The Shanghai Express: From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo
By Michael Pollak
With the world’s attention now focused on Iraq and the expanding Chinese economy, it is an opportune time to draw attention to a small number of adventurous Baghdadi Jewish merchants who began settling in Shanghai in the mid-19th century and organized a community that maintained itself with distinction for a century. Dr. Meyer takes her audience on an exciting journey, telling us, with the help of some fifty computerized photographs, how, in this faraway outpost of the Jewish Diaspora that never numbered more than a thousand people, the Baghdadis accomplished deeds that leave us shaking our heads in wonder. As we watch and listen, we are introduced to the customs and occupations that the Baghdadis carried with themselves to China, and we are quickly made aware of the nature and commitments of the vibrant community they created and nurtured. We learn about the business acumen the transplanted Sephardim displayed, and how this, enabled Shanghai to become one of the world’s leading financial centers. We learn too, with lingering regret, of their participation in the opium trade—in an era, it must be understood, that this was entirely legal and even socially acceptable. We take a glimpse at the institutions they established to safeguard their Judaic heritage in their alien surroundings, and we commemorate their heroic, though unsuccessful, efforts to bring what was left of the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng back to the Judaism of its forebears. We observe the relationship between the Baghdadis and the Russian Jews who began arriving in Shanghai around 1895 as refugees from Czarist persecution, and in time attained a population of 6-8,000. The humanitarian efforts of the Shanghai Baghdadi Jews to accommodate some 20,000 victims of Nazi persecution reflect further credit to the ethos of this remarkable community. And we end with a feeling of sadness that because of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the World War II period and, shortly thereafter, the city’s incorporation into the Peoples’ Republic of China the Jews of Shanghai were forced to leave the country and scatter across the globe. Obviously, the Baghdadi Jews of Shanghai stand out as having established one of the most noteworthy communities in the Jewish Diaspora. Their memory must be preserved.
Lecture series explains Baghdadi Jews' ties to Shanghai
Research shows strength, vitality and solidarity of the Jewish community.
By Conrad Wilson Minnesota Daily 29 November 2006 Page 1
Much of the news coming out of Baghdad is focused on current events, but little is widely known about the history of its people. Maisie J. Meyer, a professor at the University of London, is attempting to change that through her research on a Jewish community in Baghdad that found its way to Shanghai. During the mid-1800s, Baghdadi Jewish merchants moved east, stopping first in Bombay and then Shanghai, Meyer said. Once in Shanghai, she said, the Jewish community prospered, impacting the city and culture while holding onto their Jewish roots.
Jonathan Paradise, a University professor emeritus of classical and near eastern studies, said the lecture shows the strength of the Jewish community. "It shows the vitality of the Jewish diaspora," he said. One gets "a sense of solidarity and loyalty to fellow Jews."
During the late part of the 19th century, there were 45,000 Jews in Baghdad - one of the largest and most prosperous Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire, Meyer said. At the time the Baghdadi Jews arrived in Shanghai, the city was not a nice place to live, Meyer said. However, she said, trade drew thousands of Baghdadi Jews, who made Shanghai their home and invested their resources in the city. When the Baghdadi Jews arrived in Shanghai, they discovered a Jewish community that had arrived hundreds of years earlier and were assimilated into the Chinese culture.
Meyer said. Jews in Shanghai dispersed during and after World War II to places like Israel, London, New York and Canada, Meyer said. "I always feel very sad when I think about the demise of this community in Shanghai," she said.
The research began as a dissertation, Meyer said. These days, she said she is "nearly obsessed" with researching Baghdadi Jewish communities.
The increased importance of these two places in the world - Baghdad and Shanghai - is at the front of globalization today, Meyer said. In fact, many Jews are now moving to China again, namely Shanghai and Beijing. "Israel has very close relationships now (with China)," Meyer said. "I see it very promising for Jews in China."
Tonight's lecture is the second part of the series and will focus on the Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai during World War II and their lives thereafter.