When the West Olive, Michigan congregation of United Israel World Union dedicated their new Community Center on the 7th day of Sukkoth, October 17, 1965, the group received a most treasured gift. A rare Indian Torah Scroll encased in a beautifully ornamented silver container was consecrated. The Torah was of Sephardic style and dated 1898-Calcutta, India.
The ancient scroll was one of several Torahs held in the custody of The Brotherhood Synagogue of New York under the care of Rabbi Irving J. Block, spiritual leader of the Greenwich Village congregation. Presenting the Torah to the Michigan community, however, was a modest, unassuming Sephardic individual by the name of Edward S. Abrahams. Mr. Abrahams’ full Hebrew name was Ezra-Shalom ben Abraham Khazzam. His many friends and acquaintances knew him simply as “Eddie.”
Edward Abrahams was born on July 7, 1901 in Basra, Mesopotamia (Iraq). As the Jews of Europe in the early 20th century looked upon the United States as the golden land of opportunity, so did the Jews living under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire look upon India as their refuge and a place where their lives could be improved.
When he was three years old, his widowed mother took Eddie along with his two brothers to British-ruled India. This was done in compliance with the expressed wishes of his father before Arabs murdered him when the boy was only six months old. Growing up in Calcutta, Eddie was raised in the strong Hebraic tradition of the Bagdadian Jews who formed the bulk of the city’s Jewish population.
The strange saga of Eddie’s life began when he left home at an early age to become a seaman. Because of his fluent knowledge of his native Arabic, he posed as an Egyptian to attain employment on a Danish vessel. Arriving in Seattle, he abandoned ship. A stranger in that great Pacific port city, he made his way to HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) who graciously took him in. He soon found a little synagogue where he was able to observe the Passover celebration. He didn’t miss the symbolism in his experience.
Following that Passover in the spring of 1917, Eddie took a job on an American sailing vessel, an old wooden windjammer whose destination was Alaska. A benevolent Captain shared the ship calendar and changes of the moon with Eddie, enabling the young Jewish sailor to keep all the holidays subsequent to the Passover by the guidance of the moon, “that faithful witness in the sky,” as the Bible describes it.
On his return to Seattle, Eddie lost all of his belongings. He tried to join the Army. Too young to enlist in the American Army, Eddie decided to go to the Canadian recruiting station. There he saw a poster inviting men to join the Jewish Legion, a group of volunteers formed after the Balfour Declaration to enable young Jewish men who so desired, to serve in Palestine in a regularly constituted unit of the British army. This, Eddie decided to do.
He enlisted and was sent to Nova Scotia in 1918. Here came Eddie’s first real contact with Jews other than those of his own Levantine tradition. At first his fellow Jews looked upon him with suspicion. Many did not believe that he was Jewish, and later some even ridiculed him for saying his morning prayers and donning the phylacteries according to the custom of pious Orthodox Jews. Eddie was extremely hurt by this behavior as previously, he had been met with respect from Gentile seaman for so openly observing his religion.
After training in England, the Jewish Legion unit to which he had been attached was sent to Palestine. After fulfilling his service there in 1919, Eddie chose to return to the United States. He arrived during the Thanksgiving season in late November 1919.
Again, the temptation of the sea took Eddie back to American ships. But some three years later came an abrupt change of plans. Desiring to see more of America, Eddie decided to turn to a “hobo life” for a period. Thus, in 1922, starting out from New Orleans, La., he joined a group of vagabonds and followed the harvest wheat belt arriving finally in New York City in 1923.
At this time, Eddie had to make a vital decision. Either he would have to go back to sea or settle down to a job on land. He decided on the latter.
He took a job at a garage on the Lower East Side. The foreman was so impressed by Eddie’s work that he persuaded the still very young Calcutta Jewish seaman to remain. Eddie remained at this job for fourteen years, working his way up from odd-job laborer to manager of the station.
Striving to start out on his own, Eddie moved to Northern Westchester in 1937 and went into the gas station business for himself. In 1959, after his three daughters had been married, Eddie decided to give up active management of his business and to travel once again.
Intending to go to Israel for a reunion of the Jewish Legion, by a strange coincidence, Eddie met two Pakistani merchant officers in the lobby of a New York theater. So impressed were they by his Indian command of the Urdu language, they invited Eddie and his wife to visit them on their ship. A fast friendship resulted and at dinner on board the ship of his newly made friends, the Abrahams were invited to come to Pakistan as guests of the ship’s captain.
After a visit to Karachi, the Abrahams left by air for Calcutta, India. Eddie was finally returning to the place he grew up, but he wasn’t prepared for what he would find.
To his amazement, he discovered that most of his friends were either dead or had left India. The old Jewish community had dwindled as a result of emigration to Israel and elsewhere. Synagogues stood almost empty and the priceless Torah Scrolls within the Arks unused.
When Eddie asked friends what had become of the once flourishing Bagdadian Jewish community in Calcutta, he was told that since partition the Jews had lost their former privileged European status and had left the country. Many opted to emigrate to the UK, US, Canada and Australia, and some to Israel. This rapid movement of people destabilized the tight-knit religiously conservative community.
Eddie became greatly concerned about the large number of Sefer Torahs that had adorned the onetime flourishing synagogues. He was told that a few of the ancient and beautiful scrolls had been sent to various communities in Israel and other countries where congregations of Calcutta Jews had been formed. Eddie decided to approach the Jewish community officials about bringing some of the unused Torahs to the United States where they would be placed in synagogues in this country that were in need of Torah scrolls.
The Jewish community leaders of the city, agreeing that it was almost tantamount to sacrilege to allow Torahs to remain unused, agreed to the request. The great task was arranged through Mr. Isaac S. Abraham, an influential and well-respected member of the Jewish community of Calcutta. Eddie agreed to cover all expenses for repair and transportation.
Back in America with his priceless cargo, a dozen Torahs, Mr. Abrahams was providentially led to Rabbi Irving J. Block, spiritual leader of The Brotherhood Synagogue in Greenwich Village, New York, who consented to have his congregation act as custodian of the treasured objects. They would remain there until worthy beneficiaries could be decided.
Over time, the ancient Torahs have found new homes. Two were given to an Orthodox Synagogue in Brooklyn whose Ark had been destroyed by vandals after a break-in. Several went to newly established congregations from Ethiopian (Falasha) Jews to Japanese Israelites. It was announced that one would be donated to a new kind of house of worship officially opening in February 1966: the International Synagogue at John F. Kennedy Airport, bringing the message of the Hebraic faith to all mankind.
And one, of course, to a Michigan congregation of United Israel World Union.
Eddie Abrahams was present at all the ceremonies. As a messenger of the Faith, he always presented the ancient Torahs as a gift of the Jewish community of Calcutta, India.
Thanks to a Baghdad born Jew, Edward Abrahams, who had spent his childhood days in Calcutta, India, and then roamed the world as a modern day “Jack London” only to settle finally in the United States as a successful businessman, the richly-ornamented, antique Indian Torah Scrolls, symbols of the quickly dying Jewish community of Calcutta, would now live on in the Arks of new houses of worship.
The United Israel Scroll resides today at the United Israel Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.
On the occasion of its use, one is left to wonder about a past congregation in Calcutta, India who faithfully read from it so many years ago and to also remember the incredible journey of “Eddie” Abrahams who personally placed it in our care.
Today, less than fifty Jews remain in Calcutta.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. A historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.
This post is the nineteenth in the ongoing series “Remembering David Horowitz.” For the complete archive see .