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Reviewed by:
  • From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai
  • Jonathan Goldstein (bio)
Maisie J. Meyer . From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai. Lanham, MD; New York; and Oxford: University Press of America, 2003. xviii, 331 pp. Paperback $68.00, ISBN 0-7618-2489-8.

Maisie J. Meyer and University Press of America are to be congratulated for bringing out a new book on the Baghdadi Jewish community of Shanghai that provides an overall history of the community from its founding in the mid-nineteenth century until its dissolution after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The book's particular strength is that it deals head-on with three controversial issues: the question of whether Baghdadis should be classified as Sephardim, technically Jews of Iberian origin; the role of Jews in the importation into China of Indian opium, a severely debilitating narcotic drug; and the hotly debated question of whether Shanghai's Baghdadis "did enough" to help the German and Austrian refugees from Hitler who poured into Shanghai beginning in 1938.

The Hebrew word "Sephardim" translates as "Spaniards" and technically refers to Jews who left the Iberian peninsula in 1492-1493 and retained medieval Spanish or Portuguese as their household tongue in varied places of exile. Meyer states that the ancestors of the Baghdadi Jews did not transit through the Iberian peninsula and that their household language was Judeo-Arabic, not Spanish or Portuguese. She cites a history of unbroken residence in Mesopotamia as far back as 598 B.C., "when Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, conquered the kingdom of Judah and transported Jews from Jerusalem to Babylon" (p. 29). Meyer points out that when the Spanish consul in Shanghai published Spanish King Alfonso XIII's decree of December 1924 permitting Sephardi Jews to become Spanish subjects once again, only four Shanghai Baghdadi Jews with their families, out of a population of nearly one thousand, claimed such lineage and took advantage of this protection. She notes that David Sassoon was erroneously referred to as a descendant of the Ibn Shoshan family, which emigrated from Toledo to Baghdad in the twelfth century (p. 37). As the title of her book suggests, she nevertheless categorizes the Shanghai Baghdadi community as Sephardi, arguing that they shared some theological similarities, and a variety of Hebrew pronunciation, with the Jews of medieval Iberia. She also argues that usage determines correctness, noting that the term Sephardi has become a widespread if inaccurate description of Baghdadis and many other Oriental Jewish communities. On this point Meyer differs from Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah of Calcutta and Philadelphia as well as this author, who continue to see the terms "Baghdadi" and "Babylonian" as more accurate references for Jews who emanated from Mesopotamia/Iraq. [End Page 146]

With respect to the opium question, the late John K. Fairbank maintained that "the opium trade from India to China was the longest-continued systematic international crime of modern times."1 While vast fortunes were made in that trade in the nineteenth century, including the bases of the first four million-dollar American fortunes (of John Jacob Astor, Elias Hasket Derby, Stephen Girard, and Joseph Peabody), there always was a small minority of China traders who vigorously denounced it. William Wood and Peter Dobell described the commerce as "pernicious." Nathan Dunn called it "illicit" and refrained from the business on moral grounds.2 Most vocal among the abstainers was New York's D.W.C. Olyphant, who characterized the opium trade as "an evil of the deepest dye" and was nicknamed "holy Joe" by the pushers. In a classic defense of a dishonorable profession, John Murray Forbes, of Russell and Co., wrote of Olyphant: "Protect me from all the hallowing influence of holy Joe—his ships are commanded by J-C—officered by Angels & manned by Saints. . . . Happy thrice happy is the ship even consigned to them."3 Opium merchant and U.S. consul in Guangzhou Benjamin Wilcocks castigated a ship captain who refused an offer of employment with the words "When a Captain stipulates for the particular articles which he will take...


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