Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma

By Deshen, Shlomo | Shofar, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma


Deshen, Shlomo, Shofar


Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma, by Ruth Fredman Cernea. Lanham MD: Lexington Boob, 2007. 173 pp. $24.95.

The widely scattered Baghdadi Jews of the Far East in the 19th century constitute an interesting case of a vigorous Jewish society. The Baghdadi Far Easterners were instrumental in creating and funding Jewish institutions in Baghdad. Their role was very different from that of their Ashkenazi peers who migrated to the West from Eastern Europe at about the same time. The Baghdadi migrants included members of the social elite of the community. They commanded the respect of those who remained, and soon the migrants who did well economically became munificent benefactors of the home community. They played an important role in the revitalization of religious and cultural life in the mother community of Baghdad, causing it to fill a prominent role in 19th-century Sephardi Jewry. The Ashkenazi situation was very different. From the outset the emigrants from Eastern Europe were looked at askance by the leading lights of their home communities. The latter considered America "a treifene medine," an ungodly land, where the emigrants might go astray. Moreover, the emigrants included numerous rebellious socialists, whereas members of the old elite were not prominent among them. It took longer for the Ashkenazi migrants in the West to begin to play a positive role in their mother communities then it did for the Baghdadis.

This is the context of the particular community described in this book. Rangoon was one of the less prominent, and more recently established, of the Far Eastern Baghdadi communities. Calcutta, the capital of British India in the 19th century, was home to a larger, wealthier, and culturally richer community. A Judaeo-Arabic weekly newspaper was even published there for several years. The Rangoon community, established in the 1850s, was part of the Calcutta orbit, a distance of three days by sea. But Rangoon itself was the focus for a dozen small communities of Jewish Baghdadi traders who lived in inland Burmese localities. These people gathered in Rangoon for the major festivals and family events. The Far Eastern Baghdadi system as a whole was a tapestry of family, religious, and business ties, with the elite business people of the major centers, Calcutta, Bombay, and Shanghai, connecting the system by marital matches and business dealings.

Anthropologist Ruth Fredman Cernea has reconstructed some of the history of the Rangoon community by interviewing descendants of local people currently dispersed in the Western world and in Israel, by studying archives and gravestones, and by consulting with the few Baghdadi individuals still living in Rangoon. Three main topics run through the book. One is the subject of social and cultural identity, well-captured by the title "Almost Englishmen." Another, is the nature of community life and the interplay of elements of identity (Jewish-Baghdadi, English, Burmese) in the lives of people. The third main topic is the virtual destruction of the community in the course of World War II, not as an outcome of antisemitism, but as a corollary of the Japanese invasion and of Burmese post-colonialism.

The Baghdadi-Jewish presence throughout the Far East was linked to the British colonial presence, and expressed in trading. The Baghdadis brought with them their hybrid Judaeo-Arab identity, exemplified in particular by their languages, liturgical Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic speech. The political loyalty and cultural preference of the Baghdadis were directed toward the British overlords of the localities in which they based themselves. …

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