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6 February 2019, Gateway House

Bombay’s Blue Synagogue, restored

The newly restored Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue will be inaugurated by Maharashtra governor Vidyasagar Rao on February 7. This 135-year-old Jewish house of worship was central to the history of Mumbai’s Jewish community and the city’s once robust multicultural character

Bombay History Fellow

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It is fitting that the inauguration of the restored Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue in Mumbai’s art precinct of Kala Ghoda coincides with the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (February 2 to 10) because the Indian Baghdadi Jews’[1] contribution to this area is multifarious and all-encompassing.

The most obvious is the very name of this art district and the festival itself, Kala Ghoda or black horse. It refers to the original black equestrian statue of Prince Edward VII, donated to the city by Sir Albert Sassoon, a leading Baghdadi Jew, in 1875, to mark the Bombay visit of the then heir-apparent to the British throne.[2] Other well-known Sassoon endowments in the area are: the David Sassoon Library, formerly the David Sassoon Mechanics Institute and Reading Room, and the (Royal) Institute of Science.[3]

These are the obvious landmarks. Less known is the fact that an entire Jewish ecosystem once flourished in this area, with the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue at its centre. Around it was the Jewish Club, famous for its chicken sandwiches, the Sassoon family’s offices on Mahatma Gandhi Road[4] and their residences[5] on Forbes Street, now V.B. Gandhi Marg – all of which today are a distant memory. The resurrection of the ‘Blue Synagogue’, as the Keneseth is popularly known, brings back a strong flavour of Mumbai’s 19th– and early 20th-century economic and socio-cultural history.

The entrance to the Synangogue shows the sensitivity with which the restoration has been carried out by retaining the exterior paint as blue (though ink blue in place of a light sky blue) as this house of worship is locally referred to as 'Blue Synagogue'. (Photo courtesy: Noshir Gobhai)
The entrance to the Synangogue shows the sensitivity with which the restoration has been carried out by retaining the exterior paint as blue (though ink blue in place of a light sky blue) as this house of worship is locally referred to as ‘Blue Synagogue’. (Photo courtesy: Noshir Gobhai)

South Mumbai’s Jewish community

The location of the Keneseth Eliyahoo, a European-style, neo-Baroque Sephardic[6] synagogue in what appears today to be a largely commercial area, is no coincidence. A large community of Baghdadi Jews once lived close to it, such as in Colaba. The observant orthodox and conservative Jews walked to their synagogue on the Sabbath[7] rather than use public transport, which required handling money. Till a century ago, the city’s Bombay Electric Supply & Transport (BEST) company accommodated the community’s religious sentiments by issuing special bus passes to them on this holy day of rest.[8]

The Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue was built in 1884 by the biggest mill-owner of Bombay, Sir Jacob Sassoon, in memory of his father Elias, the second son of David Sassoon, patriarch of the Bombay Sassoon family and the founder of what was to grow into the giant E.D. Sassoon group, with business interests in textiles, banking, real estate and overseas trade.

The largest of the enterprises were the 11 E.D. Sassoon textile mills in Bombay which employed 15,000 mill-workers. The family’s global network of businesses included hotels, banks and warehousing in the Chinese Treaty Ports[9] (such as Shanghai and Canton), Hong Kong, Yokohama and London. Bombay, the headquarters of the E.D. Sassoon businesses, was also where its founder, Elias, and his son Jacob, resided.[10]

A synagogue for South Bombay

Although the Sassoon family is originally from Baghdad in present-day Iraq – they belong to West Asian Jewry – their synagogues had a decidedly European architectural sensibility. This was not unusual for that time since the structures were built by prominent Parsi and Jewish merchants and cotton mill-owners who interacted closely with the ruling British elite and resident Europeans, both professionally and socially.

The functional layout of the Keneseth Eliyahoo, however, stays close to its roots in Baghdad, once the epicentre of Jewish religious learning in the East,[11] with separate seating for men and women, a religious school on its premises to prepare boys for their Bar Mitzvah and a Mikveh (a ritual bath) for women. A report in the Times of India of 28 August 1882 on the ground-breaking ceremony, is evocative:

“Mrs Jacob Elias Sassoon arrived at the site of the new building shortly after 3 o’clock, at which time most of the members of the Sassoon family had assembled. A move was at once made towards the spot where the ceremony was to take place, and a tin canister containing coins, &c., was placed in an aperture beneath the (foundation) stone: after a few preliminary ceremonies, Mrs Sassoon dashed a champagne bottle against the stone; and the assemblage repeating ‘Amen’, to a prayer offered up by Mr. Moses Gindell, a chief rabbi from Jerusalem, resumed their seats.”

An interior shot of the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, Fort, taken from the ladies section. The splendid stained glass work is on its western wall, and just below this is the Hekhal (where the Torah scrolls are kept). (Photo courtesy: Noshir Gobhai)
An interior shot of the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, Fort, taken from the ladies section. The splendid stained glass work is on its western wall, and just below this is the Hekhal (where the Torah scrolls are kept). (Photo courtesy: Noshir Gobhai)

The two Sassoon synagogues of Bombay – the other is the Magen David Synagogue, Byculla – had a sizeable number of congregants until 1985, when the Keneseth Eliyahoo celebrated its centenary.[12] Many of them were retired people as the younger generation had by this time settled in different parts of the western world, notably England, Israel, the United States and Australia.

The synagogue has, since the early 21st century, adapted itself admirably to the shrinking numbers while continuing to be a religious, social and cultural hub in South Mumbai. Its trustees host a Kosher dinner on Friday evenings for Jews dropping in for Sabbath prayers. It gives visitors from abroad a taste not only of the Indian-influenced Baghdadi cuisine, which includes specialties, such as Haleem and ‘Jumping Potatoes’, but also a feel of local Jewish culture.

For Mumbai city and its millennials, this revamping effort throws light on the history of a community that was once an intrinsic part of the city’s socio-cultural-economic fabric. Its leaders, the Sassoons, will always be remembered for their substantial entrepreneurial contribution to the city and for their generous civic endowments. In restoring a religious space that was part of the daily lives of the Sassoon family and their community, Bombay’s citizens[13] have possibly paid the best tribute to their enduring legacy.

Sifra Lentin is Bombay History Fellow at Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] There are broadly two Jewish communities in Mumbai. The numerically bigger and older community on the subcontinent is that of the Marathi-speaking Bene-Israel (lit. Children of Israel) who migrated to Mumbai in the 18th century from the villages of the coastal Konkan. The smaller one is that of the Baghdadi Jewish merchant community, who originate not just from Baghdad but from various towns and cities across West Asia. Keneseth Eliyahoo lit. is the Assembly of Elias.

[2]The original statue is now consigned to the leafy environs of Mumbai’s Byculla zoo – Veermata Jijibai Bhosle Udayan– like other colonial statues, however, it continues in local memory even after the removal of this statue in the late 1960s, as this precinct is still referred to as Kala Ghoda. The Kala Ghoda Trust, organizers of the annual festival, have now installed an enormous sculpture of a black horse close to the same spot where the original sculpture once stood.

[3] The prefix ‘Royal’ has been dropped from this name, hence instead of the Royal Institute of Science it is simply the Institute of Science.

[4] Mahatma Gandhi Road was formerly Esplanade Road, and Forbes Street is today’s V.B. Gandhi Marg. It is on V.B. Gandhi Marg that the synagogue is located.

[5] Sir Jacob Sassoon lived at Braganza Hall, Byculla, but the proximity of his offices (E.D. Sassoon Group) to the Keneseth Eliyahoo meant that as an observant Jew, he could attend the daily prayers as well as the Friday evening prayers at the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue. However, other members of the family did reside on and close to Forbes Street.

[6] Sephardic Jewry broadly refers to Eastern Jewry, as distinct from the Ashkenazim (European) Jewry, who are united through their adherence to the liturgy, rituals and customs that originated on the Iberian Peninsula.

[7] The Jewish Sabbath begins from sunset on Friday evening and ends after sunset on Saturday evening.

[8] This concession was made at the behest of another prominent Baghdadi of that time Sir Sassoon J. David, a prominent textile mill owner, the lead promoter of the Bank of India, and the President of the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1921. Sir Sassoon J. David was related to the Bombay Sassoon’s through marriage. He married Hannah, the sister of Sir Jacob Sassoon.

[9] The Treaty of Nanking (1842) which was signed in the aftermath of the first Anglo-Chinese war (1839-42), also known as the First Opium War, opened four additional ports to Canton (Guangzhou) to foreign trade. Under this Treaty the island of Hong Kong was leased to the British.

[10] It was Sir Victor Sassoon who shifted the E.D. Sassoon group headquarters to Shanghai in the 1940s.

[11] Like all synagogues in the east, it is aligned facing west towards Jerusalem. The main hall of the synagogue is the men’s section. This has a tebah or raised platform in the middle of the hall from where the prayers are recited and an hekhal, an intricately carved wooden cabinet in which the torah scrolls are kept. The women’s section is on the floor above and overlooks the main hall, it is in the form of a running balcony around three-fourths of the hall except for the western wall of the synagogue.

[12] The highlight of the centenary celebrations was an exhibition on Indian Jewry that included not only the Baghdadi community but also the Marathi-speaking Bene Israel Jews and the Cochin Jews of Kerala.

[13] The conservation and repairs to the Keneseth Eliyahoo cost Rs 4.45 crores, of which Rs 4 crore was contributed by the JSW Group under the auspices of its CSR arm, the JSW Foundation, Rs 30 lakh by the Kala Ghoda Association and Rs 15 lakh by the World Monuments Fund.