“This book is a record of descendants of Baghdadi Jewish merchants who settled in the Treaty Port of Shanghai in the mid-19th century,” says Maisie Meyer. “They are authentic voices, allowing us a glimpse of bygone days of privilege, and the rich diversity that made the community so vibrant. It offers infinite perspectives of personalities whose lives were shaped by crucial historical events and enriches our understanding of history. Over 50 photographs enable us to visualise the lives and times of these individuals. They are seen in the context of the founding fathers of the community who laid the infrastructure to preserve its identity.”
How did your book come about?
“Its genesis was my resolve to preserve the memory of this mercantile community by providing an opportunity for genuine self-expression to men and women who have not been heard so far, among them nonagenarians and seven who have since passed away. Clearly, time is of the essence in preserving these important segments of history that must be valued, particularly as communal records have yet to be traced. Growing up in a colonial setting in India gives me a deeper understanding of Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews and their desire to appear as British as possible within the parameters of their faith.”
What has been your experience with the subjects of the book?
“Far from being an arduous task, writing this book developed into an exciting adventure of being drawn into the worldwide network of Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews. My primary undertaking was to recruit a team of 24 from a wide cross-section covering the entire spectrum of the community to write reliable narratives, warts and all, of their lives in Shanghai. Friendships developed and ideas exchanged, enabling me to acquire the deeper insight required to analyse and resolve several subtle and intriguing issues, most notably regarding the identity of a community born and bred into a culture to which they did not really belong.”
How did you do your background research?
“From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai was based on my doctoral thesis. In this volume, Sir Victor Sassoon’s biography includes groundbreaking references to diaries he meticulously kept between 1927 and 1961. The Kadoorie family biography incorporates a raft of correspondence, between Sir Horace Kadoorie in Shanghai and his brother Lord Lawrence in Hong Kong, which I was privileged to research in their archive. Nissim Ezra Benjamin Ezra’s biography comprises copious references to Israel’s Messenger, the journal he edited from 1905 to 1936 and furnishes invaluable insights into communal affairs.”
How has the community responded to your work?
“Descendents of Shanghai Baghdadi Jews regard this book as a tribute which perpetuates in this tangible manner the memory of this unique community. It is of special interest to former Jewish residents of Shanghai, among them a community of some 8,000 Russian Jews and 20,000 refugees from Nazi persecution. It is an important contribution to historical Jewish and Treaty Port studies and is of interest to lay readers and scholars of the various disciplines pertaining to cultural, social and economic history. It encompasses collective data, which provides the groundwork for generated studies and provides a new access method in analysing the community.”