With a fortune of 13.1 billion pounds, British business tycoons David and Simon Reuben have made it to the top of Britain’s The Sunday Times rich list for 2016. Like the Hinduja brothers who came in second on the list, the Reuben brothers also have a strong connection with India: they were born, in the 1940s, in Mumbai’s small but wealthy community of Baghdadi Jews.
The Baghdadi Jews, as the name suggests, are of Iraqi origin, and sections of the community began to settle in colonial India, particularly the city of Bombay, during the 18th and 19th centuries. Two other distinct Indian Jewish communities – Cochin Jews and Bene Israelis – had migrated centuries before and had assimilated themselves with many aspects of Indian culture. The Baghdadi Jews, while retaining their Iraqi Jewish culture, also went on to establish themselves as wealthy businessmen and philanthropists in Mumbai.
David and Simon Reuben were born in 1941 and 1944 respectively, at a time when Mumbai’s Baghdadi Jews were at their peak, with a population of around 5,000. Their family had migrated from Iraq to Mumbai in the mid-1800s and ran businesses across the Indian subcontinent. In the early 1950s, the young Reuben brothers migrated to London and eventually made their fortune in metal trading and real estate.
But their early years in Mumbai were spent in the midst of the Baghdadi Jewish community’s cosy settlement in south Mumbai’s Byculla area. In his book Bombay: Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage, author Shaul Sapir describes the lifestyle of the Baghdadi Jews of Byculla: “The Baghdadi community of Byculla had a large compound, fenced in by a wall, which included all of its public structures.”
The cultural and religious centre of this large Jewish compound was the Magen David synagogue, one of the two Baghdadi Jewish synagogues in Mumbai. The other is the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue in Colaba, painted in a distinct pale blue like its counterpart in Byculla.
The Jewish compound also included warehouses, a club house, a park known as Jew Garden and two schools set up by the Sassoon family, perhaps the best-known philanthropists of Mumbai’s Jewish community. Both the EEE Sassoon High School and the Sir Jacob Sassoon High School remain reputed schools in Mumbai today.
Despite their small numbers, Baghdadi Jews developed a strong youth culture focused on preserving their unique identity. For school-going children, there was the Habonim League Youth Movement established in 1933 by Albert Manasseh and Solomon Ezra. Its members met either in the Jewish compound or the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue, for activities that included, according to Sapir’s book, “Hebrew classes, Israeli songs and folk dances, sports such as volleyball, running, high vault jumping and long jumping. Local Indian games also were part of their pastime, such as bug bug dolla, lungri, marbles, gili dandu.”
Another youth club, called the Judean Club, operated from the Jewish compound specifically for graduates of the Sir Jacob Sassoon school.
These clubs began to die out gradually in the late 1950s and ‘60s, as more and more Jews from India began to migrate, either to newly-formed Israel or other European countries. The Reuben brothers were among many young Baghdadi Jews to leave India in the ‘50s. Today, there are barely a few dozen Baghdadi Jews left in Mumbai.