Skip to content

Baghdadian and Bene Israel Jewish song in twentieth century Bombay: Repertoire, performance and interaction

By Sara Manasseh

The two most prominent Jewish communities, numerically, in twentieth century Bombay (today’s Mumbai) were the Bene Israel and Baghdadian (also Baghdadi or Babylonian), the term ‘Baghdadian’ encompassing Jewish settlers from the Middle East and Central Asia. The Bene Israel had lived in India for centuries, first in villages along the Konkan coast, where, along with their neighbours, they spoke Marathi. The Bene Israel moved to Bombay and other cities in India from the eighteenth century. While Arabic speaking Jews had traded with India for centuries, living there for short periods, they first settled in India from about the eighteenth century, first in Surat, moving from the end of that century to Calcutta (Kolkata today) and Bombay, and later settled in Poona (Pune today). Arabic speaking Jews in India had arrived from a number of cities, including Aleppo, Baghdad, Basra, and Aden. In Bombay they were joined by Persian speaking Jews, from Mashhad, from the mid-nineteenth century, and later by settlers from Bukhara, Samarkhand, and Afghanistan. The Arabic and Persian speaking Jews all followed the Babylonian Jewish mode of prayer, attended the Baghdadian synagogues, and formed part of the Baghdadian Jewish community of Bombay. At their peak, the Bene Israel and Baghdadian Jewish communities numbered respectively, approximately 20,000 and 6,000 in Bombay, prior to their gradual exodus to Israel and English speaking countries, following Indian Independence (1947) and the establishment of the State of Israel (1948). A smaller number of Cochin Jews also lived in Bombay. The first hazzân-s (prayer leaders, cantors) at Bene Israel synagogues were from Cochin, while the majority of Cochin Jews prayed at the Baghdadian synagogues built by the Sassoon family, the Magen David in Byculla and the Keneseth Eliyahoo in the Fort area, and identified with the Baghdadian Jewish community. During the 1940s, Bombay and other cities in India saw the arrival of European Jews fleeing the Nazi holocaust during World War II. Many were skilled doctors and dentists, and soon established practices in Bombay and elsewhere in the country, adding another dimension to the fabric of Jewish society in India.

While prayer chant and cantillation are central to Jewish liturgy and ritual, it is the performance of paraliturgical song – hymns for Sabbaths, festivals and life-cycle events sung at home and in the synagogue – that forms the main focus of this article: Jewish religious song sung in Hebrew in both the Bene Israel and Baghdad Jewish traditions, as well as in Marathi and Arabic, in each tradition, respectively. Some of the song texts, and in a few cases the melodies, too, are shared in both traditions. Other aspects of Jewish life are specific to each tradition. The malîda ceremony, a thanksgiving for a variety of occasions, is unique to the Bene Israel, and includes special songs dedicated to Éliyyâhû Hannâbî (Elijah the Prophet). Songs for the ziyyâra (pilgrimage to the tombs of spiritual leaders) in Iraq, continued to be sung, many in Judeo-Arabic, by the Baghdadian community in India, and again represent a distinct strand of performance practice.

Paraliturgical songs or hymns are known variously as piyyûtîm (religious poetry), zémîroth (songs), pizmonîm (refrains), and shbahoth (songs of praise), the latter term specific to the Babylonian Jewish tradition. Tenth century and medieval Jewish poetry from Andalusian Spain, poetry by the kabbalistic author Rabbi Najjâra (c.1550–c.1620), from Safed (Palestine) and more recent poetry are among those sung today in all Jewish traditions, and the delight in, and importance of singing these hymns is attested:

…every man will …hurry back to the synagogue to receive the Sabbath with prayers and praises up to one hour before sunset, and then return to his house, and in the company of his family, sing songs and hymns in honour of the Sabbath…

(Benjamin II, Romanian explorer and writer, describing Sabbath in Iraq, 1847; quoted Shiloah 1983:14)

1 Flora Sassoon London 1907 Edit 2012

Flora Sassoon in Court dress. London 1907. (Courtesy of the Sassoon family, Jerusalem)

In India, too, the practice was widespread. Baghdadians in Bombay treasured their manuscripts and printed collections (Diwân-s) of Andalusian Jewish poetry, and when lithography became available, Jewish song books were printed in Bombay during the nineteenth century and used by all Jewish communities there (Sassoon 5709/1949: 205–209). A. Z. Idelsohn, the pioneer of Jewish musicology transcribed six shbahoth, as sung by Flora Sassoon (1856–1936), my father’s maternal aunt, who was born in Bombay: ‘[Songs] 189—194 sung for me by Mrs. Flora (Farha) Sassoon in London; they are from Bagdad and are sung in India’ (Idelsohn 1923 [1922]: 23, 140). The songs – both the texts and melodies – continue to be sung today. In both Baghdadian and Bene Israel traditions, religious song continues to hold its importance. Shalom (Abraham) Charikar who grew up in Poona and Bombay recalls:

Musically too…we learnt it [religious practice and song] mainly from the Jews from Cochin, Yemen or Iraq…In quite a lot of our families we used to sing them very often. When I was a young child, we used to have to sing them every evening before supper – seven, eight children standing in a line while mother is serving supper, and we used to have to sing three of them at least every evening, before you got served…Sunday to Thursday…as far as I can remember it would be more Marathi than Hebrew…I’m talking of the 1930s now. (Pers. comm. Shalom Charikar. London, 28 January 2001.)

2 CharikarAbrahamFamily1930sFromRebecca

The Abraham (Charikar) Family. Bombay 1942. (L–R) Standing: Mary, Raymond, Abigail. Seated on stools: Daniel, Hannah. Seated: Sophie, parents Elizabeth Abraham and Menachem Abraham, Shalom, Florence. (Courtesy of the Charikar family, London)   

While songs in Marathi are an important aspect of Bene Israel traditional religious practice, songs for the Sabbath were sung in Hebrew:

After the qiddûsh [blessing over wine]…we would start singing songs… on Fridays [nights], we used to sing only Hebrew songs. Friday – Hebrew, and Saturday of course, was with Éliyyâhû Hannâbî [Elijah, the Prophet]…[for] Moséi Shabbâth [following the end of the Sabbath]. (Pers. comm. Shalom Charikar. London, 28 January 2001.)

On Sabbaths or Festivals, these songs are performed unaccompanied by instruments, as playing musical instruments on days of religious observance has been forbidden since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (c.70 CE). However, there is no objection to instrumental accompaniment at other times. A series of 78 rpms of Jewish song recorded in Bombay during the twilight years of the Raj featured Bene Israel and Baghdadian singers and instrumentalists. These recordings, some from private collections and others discovered at a Record Fair in the UK, have been remastered and released on a CD, with detailed background notes in the booklet, reaffirming the importance of the material and bringing to life once again the musical expertise of the performers (Futter and Manasseh 2009, with tracks from the King Records, Hebrew and Jay Bharat labels).

Featured on the King Records (c.1939–40) label is the leader and singer Simeon Jacob Kharîlker, Hebrew teacher, author and printer of books of Jewish interest in Hebrew and Marathi at the Bombay Hebrew Publishing and Printing Press, and well-known in the Bene Israel community for his fine voice. He is accompanied on mandolin by Faizulla (Hanukkah) Taghioff, originally from Samarkhand and a dealer in precious stones; a musical giant of the mandolin in Indian cinema, he performed as Abdul Rahim Taghioff, playing from c.1930–1955. Elijah (Eliyâhu) Menashy, the ‘ûd (Arab lute) player, had moved to Bombay from Calcutta, his family being originally from Iraq; Mordecai, also from the Bombay Baghdadian community, played drums; the violinist, Israel, was from the Bene Israel community. The composition of this group is significant. It represents a microcosm of most of the Jewish communities living in Bombay at the time, and a happy example of inter-communal musical interaction, at a time when tensions existed particularly between the Baghdadian and Bene Israel Jewish communities.


Simeon Kharîlker (seated centre) and his group that recorded on the King Records label. Standing, L: Faizulla Taghioff (mandolin), R: Israel (violin). Seated, L: Mordecai (drum), R: Elijah Menashy (‘ûd). Courtesy Rachel Feldman and Elizabeth Eisenfeld)

The recordings on the Hebrew Record label (1937) were the brainchild of Abid David. Bought out of the Ottoman Army during World War I by his sister, he left Baghdad for Bombay c.1915. David later moved with his family to Poona, where he sold meat and was consequently known as ‘Abid Goshwâlâ’ (Abid, the meat man). Travelling from Poona to Bombay, he produced four records, singing on two of the tracks.

4 AbidDavidFez

Abid David, who organised recordings for the Hebrew Record label. (Courtesy Rahma Levi)

His father-in-law, Hâkhâm Yosef Eliezer, hazzân at the Magen David Synagogue, sings in the choruses.

5 HakhamYusufEliezerEditFromRahma

Hâkhâm Yosef Eliezer, hazzân at the Magen David Synagogue. (Courtesy Rahma Levi)

The young seventeen-year old Zaki Solomon Isaac, a teacher of Hebrew, leader of the Magen David Synagogue choir, and later hazzân there, is the singer on the remaining recordings.

6 Zaki I Solomon c1970s Israel

Hazzân Zaki Solomon, 1960s, following his emigration to Israel (Courtesy Solomon Isaac Solomon)

Later, in the 1950s, Zaki’s son, Solomon Isaac Solomon, was to lead and sing in the synagogue choir.

7 Choir1955MagenDavidBombayFromSolomonISolomon1984

The choir at the Magen David Synagogue, Byculla, 1955. Solomon Isaac Solomon, leader of the choir and son of the hazzân, Zaki Solomon, stands top, right. Members of the Baghdad, Bene Israel and Cochin Jewish communities sang in the choir. (Courtesy Solomon Isaac Solomon

Hâkhâm Eliezer and Zaki Solomon also blow the shofâr (ram’s horn) on some of the tracks. Zaki’s father, Suleiman Muséri, a violinist and ûd player from Baghdad, and originally from Egypt, migrated to Bombay in 1925 with his family and led his own instrumental ensemble, featuring dancing girls when the occasion demanded. Abid David also secured the fine playing of Issac David Dandekar. The son of a Bene Israel father and Baghdadian mother, Issac was known as Mr David, or David Saab, in the Indian film world, where he was noted for his superb mandolin playing and also as performer on guitar, ûd and qanûn (zither).

8 IsaacDavidDandekarQanounStudioFilmRecordingArabianAboutEarly50-sFromThelmascan0001

Issac David Dandekar (early 1950s) playing qânûn (zither). (Courtesy Thelma Sukrell and Annie Macmull)

The recordings were snapped up by the Jewish community, but were particularly appreciated by the Bene Israel in Poona (Pers. comm. Rahma Levi, Abid David’s daughter. London, 16 January 2005.)

The two tracks recorded on the Jay Bharat label (1939) feature Nathan S. Sâtâmkar, as singer.

9 NSatamkar

Nathaniel S. Sâtamkar, vocalist on the Jay Bharat label (Courtesy Hananiel Sâtamkar)

Nathan’s brother, David S. Sâtâmkar, performs on tablâ.

10 A17DavidSSatamkarTabla

David S. Sâtamkar, playing the tablâ (Courtesy Hananiel Sâtamkar)

The two brothers, both multi-instrumentalists, were the directors of their music school, Sâtâmkar Sangeet Vidyâlaya (Sâtâmkar Music Class), at Mazgaon, Bombay, where they taught Indian music theory and performance on voice, tablâ, bulbul tarang (keyed Indian banjo), harmonium, sitâr, dilruba (fretted, bowed, stringed instrument), bânsurî (transverse flute), mandolin, and violin. David Sâtâmkar also gave lessons in Indian Dance. Their students provide instrumental accompaniment on the recordings, while their sister, Mozel Sâtâmkar, and David’s wife, Abigail, both music teachers, sing on the choruses of Yom Hashabbâth (The Sabbath Day). The instrumental introductions evoke the Indian classical musical tradition.

The material on the King, Hebrew, and Jay Bharat labels encompasses songs for the Sabbath, Jewish New Year, and Festivals. All three labels feature the well-known Sabbath texts, Déror Yiqrâ (Proclaim Freedom) by Dûnash Ibn Labrât (c.920–c.990) and Yom Hashabbâth (The Sabbath Day) but sung to different melodies, some exhibiting the practice of contrafacta – setting the text to an existing melody. Excerpts from the three tracks of Déror Yiqrâ may be heard in the online review of the CD (Figueroa 2010). The melody sung by Kharîlker for Déror Yiqrâ on the King label, is based on the Baghdadian and Sephardi tune sung on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippûr) for the hymn, Rahûm Wéhannûn Hâtânû Léfânékhâ (Merciful and Gracious One, We have Sinned Before Thee); on the Hebrew Record label, Abid David sings the text for Déror Yiqrâ to the melody of the well-known Arabic song Qadduka-l-Mayyâs (Your Swaying Body), where the first half is set in the Arab rast mode (which includes three-quarter tone intervals), and the second half in the mode of hijâz (similar to the western harmonic minor scale). In another instance, the same Arabic melody – from the secular Egyptian song, Shamm al-Kokâîn (Sniffing Cocaine) known since at least the 1920s – is sung to two different texts: Kharîlker (King) sings it to Yârûm Wénissâ (He Shall be Exalted and Raised), a Passover hymn by the prolific poet, Rabbi Yisrâél Najjâra; Abid David (Hebrew) sings it to Mérîm Lé Roshî (Thou Who Raiseth My Head), a hymn for the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth) and for the birth of a boy, by Mordekhai Abadi, Rabbi in Aleppo c.1860–1880. The original secular song in Arabic was known and sung at the time in Bombay within the Baghdad community. The tracks are a snap shot of their place in time and include a rendition of God Save the King, unusually sung in Hebrew and the Jewish national anthem, the pre-1948 version of Hatikva (The Hope: later the Israeli national anthem), both sung by Kharîlker. One of the songs, Yom Simha (Day of Rejoicing) for Simhath Torah (Rejoicing of the Law) includes Hindi and English words, added by the singer, Zaki Solomon: Tâqatwâlâ! (Strong ones!) Gentlemen! Bhâi lok! (Brothers!) – a humorous injection of local colour into the Hebrew text. These authentic sound portraits of Bene Israel and Baghdadian Jewish traditions on the CD can now be appreciated in the context of Indian and Jewish history.

A later CD devoted to Bene Israel traditions (Yuval 2001) includes two Marathi Jewish songs: Éliyâhoo Hannâbee (Elijah the Prophet) sung to the melody of the 1950s Hindi film song Dil Ek Mandir Hai (The Heart is a Temple) – an excerpt of the Marathi song is performed here by Rivers of Babylon: – and Mâzhâ Yoséf (My Joseph), sung to a melody which is lullaby-like and appears to be closely related to a Marathi ovî tune, still sung and known for at least five centuries (I am grateful to the late Prof. Ashok Ranade for this information, during a discussion following my paper at a conference in 2004: Manasseh in Chaudhuri and Seeger 2010:190). The melody for Mâzhâ Yoséf is also sung at Bene Israel weddings by the bridegroom, to welcome his bride, to the text Nâwâ mikkol alâmoth (The fairest of all maidens) from the poem Yonâthi Zîw Yifâthékh (My Dove, Your Beauty Shines Forth) by Yisrâél Najjâra. The Cochin Jewish influence is also seen in Jewish marriage services in Bombay, with the singing of the concluding lines of the hymn Yighdal (Exalted) at the start of the service (Yuval 2001, Track 1). The text of the hymn is based on ‘The Thirteen Principles of Faith’ by Moses Maimonides (1135–1204, b. Córdoba, d. Fustat, Egypt). The Cochin custom adopted the Baghdadian melody for this hymn, and the custom itself, of including the hymn at a marriage ceremony, was adopted in both Baghdadian and Bene Israel marriage services. Yighdal is performed again on this CD of Bene Israel song (Yuval 2001, Track 3), now in its entirety, to the tune associated with the Baghdadian hymn for the Jewish New Year, Éth Sha’aréy Râson (At the Gates of Judgement) (Futter and Manasseh 2009, Track 9); the Bene Israel sing this melody to the Yighdal text only on the Jewish New Year.

This article presents a glimpse of Baghdadian and Bene Israel Jewish song performance in twentieth century Bombay. Nevertheless, the interaction of performers, and the mutual celebration of textual and melodic repertoire between the two communities highlights an aspect of a significant shared experience, both in the past, and one that endures today.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading


Chaudhuri, Shubha and Anthony Seeger (eds)

2010 Remembered Rhythms: Essays on Diaspora and the Music of India, London: Seagull Books, with ARCE-AIIS, New Delhi.

David, Esther

2009 Shalom India Housing Society. New York: Feminist Press at CUNY.

Figueroa, Michael A.

2010 Review: ‘Shir Hodu: Jewish Song from Bombay of the ‘30s’, Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology (15).

Idelsohn, A. Z.

1923[1922] Thesaurus of Oriental Hebrew Melodies. Volume II: Songs of the Babylonian Jews. Berlin: Benjamin Harz.

Manasseh, Rachel

2013 Baghdadian Jews of Bombay – Their Life and Achievements: A Personal and Historical Account. New York: Midrash Ben Ish Hai.

Manasseh, Sara

2001 ‘The music of the Bene Israel Jews of Bombay’, in Yuval Shaked (producer) Eliyahoo Hanabee. [CD] Feher Jewish Music Center, Tel Aviv: Beth Hatefutsoth. [catalogue no. BTR 0101.]

2004 ‘Religious music traditions of the Jewish-Babylonian diaspora in Bombay.’ Ethnomusicology Forum 13(1) Silk, Spice and Shirah: Musical Outcomes of Jewish Migration into Asia c. 1780–c. 1950:47–73. (Margaret Kartomi and Kay Dreyfus: Guest eds.)

2010 ‘Musical Memories, Musical Discoveries, Musical Meetings: Historic 78 rpm Song Recordings as a Mirror of the Jewish Diaspora in Bombay (1925–1947)’, in Shubha Chaudhuri and Anthony Seeger (eds), Remembered Rhythms: Essays on Diaspora and the Music of India, London: Seagull Books, with ARCE-AIIS, New Delhi, pp. 163–96.

2012 Shbahoth – Songs of Praise in the Babylonian Jewish Tradition: From Baghdad to Bombay to London. Farnham: Ashgate. [Book with CD: More precious than Pearls ]

Sassoon, David Solomon

1949 (5709) A History of the Jews in Baghdad. [1932]. Letchworth: Solomon D. Sassoon.

Shiloah, Amnon

1983 The Musical Tradition of Iraqi Jews. Or Yehuda: Iraqi Jews Traditional Culture Center.


Chaudhuri, Shubha (Ed.)

2006 Rivers of Babylon: Live in India! Compact Disc with booklet. CD Series Remembered Rhythms. Haryana: ARCE/AIIS.

Futter, Julian and Sara Manasseh (Producers)

2003 Shbahoth: Iraqi-Jewish Song from the 1920s. In Julian Futter and Sara Manasseh (producers). CD with sleeve notes. London: Renair. REN0126.

2009 Shir Hodu: Jewish Song from Bombay of the ‘30s. CD with 24 page booklet. London: Renair. REN0127.

Manasseh, Sara (Producer)

2002 Treasures. Songs of Praise in the Iraqi-Jewish Tradition. Performed by Rivers of Babylon. CD with 36 page booklet. London: S. Manasseh.

Shaked, Yuval (Producer)

2001 Eliyahoo Hanabee. CD with substantial booklet. Feher Jewish Music Center, Tel Aviv: Beth Hatefutsoth.[catalogue no. BTR 0101.]


Dr. Sara Manasseh is an ethnomusicologist and performer, who has researched the musical traditions of the Jews of Iraq, in the Iraqi Jewish diaspora, since 1983. More recently she has researched Bene Israel Jewish song. She is the founder director of the musical ensemble, Rivers of Babylon (London, 1999), which performed on a seven-city tour of India in 2005. Sara Manasseh was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), and moved to London in 1966. Her family, originally from Baghdad, settled in Bombay during the 19th and 20th centuries. Her book Shbahoth – Songs of Praise in the Babylonian Jewish Tradition: From Baghdad to Bombay and London is published by Ashgate (October 2012), together with a CD of Babylonian Jewish song performed by Sara, accompanied by ‘oud and percussion by Iraqi instrumentalists:  For further details:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gracie {Hayeem} Lerno #

    Sarah, Wonderful Research. Congratulations on your Accomplishments. Wish that I had met you in Bombay when I was there with Vilma for my 60th Class re-union tin Nov: 2014!
    Did you know that My father, ”Hayeem Benjamin Hayeem”’ the first Jewish lawyer and Sally Manasseh his sister the first Jewish Nurse are related to your dad ?Through Marriage of one of the Sassoon’s daughters??!!
    My dad told us the story of every Saturday [when he was a young boy] a Horse drawn Carriage was sent to his house in Byculla, to take him to visit the Sassoon family .As a ”Hayeem” had married a Sassoon .I think it was connected to Flora Sassoon.
    Helen my cousin now in Israel [your Mums good friend and relative also twice]. Her dad was a Manasseh too!! She has many story’s of the past. Have you ever interviewed her?? She is a Wealth of knowledge of our Bombay Community. Worked for Jewish federation in Bombay. She really should be Interviewed. Is a wealth of Knowledge, of our Bombay Community.
    I will give you her e. mail if you would like it.Also I was ”so” sorry to hear of your Aunt Violette’s passing. She was such a pillar in our Bombay , Habonim. I loved her and looked up to her when I was a little girl!! Met her a few times when I was in Israel. She came to our House for Shiva for my dad in Israel. Love from Gracie {Hayeem} Lerno

    January 3, 2015
  2. Ellis Macmull #

    Such a small world.You brought back a lot of early memories. Its amazing to hear about early family and friends. I belonged to the Magan David Synagogue, leaving Bombay in 1962 and was amazed to see pictures of Zaki and the choir. Zaki had a great voice. We played his 78 (record) constantly.

    August 5, 2017
  3. Dr. Chandrakant T.More #

    I suppose that Sir Issac David is my Mandolin Guru.Please send me soft copy of his photo.I want to display it in my room.

    November 6, 2019
  4. Dr. Chandrakant T.More #

    If anyone can send more information and photos of Sir Issac David great mandolin player?
    Where is his mandolin ? I want to see that.I want his photos .

    November 6, 2019
    • Anita #

      I have just read your article about my father Isaac David, for I am his daughter. Have you got Facebook?
      Thank You

      September 15, 2021

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: