Journey East: How the Jewish Diaspora Established Itself in Asia

2 February 2023

Jewish communities have existed in Asia for centuries, with many tracing their roots back to the ancient Silk Road trade routes.

Journey East: How the Jewish Diaspora Established Itself in Asia View this email in your browser Call us: +1-212-518-1618



Jewish communities have existed in Asia for centuries, with many tracing their roots back to the ancient Silk Road trade routes. There has been a resurgence of interest in Jewish heritage and traditions in destinations such as China, India, and Central Asia. Here are some of the best places to familiarize yourself with the strong role that the Jewish community has played in Asian societies through the centuries.



An old Israeli stamp honoring the 100th Anniversary of the Bukharian Quarter in Jerusalem

The history of Jews in Azerbaijan dates to the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE. Over the centuries, Jewish communities have existed in various parts of Azerbaijan, with the largest concentration in the capital city of Baku. The most sizeable and ancient group is the Mountain Jews — or Jews of the Caucasus — with communities existing around the nation. They are said to be descended from the Persian Jews of antiquity. Visitors can familiarize themselves with the country’s Jewish diaspora through an excursion to Red Town in the Quba highlands, the only entirely Jewish settlement outside of Israel and the US. Guests can visit the local synagogue and meet the rabbi and stop at the Museum of the History and Culture of Mountain Jews.


A synagogue in Oni with the snowy caps of the Southern Caucuses in the background. In Georgia, Jews have played an integral role in society since the 1st century CE. During the medieval period, Jews in Georgia were primarily concentrated in the cities of Tbilisi and Mtskheta. They were typically engaged in trade and commerce and had a significant role in the country's economic development. There are numerous ways to discover more about Georgia’s Jewish heritage. In Tbilisi, highlights include the city’s Great Synagogue and the David Baazov Museum of the History of the Jews of Georgia and Georgian-Jewish Relations. Elsewhere in the country, Mtskheta is one of the oldest towns in Georgia and was where many Jews settled after fleeing Jerusalem when Nubuchadnezzar destroyed the First Temple. Also significant is Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, which has a long history of supporting Jewish communities, and preserving their traditions.


Former residence of Michael Blumenthal, US Secretary of the Treasury, in the Jewish Quarter Shanghai plays a significant role in Jewish history within China. The first Jews to arrive in Shanghai came from Iraq via India in the 19th Century. In the 1930s and 40s Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe sought refuge in the city. They were concentrated in the city’s International Settlement and French Concession areas where they established synagogues, schools, and cultural institutions. The best way to brush up on Shanghai’s fascinating Jewish heritage is on a private Jewish history tour with Zheng Wanming, author of the book Jewish Refugees in Shanghai. A walking tour of Hongkou District — an area of great historical significance — features various architectural gems, including the Onel Moishe Synagogue that today houses the Jewish Refugee Museum. 


The Jews of Singapore Museum Singapore is a melting pot of cultures, including a small but vibrant Jewish community. The first Jews to live in Singapore were the Iraqi traders who were trading between the ports of Calcutta and Singapore. Encounter this heritage on a Jewish history tour that takes in key landmarks such as the Isaac Ellison Building and Maghain Aboth Synagogue (the oldest synagogue in Southeast Asia). Also significant is the Jews of Singapore Museum. It highlights a time when some of Singapore’s most important figures were Jewish, such as David Marshall, who became the city-state’s first chief minister in 1955.


The stunning interior of a synagogue in Samarkand.  The Bukharan Jews are considered one of the oldest ethno-religious groups of Central Asia. And over the years they have developed their own distinct culture. Throughout history, Jews from other countries like Yemen, Syria and Morocco migrated into Central Asia via the ancient Silk Road. Given its strong ties with the Jewish diaspora, it’s no surprise that that there’s plenty to interest visitors. Top draws include encountering “Beit Menachem”, the daily religious services held at Tashkent’s Bukhairian Jewish Synagogue, and with the Jewish vendors who sell their wares at the colorful Chorsu bazaar. In Samarkand, the tomb of Hebrew prophet Daniel and the city’s Jewish quarter are fascinating to peruse. In Bukhara, meanwhile, stop for tea at a traditional chaykhana, learn about the sculpture of Khodja Nasreddin in bronze made by local artist Yaakov Shapiro, visit the Synagogue, the Jewish Quarter, old baths, school, and Jewish kindergarten.


Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue in downtown Mumbai.  There are three main Jewish communities in India with different origins and traditions. Jewish settlement in Mumbai dates to the 1st century CE. Both Jewish communities living in Mumbai: the Bene Israelis and the Bagdadi Jews, have had a strong say in shaping the city over the centuries. Discover Mumbai’s Jewish influences with a brief orientation on its Jewish communities and encounters with important markers of Jewish influence, worship, and entrepreneurship. These include Sassoon Docks, built by an important family of Bagdadi Jews, the Fort Heritage District, and the Shaar Harahamin (or Gate of Mercy) Synagogue, built in 1796. In Cochin, the history of this community dates back to at least the ninth century, although records attest to early Jewish settlers arriving in the region in 70 CE fleeing the destruction of the Second Temple. Visit the Jewish Synagogue located in the Old Cochin quarter, built in 1568 — almost 1500 years after the beginning of the Jewish settlement in Kerala.


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