Introduction to Jewish Mumbai
Mumbai is a bustling metropolis with a rich and diverse history, including the contributions of its Jewish community. Jews first settled in Mumbai over 500 years ago, and today there are still many sites of religious and cultural importance to visit. From exploring the Jewish Quarter to learning about famous figures who lived or died in the city, there is much to discover on a journey through Jewish Mumbai. Join us as we explore this vibrant culture, uncovering centuries-old stories that have shaped this remarkable city.
Jewish Culture and History in Mumbai
Early Jewish Life in Mumbai
Jews have been living in Mumbai for over 500 years, though the earliest evidence of Jewish presence dates back to the early 16th century. During this time, Jews were welcomed by the Portuguese rulers of Bombay and granted special privileges that allowed them to practice their religion freely. Life for Jews was relatively peaceful during this period, with many settling into trade and commerce as well as other professions such as medicine. The city’s growing wealth also enabled more affluent members of the community to build synagogues and even a cemetery. In later centuries, more waves of Jewish immigrants would arrive in Mumbai from countries like Iraq and Yemen, adding further richness to its vibrant culture.
Jews have been an integral part of Mumbai’s history for centuries, and their contributions to the city are wide-ranging. Over the years, Jews in Mumbai have taken on a variety of occupations including trade and commerce, medicine, banking, law and other professions. Many Jewish immigrants also had a hand in developing the modern cityscape with their involvement in construction projects such as building roads and bridges. Through these activities, they helped shape not only the economy but also the culture of Mumbai by bringing different perspectives from around the world.
Recent and Contemporary Life in Jewish Mumbai
Today, Jewish life in Mumbai is vibrant and diverse. While the community has shrunk to around 4,000 people since its peak of over 20,000 in 1948, it still remains an integral part of the city’s culture and history. The majority of Jews living in Mumbai today are Bene Israel—the descendants of Jews who arrived from Iraq and Yemen centuries ago—though there are also members from other communities such as Baghdadi Jews and Cochin Jews. As well as being active members of their local synagogues, many Jewish families have become involved in business ventures throughout the city such as real estate development or hospitality services.
Iconic Attractions and Events in Mumbai
The Jewish Quarter in Mumbai
The Jewish quarter of Mumbai, also known as the Judah Hyam Synagogue district, is a small but significant neighborhood located in the heart of the bustling city. The area is home to one of the oldest and most historically significant synagogues in India, the Magen David Synagogue, which was built in 1864. The neighborhood also houses several Jewish institutions and landmarks, including the Knesset Eliyahu Synagogue, the Sassoon Hospital, and the David Sassoon Library. The Jewish community in Mumbai has a rich and diverse history, dating back to the 18th century when Jewish traders first arrived in the city. Today, the Jewish quarter continues to be an important cultural hub, where visitors can learn about the community’s unique traditions, cuisine, and way of life.
The Knesset Eliyahu stands as an Orthodox Jewish synagogue situated in the heart of Mumbai’s downtown area. Remarkably, it holds the distinction of being the city’s second-oldest Sephardic synagogue. Its establishment in the year 1884 is credited to Jacob Elias Sassoon, the son of Eliyahu David Sassoon and the grandson of David Sassoon. David Sassoon had sought refuge in India in 1832, fleeing persecution in Baghdad, and settled in Mumbai, which was then known as Bombay. The synagogue’s preservation and upkeep are overseen by the Jacob Sassoon Trust. This architectural gem holds immense significance, drawing from its Jewish traditions and bearing the influence of both Indian and English colonial elements.
Gate of Mercy Synagogue
The Gate of Mercy Synagogue, also known as Shaar Harahamim and Juni Masjid, holds the distinction of being Jewish Mumbai’s oldest synagogue, with its origins dating back to 1796. Samuel Ezekiel, also known as Samaji Hasaji Divekar, a member of the Bene Israeli community, was the visionary behind its construction, initially near CSMT in South Mumbai. Subsequently, in 1860, the synagogue underwent a reconstruction and was relocated to its current position in Mandvi. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this vicinity was home to a small yet thriving Jewish population.
Despite a decline in its congregational numbers over time, the synagogue remains active, hosting services such as the 6 AM prayer. It continues to serve a dedicated congregation of approximately one hundred members daily. Moreover, the synagogue holds a prominent place on heritage and religious tours within the city, allowing visitors to delve into its rich history and cultural significance.
Hanukkah Jewish Festival of Lights
Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, holds a special place in the vibrant cultural tapestry of Mumbai, India. In this bustling metropolis, home to a diverse Jewish community, Hanukkah is celebrated with enthusiasm and warmth. The Festival of Lights, which typically falls in December, is a time when the community in Jewish Mumbai comes together to commemorate the miraculous story of the oil that burned for eight days.
The lighting of the menorah, a central tradition of Hanukkah, illuminates homes and synagogues across the city, symbolizing hope, faith, and the triumph of light over darkness. Delicious traditional dishes, such as latkes and sufganiyot, are savored by families and friends who gather to share in the joy of the festival. Amidst the bustling streets of Mumbai, the celebration of Hanukkah serves as a testament to the enduring spirit of unity, faith, and cultural richness that defines this remarkable city.
Iconic Personalities of Mumbai
Dr. Elijah Moses Rajpurker
Elijah Moses Rajpurker, a prominent figure in Jewish Mumbai’s Bene Israel community, was a medical doctor and public health advocate who made significant contributions to both healthcare and civic life. He gained recognition for his compassionate treatment of bubonic plague sufferers during an epidemic that afflicted millions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a municipal councilor and later as Bombay’s mayor in 1937-1938, he played a vital role in establishing cemeteries, crematoriums, and institutions like the King George V Memorial Infirmary, providing medical care and shelter to the less fortunate. His election as mayor marked the growing professionalization and prominence of the Bene Israel community and underscored their acceptance within wider Indian society. His legacy endures through institutions on Dr. E. Moses Road, named in his honor, and his role as a respected communal leader of Jewish Mumbai.
More widely recognized under her stage name Sulochana, she was an Indian silent film actress with Jewish heritage, originating from the Baghdadi Jewish community in India. During her peak years, she stood as one of the most highly compensated actresses of her era, often appearing alongside Dinshaw Bilimoria in films produced by Imperial Studios. In the mid-1930s, she ventured into film production by establishing Rubi Pics. Myers received the prestigious 1973 Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the highest accolade in Indian cinema for lifetime achievement. She also adopted a daughter, Sarah Myers, who later became Vijaylaxmi Shreshtha after marriage. Myers passed away in Mumbai in 1983.
Summary of Mumbai’s Jewish Story
Mumbai’s Jewish history is vast and complex, spanning centuries of migration, cultural growth, and resilience. From the early days of trading and settlement to modern times, this thriving community has left an indelible mark on the city’s culture and identity. Its synagogues stand as monuments to centuries of devotion and faith; its iconic personalities represent a legacy that continues to thrive. As we explore and appreciate the many facets of the heritage of Jewish Mumbai, let us remember the stories that remain at its heart: those of courage, hope, and perseverance against all odds. This is the story of Jewish Mumbai – a city that celebrates its rich cultural diversity and proudly embraces its vibrant Jewish past.