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Ralph Buntyn

The Strange Saga of Eddie Abrahams

“Take this Torah scroll…that it may serve as a testimony for you” (Deuteronomy 31:26).

When a West Olive, Michigan congregation 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 beautiful ornate silver container. It was Sephardic 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 was a modest, unassuming Sephardic individual whose full name was Ezra-Shalom ben- Abraham Khazzam. Most of his friends and acquaintances knew him simply as “Eddie.”

Edward Abrahams was born on July 7, 1901, in Basra, Mesopotamia (present day 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 Eddie was only six months old. Growing up in Calcutta, he 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 his 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, Washington he abandoned ship. A stranger in the great pacific port city, he found his way to HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) who graciously took him in. Soon he found a little synagogue where he was able to observe the upcoming Passover celebration. The irony of his journey didn’t escape him.

Following Passover in the spring of 1917, Eddie accepted 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 him, enabling the young Jewish sailor to keep the holidays by the guidance of the moon, “that faithful witness in the sky,” as the scriptures describe it.

On his return to Seattle, he lost all his belongings. He tried to join the Army. Too young to enlist in the American army, he decided to try 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 for training. Here, he came into his first real contact with Jews other than those of his own Levantine tradition. At first his fellow Jews looked upon him with suspicion, many not believing that he was Jewish. Some even ridiculed him for saying his morning prayers and donning the phylacteries according to the custom of pious Orthodox Jews. Eddie was extremely disappointed by this behavior given the fact he had been met with respect from most Gentile seaman for so openly observing his religion.

After training at Nova Scotia his unit designated as the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers was deployed to Palestine to join the struggle against the Ottoman Empire. After fulfilling his service in 1919, he chose to return to the United States, arriving during the Thanksgiving holiday season in late November 1919.

Again, the temptation of the sea took Eddie back to American ships for over three years, then came an abrupt change of plans. Desiring to see more of America, he decided to turn to a “hobo life” for a period. In 1922, starting out from New Orleans, La., he joined a group of vagabonds and followed the harvest wheat belt before finally arriving in New York City in 1923. There he had a vital decision to make: either he would have to go back to sea or settle down to a job on land. He decided on the latter.

He accepted a job at a garage on the Lower East Side where the foreman was so impressed by Eddie’s work that he persuaded the still very young Calcutta Jewish seaman to remain. And he did so for fourteen years, working his way up from odd-job laborer to manager of the station.

Striving to venture out on his own, Eddie moved to Northern Westchester in 1937 and purchased a gas station business. In 1959, after his three daughters had married, Eddie decided to give up active management of his business and to travel once again.

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 that later led to the Abrahams being invited to come to Pakistan as guests of the ship’s captain. Following a visit to Karachi, the Abrahams left by air for Calcutta, India. Finally returning to the place he grew up Eddie wasn’t prepared for what he found.

To his amazement, he discovered that most of his friends had either died 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 what had become of the once flourishing Bagdadian Jewish community in Calcutta, he was told that since the 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, while some moved 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 once 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. He decided to approach the Jewish community officials about bringing the unused Torahs to the United States where they would be placed in synagogues in this country that needed Torah Scrolls.

The Jewish community leaders of the city, agreeing that it was almost tantamount to sacrilege to allow Torah Scrolls 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, He approached 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 remained there until worthy beneficiaries could be determined.

Over time, the ancient Torah Scrolls 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, ranging from Ethiopian (Falasha) Jews to Japanese Israelites. One was donated to a new kind of house of worship that officially opened in February 1966: the International Synagogue at John F. Kennedy Airport, bringing the message of the Hebraic faith to all who passed through.

Eddie Abrahams was personally present at all the ceremonies. As a messenger of the Faith, he always presented the ancient scrolls as gifts from the Jewish community of Calcutta, India.

Thanks to a Baghdad born Jew, Edward Abrahams, who spent his childhood days in Calcutta, India, and then roamed the world as a modern day “Jack London” only to finally settle in the United States as a successful businessman, the richly ornamented, antique Indian Torah Scrolls, symbols of the dying Jewish community of Calcutta, now live on in the arks of new houses of worship.

Today, fewer than fifty Jews remain in Calcutta.

About the Author
Ralph Buntyn is a retired marketing executive for a Fortune 500 company. He is executive vice-president and associate editor for United Israel World Union, an 80 year old Jewish educational organization dedicated to propagating the ideals of the Decalogue faith on a universal scale. An author and writer, his articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets including The Southern Shofar, The Jerusalem Post, and the United Israel Bulletin. He is the author of "The Book of David: David Horowitz: Dean of United Nations Press Corps and Founder: United Israel World Union."
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