The Jews of Kolkata – Then & Now
My first introduction to the Talmud – Torah was during my tenth standard text book through a story called “The Needle” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Later on read a little more in “The Class” by Eric Segal. But little did I know that our very own Calcutta had a thriving Jewish community back in the nineteenth century. Although in decline, there are landmarks of Jewish community. Calcutta had always been a potpourri of various cultures and traditions and the Jewish community which came to Calcutta were welcomed with open arms here.
The Baghdadi Jewish community came to Calcutta during the British Raj mainly in search of commercial opportunities of the city. Shalome Obadiah-Ha-Cohen was the founder of the Jewish community in Calcutta. He arrived in Calcutta in the 1798 from Syria with the objective of trading in silk, spices, indigo and Arabian horses. With time, the community was built up. The Jews in Calcutta served in British administrations, they were Sherrifs and Magistrates. Many of them served in the British army too. The Jewish women too were well educated and light bearers in their field of work. Many of them were doctors and teachers. As the Jewish community grew, they made their presence felt by building synagogues (places of worship) and other imposing buildings. 5 synagogues were built by the Jew in Calcutta, out of which 3 stands today – The Magen David Synagogue, the Neveh Shalom and the Beth-El Synagogue. There is also a cemetery at Narkeldanga looked after by a lone Jewish guard.
Today the Jews of Kolkata are disappearing. The cause of their decline can be attributed to 2 historical events which occurred within a short span of time – India gained her independence in 1947 and the new Jewish country Israel was formed in 1948. Post independence, the Jews were unsure of their future in India and most of them moved to Isreal. Among those left, the current generation have all moved to Israel while others have sought greener pastures and moved to USA or Canada. From a thriving population of 6000, the number of Jews in Kolkata has reduced to a mere 20 -22.
The Jews left their mark in the city by building the imposing synagogues. The oldest one is the Neveh Shalome Synagogue built in 1831, followed by the Beth-El Synagogue built in 1856 and the Magen David Synagogue in 1884. The Magen David synagogue is one of the most beautiful synagogues of Asia. Currently, there are 3 Jewish schools in Kolkata – Jewish Girl’s School in Park Street, the Elias Mayer free school and the Talmud Torah in Bowbazar.
The numbers are diminishing. The Jewish population in Kolkata now mainly consists of aged person. With the dwindling population, the Jewish culture and tradition are also on decline. The onus is on the non Jewish population of Kolkata to keep their customs alive. Our post is just a small initiative in this regard to let people know about these places.
- The famous Ezra Street was named after Elias David Joseph Ezra, a real estate businessman. The Belilios Steet and the Synagogue Street are also named after the Jews.
- Ezra Mansion and Ezra Hospital are the other architectures built by the Jews and still bearing Jewish names. There are other mansions and buildings built by the Jews but no longer bearing their name example being the Chowringee mansion and Esplanade Mansion.
- Arati Devi , the Bengali actress of the Silent era was an Jewish lady named Rachael Sofaer based in Calcutta.
- Esther Victoria Abraham whose screen name was Pramila was a well known face in Bollywood in the 1930 and 1940s. She was also the first Miss India. Her daughter Naqi Jahan also went on to be Miss India in 1967.
- Ezra Mir, or Edwin Meyer was an actor and India’s most prolific documentary film makers.
- The famous Nahoums confectionery at New Market is a Jewish Shop. The plum cake which we buy during the Christmas is actually a Jewish recipe!
- There are 3 Jewish schools in Kolkata – Jewish Girl’s School in Park Street, the Elias Mayer free school and the Talmud Torah in Bowbazar. These three schools have students most of whom are Muslims. The last of Jewish student passed out from these schools almost 3 decades ago.