Tag Archives: China

Jews of the Week: Sasson ben Saleh and David Sassoon

Two years ago, for Jew of the Week’s 7th birthday in November, we featured a month-long series on one of the world’s most famous Jewish families, the Rothschilds. This year, for Jew of the Week’s 9th birthday, we will feature a month-long series on the Sassoon family, the “Rothschilds of the East”. This is Part 1. Click here for Part 2. 

Sasson ben Saleh (1750-1830) was born in Baghdad to a wealthy Mizrachi Jewish family that had lived in what is today Iraq since the 12th century. Some say they were descended from the illustrious Sephardic ibn Shoshan family. He took the reins from his father as Baghdad’s Sarraf Bashi, or Chief Banker, at the age of 31. In this role, he was essentially the finance minister of the Iraqi Pashas, and among other things oversaw tax collection and the financing of public works projects. A very religious man, he was renowned for his righteousness and humility, and was called “Sheikh Sasson” by Jews and non-Jews alike. He used much of his fortune to assist the Jewish community and was among Iraq’s greatest philanthropists. Of his seven children, the fifth would become world-famous:

David Sassoon

David Sassoon (1792-1864) was born in Baghdad. After finishing primary school, he got married at the age of 15, and began his training to succeed his father as Baghdad’s financier. However, a new pasha took over and began persecuting the Jewish community. Many fled to Bombay, India, among them David Sassoon and his young family. Sassoon started a textile business, focusing on trade with the British Empire. The conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842 opened China to Western business, so Sassoon began expanding East. He sent his son Eliyahu (Elias) to Guangzhou, making him the first official Jewish trader in China. A couple of years later, they opened a branch of their business—David Sassoon & Co.—in Hong Kong, and then another in Shanghai, making most of their wealth from yarn, cotton, and opium. During America’s Civil War, cotton exports from the Southern states declined so Sassoon stepped in to fill the supply, making a huge fortune. Around this time, the first modern oil rigs were devised, and Sassoon immediately recognized their potential. He began investing in oil, and soon operated 17 mills in India, with as many as 20,000 workers. Like his father, Sassoon never abandoned his faith and was deeply religious. He was a generous philanthropist, too, and supported both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. In Mumbai he built a school, mechanical institute, hospital, and library, as well as the Magen David Synagogue. The massive home he built for his family is now Masina Hospital, and another home is the city’s oldest museum. In the city of Pune, he built the grand Ohel David Synagogue, in addition to a hospital free for all Indians regardless of class or caste. He single-handedly supported all the orphans of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. He was so beloved by the local Indians that they made a marble statue of him to display in the city.

Clockwise from top left: Pune Hospital, David Sassoon’s 1860 gift to the City of Pune; Masina Hospital in Mumbai today, which used to be David Sassoon’s private home; David Sassoon Library and Reading Room in Mumbai; Exterior (top) and interior (bottom) of Magen David Synagogue, built in 1864, and once housing two Jewish schools; and Ohel David Synagogue in Pune, an official Indian Heritage site and the largest synagogue in Asia, built in 1863.

The Jewish Couple That Helped Free Thousands of Slaves

Words of the Week

Fear only two: God, and the man who has no fear of God.
– Hasidic proverb

Click here for Part 2

Jews of the Week: Renée and Sir Naim Dangoor

The “Exilarch” and the First “Miss Iraq”

Sir Naim Dangoor in 2015

Naim Eliahou Dangoor (1914-2015) was born in Baghdad to a wealthy and religious family, at a time when a full third of the city’s population was Jewish. His grandfather was the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, while his father operated the largest Arabic printing press in the world. At 17, Dangoor journeyed to England to study engineering at the University of London. Upon his return to Iraq, he hoped to work as a railway engineer but was barred from the position because he was Jewish. Instead, Dangoor was conscripted into the army. There, he met Ahmed Safwat, and the two decided to start a business together. The first major contract secured by their company (Eastern Industries Ltd.) was to replace the windows of Iraq’s government buildings. They soon diverged into property development and manufacturing. They made matches, furniture, and opened Iraq’s very first Coca-Cola bottling plant.

Renée Dangoor

Meanwhile, Naim married his cousin, Renée Dangoor(1925-2008). She was born in Shanghai, where her family temporarily lived for business. The family moved back to Baghdad when she was still a child. In 1947, she participated in the country’s first beauty pageant, and was crowned the first ever “Miss Iraq”. She married Naim the following year. Unfortunately, things got really bad for Iraq’s Jews after the founding of the State of Israel. By 1959, the Dangoors had no choice but to flee. Naim continued to operate his businesses for a few more years until the government stripped him of his citizenship and took over his company. The family settled in England and started from scratch, opening a new property development business, and establishing a community centre for Iraqi Jewish immigrants. To preserve their culture, Naim founded The Scribe – Journal of Babylonian Jewry, which would go on to publish magazine issues for 35 years, distributed in 25 countries. By 1980, Dangoor had rebuilt his wealth. He wanted to give back to his new home, and established the Exilarch Foundation to provide charitable funds to organizations across the UK. Among other things, the Foundation has provided full scholarships to over 5000 needy students. The Dangoors made the largest ever private donation to both the Royal Society of Medicine and the Francis Crick Institute (Europe’s largest biomedical research facility). After Renée succumbed to cancer, Naim became one of the biggest contributors to Cancer Research UK. He also donated a massive sum to the University of Nanjing in China, in honour of his wife who was born nearby. Among the many other beneficiaries of the Dangoors is Bar-Ilan University, which now runs the Dangoor Centre for Personalised Medicine. Shortly before his passing, at age 100, Dangoor was knighted by the Queen, making him the second-oldest person ever to receive the honour.

50 Things a Jew Should Always Do

Words of the Week

The idea is that you’re supposed to be a light to the nations. If you only have your light on at home, nobody else sees it.
– Rabbi David Wolpe

Clockwise from left: Hakham Ezra Reuben Dangoor, Chief Rabbi of Baghdad from 1923-1926; Naim and Renée at a Baghdad party; an Arabic newspaper announces “Miss Iraq” in 1947; the first Coca-Cola ad in Iraq, circa 1950; Naim with his business partner Ahmed Safwat.