Contributoria

Article Movement & Migration

Tales of the last Jews of Calcutta

With just 22 members remaining, Jews are a vanishing community in Calcutta. They made the city their home 200 years ago and created a gorgeous legacy that now exists in memories and magnificent architecture. Before they disappear into oblivion, a few Jews narrate captivating tales of their old lives.

You can almost see the grand synagogue bristling with men chanting morning prayers. Not a place to stand, even. From the balcony above, it looks like a mass of people covered in monochrome. But the gleaming chandeliers make the atmosphere look orange. Many of the men are in a trance as they recite from the prayer book and move their heads and bodies unawares. There is a deep rhythm in the chanting of the prayer together by hundreds of men. The lyrical devotion travels through rows of men and long arches, hits the walls and windows, and then spreads all over the synagogue, much like the perfume of an incense stick. The balconies are filled with women of all ages wearing the best Arabic and English styles of clothing. They too are in a daze. The rabbi is preaching from the raised podium at the centre of the hall. A black table fan behind makes him comfortable.

The sun outside the colossal structure in this humid city has just begun to crawl its way from the closet. It strikes its first ray on a few stained glass windows. The ripples are created and, all of a sudden, a rainbow of colours lights up the cloth-covered chairs, the men’s faces and their tallit-clad shoulders. But no one notices; the chanting makes them unaware of everything else. Even the disturbing noise of hanging fans with twisted blades is blanketed by the powerful prayer song.

The worlds of sanctity are created and broken simultaneously while people come and go as they begin and finish their prayers.

You can almost feel a part of Jewish life throbbing inside this synagogue. Even if you are not Jewish, you can almost witness the dynamic culture as you pass by on your morning stroll.

Almost.

Except the Jews are missing.

This synagogue continues to stand at the same place, without the monochrome Jews reciting their prayers in a trance, without any religious worship and melodious chant, and without the vitality of life that once existed inside its long, archaic walls.

A thriving community

Elias David Ezra built Magen David Synagogue in 1884 in the memory of his father, David Joseph Ezra. The father and son were well known all over India for their real estate pursuits. They built several mansions that still stand mightily amid the chaos of Calcutta.

The Ezras were one of the many Jewish families that began migrating from Iraq, Syria and Iran around 1798 to escape persecution in their native lands and settled in the port cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Rangoon. They were traders dealing in indigo, silk, cotton, yarn, ivory and coffee. Many Jews opted for Calcutta because of its prominence as the capital of British India. Within the span of a century, the Jewish community of Calcutta increased to more than 2,000 people. In the next 50 years, the community grew to about 5,000 people during World War II. More and more Jews were migrating from Burma, which faced a Japanese invasion in early 1940s.

The wealthy Jews occupied the affluent areas of the city around Park Street, while the middle and lower middle classes lived in the north around Bow Bazaar. The community had its own Jewish schools for boys and girls, newspapers, mansions, clubs and businesses. The poor families were helped by the rich ones who offered them jobs in their enterprises. The Jews travelled to Madhupur, Gopalpaur and Darjeeling to spend their vacations.

They mingled with other communities of the city, including Anglo-Indians and Parsis. But there was rarely any intermarriage with any other community. The Jews of Calcutta prospered and enjoyed a rich cosmopolitan culture under the British Raj until 1947 and 1948, when India’s independence and the creation of the state of Israel respectively changed the fate of their lives forever.

After India’s independence, a lot of insecurities over the future of their businesses led them to think about leaving Calcutta. There were fears of the Indian government taking over Jewish companies. In government offices, Hindi and Bengali became the working languages, which Jews did not know.

Although the Jews did not face any kind of discrimination from Bengalis, they witnessed violent animosity between Hindus and Muslims during the Calcutta Riots of 1946. Thousands of people were killed, injured and were arrested by police. Curfews were sounded in most areas of the city. In 1964, too, they witnessed another religious riot where more than 100 people were killed.

The uncertainty of the future coupled with these incidents made the population dwindle to a handful of people. Those who were living in Calcutta at that time had no extended family or children to draw them elsewhere.

Post World War II, many Jews, born and brought up in Calcutta, emigrated to England, Australia, Canada and the US. Others left for their promised land after Israel was created. As a result, by the 1970s, only about 600 Jews were still living in Calcutta.

A few decades later, in June 2015, only 22 Jews are reckoning up their last days in Calcutta. All of them are over 70, while a few are already in their 90s. Some of the Jews who migrated elsewhere in their prime have returned to Calcutta post-retirement, because it’s here they feel home.

Perhaps a decade later, the remaining traces of a vibrant community will dissolve into history. Except these elderly people and the mansions that stand mightily in this disorder, typical of Calcutta; everything else of this effervescent culture has already dissipated into a nostalgia that often breathes far away in England, the US, Israel, France, Canada and Australia.

Desolate buildings of Calcutta’s Jews

Magen David synagogue now stands empty and silently in the heart of Calcutta.

The 130-year old elaborate iron gate has been engulfed by black and blue tarpaulins on which hawkers have put up their wares of jewellery, shoes, utensils, and accessories. As and when a few visitors arrive at the synagogue, the hawkers remove their makeshift shops and make way for them. Cries of good bargaining and deals along with the uninterrupted honks of passing vehicles have consumed the supremacy of this majestic structure.

Inside the synagogue, the silence of the monumental dark hall swallows the visitors. Not a soul is present; the dusty prayer books have not been touched for years. Circular stained glass windows all around the hall shine like jewels and throw myriad colours on to the tiled floor and chairs. Twisted fans have stopped functioning and now gather dirt in a corner. The ornate lamps are broken; the wooden chairs, which were once tightly packed with religious Jews, now reflect their images on their own. The balconies that were once occupied by jostling women now stand meaningless.

The city does not have even 10 worshippers to conduct a Shabbat morning service at the synagogue. In the last 36 years, only once has the synagogue witnessed a formal service: when the Israeli ambassador to India flew in with six other Jews to achieve the quorum of 10 people. A Muslim man, Rabbul Khan, is the caretaker of this synagogue. His father and grandfather, too, looked after the synagogue, but Rabbul says he is the last of his family to maintain the synagogue. His children want jobs in large companies.

The Jewish mansions in the city shares a similar fate. The dazzling white Esplanade Mansion at the corner of Esplanade Row East and Old Court House Street imposes its dominance on the surrounding structures. But one would effortlessly miss its glory and splendour if one weren’t to pause for a while silently on the opposite side of the street as clamorous hordes of buses, taxis and people pass by.

Elias Ezra also built this magnanimous edifice with intricately detailed long circular balconies and arched windows in 1910. Built in the Art Nouveau architecture style that was popular during 1890-1910, this larger-than-life structure was a plum residential address for the city’s wealthy Jews. However, as their numbers shrank, the offices of Indian-government owned organisations occupied many of the mansion’s 24 flats. Little do the people who work in these offices know or understand the historical value of this structure, which witnessed the rise and fall of a dynamic culture in Calcutta.

Tales from a bygone era

“The Jewish boys and girls who dated hardly kissed or slept with each other. They were frightened of repercussions. There were no contraceptive pills like we have now. They held hands together till they were married,” says Flower Silliman.

We are talking inside Silliman’s house, which bears a fusion of Indian and Jewish styles of decoration. Silliman is 85 years old, but can easily make young people jealous of her vigour and enthusiasm. Born and brought up as a Jew in Calcutta, she proudly mentions she saw warplanes landing on Red Road across the Maidan when the airport was still not built. Silliman lived in many countries, only to come back to Calcutta and spend the rest of her life here.

“We mingled with all English-speaking communities, but never ate supper with them due to our dietary laws. Nobody aspired to have food together. Everything was limited to tea and snacks. We were orthodox and followed all traditions, but started wearing pants and skirts instead of Arabic clothes. But we did not wear Indian clothes; our parents were afraid that if we wore salwar kameez, we would marry Indians and all the Jewish lineage will be lost.”

Jews take their lineage from their mother and their surnames from their father. Intermarriage was strictly prohibited. But even then some Jewish girls married Indians who converted to Judaism. The Indian men converted, because in most cases parents would prevent the marriage if they did not. Once converted they were accepted as members of the community and at the dinner table.

Silliman and other Calcutta Jews formed an extended, closely knit family. Even after they moved to different countries, they remained together. “Everything was the same like it was in Calcutta. Our gatherings, discussion, food, dance – all of it. As if we were picked up from one location and dropped in another, keeping everything unchanged.”

I ask for the reasons behind her return to Calcutta. “Living in Calcutta is easier and much more comfortable. I can’t think of living in New York. You have to get into the tube to go everywhere. It’s a race there. In contrast, Calcutta is relaxed. It is home,” declares Silliman.

An ongoing return from Israel

For Edmund Jonah, it was a different experience to be a Jew in Calcutta. Jonah’s family lived a little away from Calcutta in Agarpara. On weekends they drove into the city and socialised with cousins. On holidays, they would go to Bombay to meet families and friends who settled there.

Jonah was put up in a boarding school in Mount Abu in Rajasthan, and assimilated with Muslims, Parsis, Hindus and Bengalis. At home, Jonah and his siblings were cared for by Muslim servants and Nepali ayahs. “Racism and other forms of discrimination can have no meaning for us who grew up in India. We either liked someone for their personality or we didn’t. I have travelled a great deal of the world and I have found India to be the least racist country. They have the motto ingrained in them, ‘live and let live’,” Jonah proudly tells me in an email conversation from Israel.

Jonah’s mother, Rachel Sofaer, was born in Rangoon but her family moved to Calcutta when she was 10 years old. Rachel acted in two Bengali films under the screen name of Arati Devi. “My grandmother chaperoned her to the studios daily. There were several other Jewish girls who played in Indian movies. In our community there was no stain on doing so – perhaps a little envy from those who could not get an acting job in the industry. However, my mother’s film career came to a full stop when she married my father,” Jonah informs me.

For most of the Jewish girls, Jonah recalls, getting married was the thing to do. Some of them became nurses and stenographers, but they were discouraged to pursue further studies because they were told no man would marry them if they became too independent and earned more than their husbands. “Jewish men did not like their wives to go out to work as it cast a bad light on them, as if they did not have enough to support their families.”

There were a few exceptions like his mother, Jonah says, who worked for the American army during the war years. She was secretary to the colonel who was in charge of the camp in Titagar. “My father insisted that he did not want any of her earnings and she splurged on my brother and me, on her clothes and also lost considerable amounts every Saturday at the races.”

Races were a favourite pastime for those who could afford it and those who could not. Many Jewish men owned more than 10 horses and racing was a passion and enjoyment for them. They spent their Saturday afternoons at Calcutta racecourse.

Jonah worked for the National Tobacco Company, owned by a Jew, for many years. He spent the first 22 years of his life in Calcutta, Mount Abu, Darjeeling, Bombay and Andhra. He is now in his 80th year and lives in Israel.

“Parents were godlike figures to be a bit scared of. We did not have the strength to fight our parents and obeyed them whether they were right or wrong. But no one could have had a better childhood and education as we did in India. Although I live in Israel, I have returned to India several times as India is a part of me and will remain so until I die,” Jonah sums up.

No choice of home

At 71, Elisha Twena is one the youngest living members of the Jewish community in Calcutta.

He proudly shows me a photograph of his mother on his smartphone. She is 93 years old and can finish reading a book in two days.

“Most of the Jewish families in Calcutta were poor and that’s why we had a free school,” observes Twena. But that did not deter children from participating in entertainment. “Watching movies was cheap at the cinemas around the city. We used to jump from our school’s back gate, go to a cinema and come back again to school without anyone being informed. It was a fun time.”

Twena started working as soon as he finished school. “We were street smart. A lot of it came from values we learned in school and from our parents. After school, we immediately began working in different companies owned by Jews,” Twena says.

Twena’s sister and friends settled in Israel, America and England. “The first choice was definitely the US. But it was easier to go to England. Not much money was required. One could save for a few months to buy the tickets. Whoever couldn’t go to the US or England finally went to Israel,” Twena tells me.

Twena is a bachelor. He went to Israel and stayed there with his sister before he decided to come back to Calcutta. “I could not adapt myself in Israel after living here in Calcutta for so many years. Whatever accommodation was given to us was far away from the places where the mainstream population lived. There were also many logistical issues that I couldn’t efficiently manage.”

I ask him if he feels home here in Calcutta. “I have no choice. I do not have children or other interests to allure me anywhere else on this earth,” concludes Twena with bright eyes and a faded smile.

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