Lecture series explains Baghdadi Jews’ ties to Shanghai

Research shows strength, vitality and solidarity of the Jewish community.

Conrad Wilson

Much of the news coming out of Baghdad is focused on current events, but little is widely known about the history of its people.

Maisie J. Meyer, a professor at the University of London, is attempting to change that through her research on a Jewish community in Baghdad that found its way to Shanghai.

During the mid-1800s, Baghdadi Jewish merchants moved east, stopping first in Bombay and then Shanghai, Meyer said.

Once in Shanghai, she said, the Jewish community prospered, impacting the city and culture while holding onto their Jewish roots.

Jonathan Paradise, a University professor emeritus of classical and near eastern studies, said the lecture shows the strength of the Jewish community.

“It shows the vitality of the Jewish diaspora,” he said. One gets “a sense of solidarity and loyalty to fellow Jews.”

During the late part of the 19th century, there were 45,000 Jews in Baghdad – one of the largest and most prosperous Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire, Meyer said.

At the time the Baghdadi Jews arrived in Shanghai, the city was not a nice place to live, Meyer said. However, she

said, trade drew thousands of Baghdadi Jews, who made Shanghai their home and invested their resources in the city.

When the Baghdadi Jews arrived in Shanghai, they discovered a Jewish community that had arrived hundreds of years earlier and were assimilated into the Chinese culture, Meyer said.

Jews in Shanghai dispersed during and after World War II to places like Israel, London, New York and Canada, Meyer said.

“I always feel very sad when I think about the demise of this community in Shanghai,” she said.

The research began as a dissertation, Meyer said. These days, she said she is “nearly obsessed” with researching Baghdadi Jewish community.

The increased importance of these two places in the world – Baghdad and Shanghai – is at the front of globalization today, Meyer said. In fact, many Jews are now moving to China again, namely Shanghai and Beijing.

where to go

Welcome Aboard The Shanghai Express
WHAT: Lecture by Maisie Meyer, sponsored by The Center for Jewish Studies and the Asian Languages and Literature Department.
WHEN: 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. today
WHERE: Sabes Jewish Community Center, 4330 S. Cedar Lake Road, Mpls.

“Israel has very close relationships now (with China),” Meyer said. “I see it very promising for Jews in China.”

The lecture series, now in its third year, works to bridge a relationship between the University and greater Twin Cities Jewish communities, said Leslie Morris, professor of German and the director of the University’s Center for Jewish Studies, who sponsors the events, along with Robert and Janet Sabes.

The Center has come a long way from its early days, said Max Donath, a University professor of mechanical engineering who attended Tuesday’s lecture.

Tonight’s lecture is the second part of the series and will focus on the Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai during World War II and their lives thereafter.