Got a million dollars to spare? You might like to spend the money on a sumptuous Torah silver and gilt breastplate. This and other treasures from the collectionof the Sassoon family, the Baghdadi Jews who established a business empire from India to the Far East – will be going to auction at Sotheby’s in New York in December. Other items include an annotated siddur and the tefillin belonging to the Ben Ish Hai, and a rare handwritten work by Maimonides copied by Yemenite scribes in the 15th century. The 12th century Farhi bible is not up for sale. The Jewish Chronicle reports (with thanks: Alain):
A Torah breastplate, expected to fetch between half a million and 800,000 dollars at auction
Prized artefacts from the Sassoon family collection will go on sale in New York this December, including two pieces billed as the most important pieces of Judaic metalwork to be brought to auction in a generation.
Sixty eight pieces from the Sassoons – known as the “Rothschilds of the East” – will include rare silvers, Hebrew manuscripts, textiles dating from the 11th to the 20th centuries.
The centrepieces of the lot will be two highly decorative 18th century silver Torah shieldswhich originate from Lviv in modern-day Ukraine and, according to the auction house, Sotheby’s, can be attributed to Jewish silversmith Elimelekh Tzoref. When a similar shield was sold in Tel Aviv in 2000 it achieved the then record-breaking price of almost $800,000 (£927,000 today).
Also on sale is a Siddur once owned by Rabbi Joseph Hayyim, a 19th century master kabbalist and halachic authority for Iraqi Jewry – expected to fetch up to $200,000 (£153,000). Rabbi Hayyim’s tefillin – said to be the only ones known to still exist – will also be on offer.
“The exceptional pieces in this sale are treasures of one the world’s greatest Jewish dynasties and significant works of art which tell an important story of Jewish patronage, collecting and scholarship at the highest level,” said Sharon Liberman Mintz, Senior Consultant of Books and Manuscripts at Sotheby’s.
“Not only are the Silver and Hebrew manuscripts some of the finest objects to ever come to market, they are further distinguished by their unparalleled provenance to generations of members from this legendary family.”
While the coronavirus crisis has for many brought about a sense of solidarity in adversity, there have been distressing instances of racism in Israel, such as the odd attack against Asian Jews. +972 magazine *reports:
Bnei Menashe women in Israel
Last Saturday, Am Shalem Singson, a 28-year-old yeshiva student, was walking toward downtown Tiberias with some friends when two Israeli men scrunched up their nose and called them “corona, corona.”
Singson told them that he wasn’t even from China, but India — he and his friends are Bnei Menashe, a community of Indian Jews, several thousand of whom live in Israel. But the men, angry at being questioned, first shoved, then repeatedly kicked him. Singson had to undergo surgery for severe injuries to his chest and lungs.
Singson, who is still recovering in the hospital, believes that the novel coronavirus pandemic has become a catalyst for racists to escalate their bigotry. “They don’t want to live with us, they just want to fight,” he says. “They take advantage [of the situation] using coronavirus…and it’s not just me, many people face this.”
tained glass windows at the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, Mumbai (Photo: Sakhin Gokhale/Firstpost)
Four landmarks in India have been
recognised, of which three are in Mumbai. The Keneseth Eliyahoo
Synagogue and Our Lady of Glory Church both receive an Award of
Merit, while Flora Fountain receives an Honourable Mention. An
Award of Distinction has been given to Vikram Sarabhai Library,
Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, India.
The official ceremony
for the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, hosted by Mr Solomon F.
Sopher, Managing Trustee, President and Chairman of the Jacob
Sassoon Charity Trusts, together with Mrs Sangita Jindal,
Chairperson of the JSW Foundation, on behalf of the Jewish
Community of India, will be held at the Synagogue on 8 December
The UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award of Merit will be officially
presented at the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue by UNESCO’s Dr
Richard A. Engelhardt.
The bookThe Baghdadi Jews in India (Routledge, 2019) edited by Shalva Weil, will be launched in London on 18 December at an evening to celebrate the Jews of India in words, music and with food. For full details see here.
A 19th century Jerusalem rabbi, Yaakov Sapir, forged a special link between the Bene Israel Jews of India and the Tomb of Rachel near Bethlehem, when he travelled to India to raise funds for the tomb’s renovation. Today few Bene Israel Jews visit the tomb, which more closely resembles a fortification, writes Shalva Weil in Jewish Asian News, but the memory is still alive.
One of the causes to which the Bene Israel of Bombay contributed was the Tomb of Rachel. This tomb marks the very spot where the Biblical matriarch Rachel died in childbirth on the road to Bethlehem. In the Book of Genesis (35:19-20) it is written: “And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.”
Muhammad al-Idrisi, the 12th century Muslim geographer confirmed that: “On the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is the Tomb of Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin.”
The tomb has been the site of pilgrimage and prayer for Jews in the Diaspora for more than three thousand years. Throughout the centuries, Jews from all over the world visited the tomb, and sent funds to help renovate and maintain it. It was such a revered site that even Jews in far-flung countries, as far away as India, longed to pray there and felt connected to the place.
However, as with many Jewish religious sites, and particularly with respect to tombs of patriarchs, prophets and great Rabbis, the site also had religious significance for members of other faiths. This was particularly well documented in the 15th century with descriptions of Jews, Muslims and Christians frequenting the place. In 1615, Muhammad, Pasha of Jerusalem, gave the Jews exclusive rights to the tomb. In 1830, the Ottomans recognized the legal rights of the Jews to the site.
When Sir Moses Montefiore purchased the site in 1841, he restored the tomb and added a small prayer hall for Muslims. When Rabbi Yaakov Sapir left Jerusalem, emissaries were collecting money for the renovation of the tomb.
It appears that Rabbi Sapir was successful in fund-raising in India for the holy site.
Inscribed on the wall of Rachel’s tomb is the following plaque: “This well was made possible through a donation from our esteemed brothers, the Bene Israel, who dwell in the city of Bombay, may the Lord bless that place. In honour of the whole congregation of Israel who come to worship at the gravestone for the tomb of our matriarch Rachel, may her memory rest in peace, amen!
In the year 5625.” This lunar year is the equivalent of 1864, the year that Rabbi Sapir returned to Jerusalem from India.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, while Jewish art in Palestine portrayed Rachel’s tomb as one of the most important holy sites, the site also began to be coveted by Muslims and became a source of contention, with the Wakf demanding control of the place on the grounds that the tomb was part of a neighbouring Muslim cemetery.
After the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, the tomb was allocated to Jordan and Jews could no longer visit. During the Six Day War in 1967, after Israel occupied the West Bank (previously Jordanian territory), the tomb once again became part of Israel. During the 1970’s, when I used to visit the tomb, the keeper of the small tomb was a Bene Israel Indian Jew from Bombay, who felt an historical affinity with the site because of his forefathers.
The security around the Tomb of Rachel
In 1995, after the Oslo agreement, Bethlehem, with the exception of Rachel’s tomb, became part of the Palestinian Authority. The following year, the Israel Defense Forces, fearing a terrorist attack at the site, built a huge fortification around the previously modest tomb. In retaliation, in 1996, the Palestinian Authority declared the place to be on Palestinian land, stopped referring to it as Rachel’s tomb and made the claim that it was the site of an Islamic mosque.
During the second Intifada in 2000, there were intermittent attacks on the tomb with altercations between the IDF and Palestinian gunmen. Since then, there has been a growing wave of support for the idea that the site was in fact a thousand year-old mosque by the name of the “Bilal ibn Rabah mosque” until, finally, the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) endorsed the idea. In October 2010, it was declared a mosque.
Out of 58 member states, only the United States voted against the decision; 12 European and African countries abstained.
In a petition to UNESCO initiated on the internet, petitioners wrote: “In attempting to sever the Jewish cultural, religious and natural heritage bond with the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb, UNESCO denies the history it is mandated to preserve, engages in a political maneuver designed to weaken a member UN nation, and undermines its own principles. …
We demand that UNESCO, whose purpose it is to protect heritage, also protect Jewish heritage, rather than deny it.”
The tomb was even known by the Bene Israel of Bombay as one of the holiest sites to Jews over the generations even though they were disconnected from world Jewry. It symbolized fertility, and is of special significance to Jewish women. Rachel’s birthday, which falls on the 11th day of the lunar month of Heshvan, has become a day of pilgrimage for thousands of Jewish women, who come from all over Israel to pray for their loved ones or themselves. Busloads of Bene Israel have in the past visited the tomb to make vows and pray for suitable marriage partners for their children or beg for children for a childless couple.
The Bene Israel groups who visit the tomb today, which now more closely resembles a fortification marking the checkpoint to Bethlehem more than an ancient holy site, are few and far between. The Bene Israel guard is no longer there. The memory, though, is still closely guarded.
Sara Cohen, one of the best known Paradesi Jews of Jew Town, Cochin, India, passed away last month. She was 96 years old. Two other Jews remain.
Sara used to pray at the Paradesi synagogue, which celebrated its 450th anniversary in 2018.
This is a portrait of Sara in her home in Mattancherry in 2015.
The White Jews of Cochin (not to be confused with the much older community of Black Jews) are the descendants of Sephardi Jews expelled from Iberia in 1492. They became known as Paradesi Jews (Foreign Jews). In the 19th century, Baghdadi Jews joined the Paradesi community.
Abandoned synagogue in Cochin, less than a five-minute walk from the Paradesi synagogue.
Reconstruction of the Paradesi synagogue at the Israel Museum.
(All photographs are the copyright of Shalva Weil, and reproduced by kind permission.)
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