beth Aharon, one of two beautiful Sephardic synagogues. Granny said she was playing hopscotch when her father called her into the house to meet Jidu. They were married shortly after. Their civil marriage took place in 1903 at the British Consulate because Iraq was a British Protectorate. She was fifteen and listed as a spinster. Jidu was thirty-three, eighteen years her senior. Granny was the only one of five siblings, born in Iraq – the others; Rachel, Becky, Hannah, Joseph and Judah were born in Shanghai. Dad was the eldest of ten – eight brothers (one, Ezekiel, had died in infancy) and a sister.

Shanghai Party

My mother, Rebecca Soloduhin (Becky, Riva to her family 1902-1992) was born in Simferopol, Crimea, Russia, the youngest of six, three boys, three girls. In 1904, her family fled the Czarist pogroms via the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, and south to Harbin, a Russian enclave. She was not yet a year old. When World War I broke out August 1914, her parents, Israel and Sophie, fearing that their sons Misha (Chaim), Saul and Zachar (Zacharia) would be drafted into the Czarist army, gave them a choice of going to America or Australia. They chose Australia. After several years in Harbin, the parents, who were quite affluent sold their properties and cattle, and followed with Mum, and sister Acia. Mummy was raised and educated in Brisbane. Her eldest sister Tania had married and remained behind. (My sister Ritchie, her daughter Regina and I have met over fifty members of Mummy’s family in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in the mid 2000s). In 1920, three years after her father’s death, and wanting a more Jewish life, Babushka (grandmother) decided to take Mum, Acia and Zachar back to China to see Tania, who, by then, had moved to Shanghai.

Benjamin David Benjamin (1844-1889) by Maisie J. Meyer

Despite the dearth of documentary material, prolonged court proceedings centred on the maverick Benjamin David Benjamin make it possible to piece together something of the life of the early Jewish immigrants to Shanghai. Benjamin was born in Baghdad in 1884 and it is likely that he attended a midraash (elementary school), which provided Jewish boys with a free primary education in the basics of Judaism and Hebrew, through the medium of Judaeo-Arabic; in overcrowded classes with primitive facilities.

Like several of his coreligionists, when a youth, Benjamin left Baghdad in search of employment. After undertaking several jobs in India, he set sail for China, hoping for better business prospects and aware that he would probably find a job in one of the Sassoon firms. When Benjamin arrived in China in the1870s, the Foreign Concession of Shanghai had been in existence for about twenty years and was a thriving junk port of Chinese coastal and Southeast Asian shipping. E. D. Sassoon & Co. sent Benjamin off to Tianjin as their agent and, on his return to Shanghai, he settled amidst a small cluster of Baghdadi Jews, almost all of whom were Sassoon employees.

The China Directory for 1874 records the names of twenty employees in the two Sassoon firms: these were in addition to a few women and children. The North-China Herald’s unofficial census in 1860 showed a total of 569 foreigners; 294 were British, 125 were American, 59 were Indian and 91 were referred to as “others.” The first municipal census in 1865 gave the total resident foreign population as 2,235 of whom 1,329 were British, 360 American and 175 German. By 1900, the number of foreign residents had risen to 6,663.

Benjamin became a share-broker in 1874/5 and was content with commissions on small transactions. He soon progressed, however, becoming a prime mover in many large deals. He took a colossal leap, with astounding speed and panache, out of the comfortable cocoon of the Jewish neighbourhood and became a preeminent figure in the foreign community. Considering his vernacular was Judaeo-Arabic and his English was far from fluent, he displayed incredible resilience and mettle in becoming the “Lion of the Shanghai Stock Exchange.” From 1879, the cry in the share market was “What is Benjamin doing?” He had become a power in the land. His competitors, reluctant to acknowledge how powerful he had become, were nonetheless influenced by him.

Matook Yitzhak Nissim (1863-1925) and Family by Matook (Matty) Rahamim Nissim

My grandfather Matook Isaac (Yitzhak) Nissim (1863-1925) was born in Allahabad, India. He came to China in the late 1800s with the Sassoon Banking Corporation. Many of their employees were loyal, dedicated Baghdadi Jews who had worked for the firm in Bombay, among them the Jacobs, Ezekiels, Sofers, Hardoons, Kadoories, Solomons and Josephs and others.

My grandmother, Rahma Mozelle Isaacs (ca.1870-1945) and her sisters Rachel (Solomon) and Flora (Moosa) were born in Shanghai, educated in a French convent and spoke fluent French. E. D. Sassoon employed her family. My grandparents spoke the Baghdadi dialect of Arabic (Judaeo-Arabic), Hindustani (even the Gujarati dialect), Chinese and English and would switch from Arabic to Hindustani at the dinner table. They had four children: Esther married Dodhai Benjamin; Bobbie married Silas Jacob; my father Nissim Marcus Matook Nissim, (1886-1971) nicknamed “Nissim Squared,” married Flora Reuben (1900-1987) and Nooriel married Nazira Sasson from New York.

The Jacobs, Nissims and Solomons lived in a very close-knit community in Hongkew. I was born in the Shanghai General Hospital in 1923, the year Chiang Kai-shek came to power. From 1923 to 1931, we shared a home in 15 Quinsan Road with three families: my parents and my two brothers, my uncle Nooriel and my grandmother. We lived in cramped conditions. As there was no flushing system in the bathroom, a coolie came along daily with buckets to remove the refuse, which they used as fertiliser. There was a very small kitchen and a larger pantry, where we stored rice, other grains and Ceylon tea in large lead-lined tea cases. We had an amah and a boy, but no cook. Grandmother did most of the cooking.

This petite lady was a matriarch and disciplinarian and supervised everything including preparations for the festivals and the daily menu. She taught the servants how to prepare the food in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. My mother could not set foot in the kitchen. Sasson Hazzan, the shoḥet (the ritual slaughterer), would come to the house to slaughter chickens in our backyard. Sometimes he brought the slaughtered chickens along with him. Seven of us sat down to every meal. I sat next to my grandmother – and got whacked if I drank my soup noisily. Even so, she loved us and we respected her. 

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