Forever Amba

Yes, it was the spice of life, Sasson Somekh recalls

Sasson Somekh
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Sasson Somekh

"It Happened on Friday," a short story by Iraqi author Abd al-Malik Noori, written sometime around 1950, opens with a young boy tucking into "sammoon and `amba," purchased from a vendor outside a Baghdad movie theater, on his day off from school. Noori describes how the spicy, yellow `amba streaks the boy's cheeks and chin, and drips down his shirt. `Amba, a pickled mango condiment, is a familiar sight in Israel, too. Brought to this country by the Jews of Iraq, bowls of it are prominently displayed at shwarma and felafel stands. Sammoon is a diamond-shaped bread filled with `amba that is sold on the streets of Baghdad.

This scene has remained etched in my mind because it reminds me of my own childhood in Iraq. On Friday mornings, I used to pass by the Ghazi movie theater, not far from my house, and look on, wild with envy, as other boys, most of them Muslim, feasted on sammoon and `amba. I was not allowed to join them because my mother warned me over and over not to touch the `amba sold by street vendors. It was teeming with disease-carrying germs, she said, and anyway, why would I want to eat that "fake, contaminated" stuff when we had a barrel of the genuine article, produced by the Mancherchee Manekchee Poonjeajee company of Bombay, sitting at home?

Even so, watching the boys with their sammoon and `amba never failed to whet my appetite and, needless to say, I did disobey my mother on occasion, tasting of that forbidden fruit. The heavenly flavor of `amba on fresh-baked sammoon lingers on my tongue to this day.

The pungent odor of `amba, one of the distinctive smells of Baghdad, also symbolizes the prominent culinary link between Iraq and the Indian continent. Israel came next: Iraqi Jews opened small factories in Israel and began to produce `amba, the main ingredients being slices of mango pickled in a sauce flavored with curry powder and other sharp spices.

When I moved with my family to Ramat Gan in 1955, the place was full of Jews from Baghdad, many of them residing in the neighborhood of the Rama movie theater. Above one of the food stands was a sign in gigantic Arabic script which read "`Amba Hodit" (Indian `amba) - advertising the fact that the `amba sold there was "authentic," which is to say "Indian," and not some local imitation.

In 1991, during the Gulf War, when several Iraqi Scud missiles happened to fall in parts of Ramat Gan that have a large Iraqi Jewish population, the joke going around was that the Scuds had been attracted by the smell of the `amba.

But the truth is, the Iraqi-Indian connection, especially with regard to the Jews of Baghdad and southern Iraq, went far beyond Indian `amba. From the time I was a child, I knew that the Jews of Baghdad and the port city of Basra had satellite communities in various parts of India and environs. At home, I often heard the names of relatives and friends who were working or living in India, particularly in Bombay, Calcutta and Poona, but also on the island of Java (today part of Indonesia) and in Singapore.

There were branches of the community in Manchester and London, but these were actually offshoots from the Iraqi Jewish communities in Asia, who began to send their sons or representatives to open offices in important centers of commerce in England at the end of the 19th century.

Most of the offspring of David Sassoon, known as the "Rothschilds of the East," moved from India to Great Britain for business purposes, but went on to achieve fame in other spheres, too. Philip Sassoon, a grandson, was a member of the British Parliament and served as undersecretary of state for air in the 1920s and `30s. Siegfried Sassoon (note the Germanic name!) was one of England's leading poets between the two world wars.

These were facts that I was already aware of as a child, but little did I know that there was also an Iraqi Jewish community in China and Indonesia. In the summer of 1992, Harvard University was holding an international conference, the first of its kind, on Chinese Jewry. Among the speakers were Chinese scholars, permitted to travel to the United States for the first time. I asked my friend Prof. Bernard Wasserstein, who was one of the organizers, if I could participate as an observer, and he had no objection. I was not preoccupied with the subject of Iraqi Jewry at the time, and was intrigued by the idea of meeting scholars from China.

To my great surprise, the moment I walked into the conference hall, I was approached by two Chinese professors, who were looking at my name tag. "Where are you from, Mr. Somekh?" asked one of them in English, with a very odd accent. "Hong Kong or Burma?" I replied that I was from Tel Aviv. It took a few moments for them to register that most of the Somekh family now lives in Israel rather than the eastern tip of Asia.

At the conference, I heard some fascinating lectures about the "Baghdadi" communities (in India and China, the reference is not only to Iraqi Jews, but to Jews of Middle Eastern descent, be they Syrian, Iranian or Yemenite). But the most amazing discovery of all, from my perspective, came from a young Italian researcher by the name of Chiara Betta, who was writing her doctorate in England on the economy of China, with special emphasis on Salah (Silas) Hardoon, a Baghdad Jew who virtually ruled the business world of Shanghai in the 1920s. In some ways, Hardoon's story is typical of the Asiatic connection of Iraqi Jews, but in other ways, it is unique.

Hardoon, born in Baghdad, first reached India as a clerk in the financial empire of David Sassoon. This huge concern made a point of bringing over bookkeepers from Baghdad, who were considered industrious and trustworthy. But there was a third reason - technical, you might say: David Sassoon's companies did their bookkeeping ("blanjoo") in Judeo-Arabic, i.e., Arabic written in Hebrew script, a practice which continued into the 20th century.

Hardoon did such a fine job that his employers, the Sassoons, sent him to Shanghai to run their branch office there. In time, Hardoon decided to take the plunge: He bid farewell to the Sassoon enterprise and launched his own economic empire. It succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Before long, Hardoon was the richest person in Shanghai, the city's "uncrowned king." Every year, in celebration of the Chinese New Year, Hardoon would open the gates to his palace and present a gift of money to every citizen who came to see him. When he died in 1931, his Eurasian wife organized an enormous mass funeral jointly presided over by a rabbi and a Buddhist monk. The family in Baghdad tried to claim his fabulous estate, but eventually gave up after a long court battle.

But to get back to India, new Jewish communities sprang up around these wealthy Iraqi Jews and their prospering businesses. They built synagogues and prayed in the style they remembered from Baghdad. In fact, at home, many of them continued to speak Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic. Until the middle of the 20th century, an Indian Jew of Iraqi origin could be identified by the use of old words that had long fallen into disuse in Iraq. In England and elsewhere, I have met Indian Jews whose speech was peppered with Arabic words that reminded me of an Iraqi grandmother - completely at odds with their modern European dress and appearance.

Several of these "Baghdadi" communities in India published newspapers in Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic (such as Dover Meisharim and Doresh Tov Le'ammo), and close ties were maintained with their home communities in Iraq. It was not uncommon for them to write to the great posekim [authorities on Jewish law] in Baghdad, headed by Rabbi Abdullah Somekh (1813-1898), for help in resolving religious issues.

In his recent book, "The Luminous Face of the East: Studies in the Legal and Religious Thought of Sephardic Rabbis of the Middle East," Zvi Zohar offers a fascinating account of this relationship between "diaspora" and "center" with respect to the Iraqi-Jewish community.

But the "Baghdadi" Jews of India were not linked to Iraq only in matters of faith and language. For the large communities of Baghdad and Basra, the satellite communities were a source of refuge and support in times of trouble. Moreover, contact with these outside communities broadened the horizons of the Iraqi Jews and opened their eyes to the modern world, so radically different from Ottoman, pre-modern Iraq.

This bond between Iraqi Jews and their countrymen in India continued until recently. When World War II broke out, a number of prominent Jews in Basra sent their wives and children to "Bombay" (a general term for the cities of India where Iraqi Jews lived) until the danger blew over. Some of them remained in India even afterward. My cousin, whom I loved dearly as a child, was sent to India with her siblings. There she married a young local Jew from the Hillel family, also of Iraqi descent, and continued to live in Bombay until the early 1970s, when the whole family moved to Israel.

Echoes of the Indian connection reverberated loudly in Iraq even in purely spiritual matters. An affair that rocked the Basra Jewish community in the 1930s, involving one of its leaders, Kedourie Any, is particularly interesting in this regard. Any was a successful businessman, some of whose family had settled in India. I am related to him: My maternal uncle married Any's daughter. As a child, I often visited his mansion on the coast of Shatt al-Arab. In time, I came across the man's rich library, in English and Arabic - a discovery which turned my trips to Basra into a thrilling cultural experience. In the stillness of the library, I would sit and read novel after novel.

On the shelves, I also noticed books and periodicals on "spiritual" topics whose significance I did not grasp until 1965, when I happened to read a certain article by Dr. Hayim Cohen in the Jerusalem periodical "Hamizrach Hehadash" ("The New East"). The title of the article was "Jewish Theosophists in Basra: A Symptom of the Battle for Enlightenment."

The story goes like this: Mr. Any and his wife, Rosa, born at the end of the 19th century, were a modern couple in every respect, and in some matters, they took the liberty of deviating from the conservative norms around them, although they continued to cling to the religion of their forefathers. They kept up contact with European visitors who came to Basra, and Rosa was among the first women to wear European clothing outside the house.

In the 1930s, or perhaps sometime before that, the Anys discovered theosophy. After a while, they organized a theosophy circle attended by several local Jews. At the time, Any himself was head of the Jewish community council, but he saw no contradiction whatsoever between Judaism and theosophy. The community apparently saw nothing wrong with this new spiritual interest either.

Theosophy, a mystic philosophy that aspires to break down barriers and create a coherent universe, is not Indian in origin, but rather Western (Greek, German, American). At the same time, India was the hub of many of its activities. One of the important centers of theosophy was the Indian city of Madras. Kedourie Any's brother, Reuven Eliyahu Any, who settled in Bombay, was appointed honorary secretary of the theosophy society in that city.

In Basra, the theosophists met for several years without hindrance. However, after a personal dispute with a respected figure in the community, pressure was put on Any to stop dabbling in theosophy. Any refused to give in, and eventually resigned as chairman of the Jewish community (it is unclear whether he left of his own free will or was forced out).

At that point, Any established a kind of temporary synagogue, traditional in character, that welcomed all Jews and apparently succeeded in attracting a sizable crowd. Contributing to its success was the fact that Any hired a certified shochet [ritual slaughterer] and paid the man's salary out of his own pocket. As a result of this arrangement, the price of kosher meat dropped because the shochet did not have to pay the communal slaughtering tax ("gabella").

In the end, Kedourie Any was welcomed back by the Jewish community, for fear that most of Basra's Jews would turn around and join his congregation. Any thus resumed his place in Jewish society, but without giving up his belief in theosophy, arrived at through his exposure to Indian philosophy.

This is the eighth chapter of Prof. Sasson Somekh's memoirs. The previous installment, "Generations of Namesakes," appeared in Ha'aretz English Edition on Jan. 18, 2002.



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