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The history of the Jews in India dates back to the ancient times. Judaism was the probably the first foreign religion to reach India. Jews always have been a extreme minority and they have lived in peace with the local population for centuries. The first group of Jews arrived in the Cochin region of Kerala long before the birth of Christ and came to be known as the Cochin Jews. Next came the Bene Israel (literally meaning the Children of Israel) Jews, who were considered as descended of the lost tribes of Israel. They arrived more than three centuries ago and settled along the west cost of India. At the end of the nineteenth century came the Baghdadi Jews, who, as the name suggests, are of Iraqi origin. They were a flourishing business community and settled in business centres like Calcutta and Bombay.
In Bombay they flourished under the leadership of David Sassoon, a prominent Baghdadi Jew, who settled in Bomaby in 1832. The Baghdadi Jews, while retaining their Iraqi Jewish culture, also went on to establish themselves as wealthy businessmen and philanthropists in Mumbai. Soon their business flourished and the Bagdadi Jews of Mumbai started settling in the posh Byculla area of south Mumbai.
Bimah (platform) and Hazzan (Ark) of Magen David Synagogue, Byculla, Mumbai
"The Baghdadi community of Byculla had a large compound, fenced in by a wall, which included all of its public structures" (Sapir).
Hazzan (Ark) of Magen David Synagogue, Byculla, Mumbai.
Jewish cultural and religious life was centred round their place of worship. In 1864 the Baghdadi Jewish community came up with their very own Synagogue. Funded by David Sassoon it came to be known as the Magen David Synagogue. Literally meaning the Shield of David, the synagogue was the third synagogue of Mumbai, the previous two being Bene Israel Synagogues. In 1884 the Baghdadi Jewish community came up with their second synagogue, Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue.
Bimah (platform) of Magen David Synagogue, Byculla.
Unlike the two previous Bene Israel Synagogues of Mumbai, which were built in middle eastern style along with local elements, Magen David was built in European style. Magen David had a steeple housing a clock, something unusual for a synagogue. The brightly lit grand interiors are also a striking contrast against the small cramped interiors of the Bene Israel Synagogues.
Plaque of the Ten Commandments.
In Mumbai, the synagogue stands out with its bright blue facade, enormous frontal columns and towering clock tower. The synagogue was built in neo-classical style with freely conceived local elements. Four slender columns support the flat-roofed porch. The porch contains the ten commandments written in Hebrew and the Magen David Synagogue written in English is flanked on either side by two stars of David. The synagogue was extended in 1910 with the addition of matching side bays on both sides. The extension was carried out by David Sassoon’s grandson Jacob Sassoon. Again a hundred years later extensive repairs were carried out on the synagogue. It was during this time that the exterior and interior of the Magen David Synagogue were painted with a bright shade of blue and white.
The interior of the synagogue is a double-height sanctuary with women’s gallery wrapping around three sides of the upper floor. The central pavilion is fitted with decorative brass railings. The four corners of the central platform are fitted with brass light stands, each containing four lights. The ark contains three doors, behind which the torah scrolls are kept. The interior is fitted with white florescent white lights, creating a feast for the eyes with the blue – white backdrop.
Interior of Magen David Synagogue, Byculla, Mumbai.
The Magen David Synagogue compound houses two schools EEE Sassoon High School and the Sir Jacob Sassoon High School. Initially the schools were once exclusively for Jewish children, over time, with the dwindling Jewish population, they have opened their gates for students of all communities.
Visitors are usually allowed. However the synagogue is sometimes closed, so a prior appointment is advisable. Contact person: Solomon Sopher (firstname.lastname@example.org). Photography is allowed subject to a charge of ₹ 500.
Datta, Rangan. Magen David Synagogue on Wordpress
Sapir, Sha'ul. Bombay: Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage. Bene Israel Heritage Museum and Genealogical Research Centre, 2013.
2 June 2020