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Book Reviews

From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai
by Maisie J. Meyer (2003, University Press of America, Inc., 4720 Boston Way, Lanham MD 20706, paperback, $68)

Reviewed by Beverly Friend

As so many of the books on Jewish settlements in Shanghai tend to deal with recent history -- most especially the escape of European Jewry during World War II – it is a pleasure to read a book which concentrates on a finely crafted overview of a less publicized group: Sepharidic Jews, their settlement, history and contribution to China in general, and Shanghai in particular. In a series of finely delineated, historically significant, well-written chapters, Dr. Meyer makes an important contribution to Sino/Judaic scholarship.

Chapter One covers the appeal of the city to worldwide mercantile communities and settlements in foreign enclaves.

Chapter Two examines socio-economic establisment and growth during the second half of the 19ith Century by focusing on the lives of Elias Sassoon, Benjamin David Benjamin and Silas Aaron Hardoon.

Chapter Three concentrates on the erosion of Baghdadi identity as these Jews preferred to be cited as Sephardim.

Chapter Four looks towards co-religionists in Kaifeng an attempt to halt their total assimilation.

Chapter Five (an especially fascinating chapter) concentrates on the economic activities of the most wealthy and influential – many of whom flourished in the opium trade.

Chapter Six discusses real estate investments.

Chapter Seven evaluates the ways in which Baghdadi traditions, customs and rituals were preserved, with emphasis on the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi rituals.

Chapter Eight focuses on synagogues and religious leaders.

Chapter Nine examines Jewish institutions including the Shanghai Jewish Communal Association and the Shanghai Jewish School.

Chapter Ten looks at leisure activities noting the reasons there was no visible Sephardi Jewish Club until 1937.

Chapter 11 highlights British nationality and its importance.

And the final chapter takes note of the critical value of foreign nationality because of the protection it afforded merchants.

This historical work – covering an era from the mid-19th Century to 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China -- is filled with salient details containing 242 pages of text and nearly 60 pages of notes, written by a highly regarded expert in the field.

After receiving her Ph.D. from London’s school for Economics in 1994, Dr. Meyer – who is herself from the Calcutta Baghdadi community -- lectured widely on the Baghdadi Jews of Shanghai, and published important articles in numerous journals. This book is the superb culmination of her extensive research.