Dr. Maisie J Meyer

Sephardi Bulletin, Vol 58 No 1, January/February, 2004

Reviewed by Isaac S. Abraham

Undoubtedly, Dr Meyer presents us with an absorbing and highly readable account of life as lived by a colourful section of Oriental Jewry, in a remote part of the globe, during an extraordinarily turbulent and traumatic period of world history. Starting from Baghdad in mid-1850, the author traces the peregrinations of polyglot Jewish families through India, Malaysia, Indonesia, right up to the throbbing, teeming, palpitating Chinese metropolis of Shanghai. She then faithfully chronicles their century of life there, in all its multi-faceted, kaleidoscopic fascination, till the Community's total eclipse under Communist rule in the mid-1950's.

The narrative skill of the author, and the lucid prose flowing from her pen, belie the years of painstaking, dogged pursuance of source material, literally worldwide, all meticulously researched and scrupulously authenticated, including repeated visits to sites and locations mentioned in the text. What she harvested is artfully and comprehensively woven into a rich, colorful, panoramic tapestry, depicting Jewish life in this little known corner of the Far East.

That hers was a labor of love is obvious throughout, but at the same time, no mean amount of toil and sweat, perhaps some tears too, if no actual blood must have been expended during the manuscript's gestation. Combining an exquisite blend of literary talent and scholarly detachment, the innate honesty of the author is clearly discernible. With ruthless objectivity the story is told as it was - warts and all. Flimsy or uncorroborated information - however attractive - is strictly rejected. On the other hand, authentic, relevant facts, unembellished and unvarnished, are all faithfully recorded, however unpalatable some might find them.

Wisely, Dr Meyer sticks to her clearly demarcated brief, eschewing tempting digressions like the Jews of Kaifeng Fu - fully dealt with by Michael Pollak in: Mandarins, Jews and Missionaries, Bishop White and others - but refers to them only tangentially when their existence impinges on the conscience and concern of the Shanghai Jewish Community. True to her undertaking, the author concentrates her mind and attention on the Sephardi Jews of Shanghai, individually and collectively. Within that scope, she describes their lifestyle, their traditions, their ritual, their activities, their cuisine, their cultural development, their social aspirations and how they interact with members of the younger Ashkenazi Communities, principally Russian, but also much later German and Polish Jewish Refugees with the advent of World War II.

All of this integration was taking place in a milieu which included a substantial enclave of foreign nationals and swamped by the overwhelming body of the native Chinese population. This is indeed a fascinating tale and the author tells it with a gripping, almost mesmeric style. Once taken up it is difficult to put down, and anyone who was there will wallow in nostalgia.

As the subject matter is so unusual, it earns the distinction of being a unique contribution to the genre of books on Jewish Social History, and will be of immense interest to historian and layman alike, especially one with a personal connection to China and the Far East.

Since no human endeavour is perfect, some nitpicking is in order. A few typographical errors could have been avoided by more thorough proof reading. The fastidious reader wishing to check sources frequently, would note with annoyance the absence of a correlating link between the section of Notes and the relevant Chapters to which they refer. A simple superscription on each page of Notes, giving title and number of the relevant Chapter, would solve the problem. More and wider choice of photographs and illustrations would have been welcome. I am sure there is a rich store waiting to be tapped. However, I understand a Pictorial Companion is in the offing, and I eagerly anticipate its appearance.

Finally, the title strikes me as somewhat pedestrian and inelegant, as well as a bit of a misnomer. 'From Baghdad to the Bund' or 'From Baghdad to Bubbling Well' would not only be attractively alliterative, but 'catchy' and far more evocative.

In concluding, the author lets the reader determine whether patriarch David Sassoon's belief that the 'spiritual and religious survival' of the Sephardi Jewish Community of Shanghai would depend on 'the teaching and tradition of Baghdad', has been realized. I would rejoin that whereas the lost Kaifeng Jewish Colony was aptly epitaphed by their Chronicler Michael Pollak with the words 'For the wind passed over it, and it is gone, and its place is no longer known!' (Tehillim Ch.103.v.10), in gratifying contrast the Sephardi Jewish Community of Shanghai, infused and reinvigorated by the later Ashkenazi influx - especially the refugees from European Yeshivot during World War II - survived and re-emerged, energized and vibrant, all over the globe. Moreover, they impacted on World Jewry on five continents even unto the third and fourth generations. A true vindication of King Solomon's dictum: 'Cast your bread upon the waters, and in the fullness of days, it shall be found!' (Kohelet Ch.11. v.1).