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The disappearing Jewish community of Kolkata

The Jewish community played a significant role in the mercantile development of the city. Now with only around 30 of its members remaining, an urgent effort is on to salvage its history

Kamalika Ghosh  |  Kolkata 

It is perhaps not surprising that the last conductor of the now-defunct Calcutta Symphony Orchestra should have been Bernard “Bunny” Jacob. After all, the culturally vibrant capital of West Bengal is home to people from all over the world, among them the Jews. Jacob’s Jewish community made the city its home around two centuries ago, and, till the 1970s, there were around 600 of them living there. Today, their number has dwindled to just under 30.

That is a number that is inadequate even to hold prayers at the two synagogues in the city. A Shabbat service requires at least 10 men to be present, but there aren’t so many worshippers left in the city. After about 30 years, prayers were recently held when the Israeli embassy brought some visitors, who, along with the few men in the city, formed a quorum for a Shabbat service.

Perhaps the most famous Jewish person in the city, David Nahoum passed away in March last year. Nahoum had been the city’s official “fruit cake man”, lording it over Nahoum & Sons Pvt Ltd Dainty Confectionery in the maze-like New Market. The shop was a landmark, and direction seekers often asked shopkeepers, “Dada, Nahoum ta kon dike? (Which way is Nahoum?)”. For almost a century, this dimly-lit shop enticed visitors with its almond macaroons and cheese straws. “Once Nahoum’s shuts its doors, its famous delicacies, like the cheese samosa, will be lost forever,” rues Jo Cohen, secretary of Jewish Community Affairs.

The thought that a lot of the community’s history in the city would be lost has prompted academic and activist Jael Silliman, a young member of the Baghdadi Jewish community of the city, to put together a digital archive that narrates Kolkata’s 200-year-old Jewish story. The Beth El Synagogue on Pollock Street has put on display 30 posters from the archive’s Visual History of the Community section. It is a collage of luminaries, events, institutions and memories that are a part of the rich legacy of the community.

Beth El Synagogue
“Collecting the material and putting it together wasn’t easy,” says Silliman. “It was like fitting in the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It might appear to be simple, but I had to collect everything photo by photo. I wrote to people requesting them to send me photographs of their families so that I could use them in the archive.”

Silliman relied initially on Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah’s research and writing on the community in Kolkata. Then, she says, “Edmund Jonah sent me wonderful photos of his family over generations as well as archival material on his mother, Rachel Sofaer, who acted in silent Bengali films with the screen name Arati Devi. Don Ezra also gave me permission to use a few photographs from Turning Back the Pages by Esmond David Ezra, his father.”

Jewish Girls' School
The Jewish Girls School in Park Street perhaps paints a poignant picture of the Jews. It still runs classes, but Cohen, who is also on the school board, scratches her head as she tries to recall the year in which the last Jewish student passed out. “Very difficult to say, perhaps it was 1975,” she finally says. Today, almost 90 per cent of the students are Muslims. Apart from the school, there are a number of what were once Jewish institutions and buildings, including the Fairlawn Hotel, Esplanade Mansions, Aurobindo Bhavan, 7 Loudon Street, Elias Meyer School and Talmud Torah.

Cohen and others are working to ensure that the culture and architecture represented by these institutions do not fade away. “We plan to tie up with the Jewish community in Mumbai for finances, so that these institutions keep running smoothly even after we are gone,” she says.

Sitting beside a piano in the living room, Flower Silliman, Jael’s mother, beautiful even in her eighties, talks about the reasons behind the exodus. “Israel and India got their Independence almost together and till 1953, there was nothing called the Indian passport. After independence, a sizeable population, including Jews, left for London. Then, Jewish girls married American and British soldiers and left. Later they coaxed their families to leave as well, since they saw a better future outside India. My brothers left for America and Australia. Some people, like my husband, had businesses here and they decided to stay back. There were others like the Jacobs, a Baghdadi Jew family. The entire family left, except for its son, JFR Jacob. He stayed back and became a general in the Indian Army.”

Culturally, she says, the community has assimilated with the Indian population. “We eat everything Indian, only the meat has to be kosher. For example, we cook tandoori chicken with lemon because our dietary laws do not allow us to eat meat and yogurt together. Dal has become an integral part of our cuisine; it had never been a part of a typical Jewish household.”

Many others have stories like hers. These are now captured in the archive’s films segment. In one, Jewish elders Cyril Cohen and Aaron Harazi, who passed away a few days ago, speak extensively of the days spent in school in Kolkata. It also takes the viewer on a virtual trip into the two synagogues, Magen David on Canning Street and Beth el on Pollock Street, whose gates are today blocked by vendors selling knick-knacks.

Legend has it that the city’s first Jewish cemetery, at 45 Narkeldanga Main Road, came into existence when the first settler, Shalome Cohen, asked people in his business circle for a suitable piece of land for a burial spot. A Bengali business associate took him to an open paddy field on the outskirts and asked him if that plot would do. When a delighted Cohen asked him about the price of the land, his friend said it was a gift. When Cohen insisted on paying since the land was meant for a religious site, the associate said he would accept whatever Cohen wished to give. The settler then sealed the deal with a gold ring that he was wearing. Moses de Pas, an emigrant from Safad, now in Israel, it is assumed, was the first Jew to be buried there in 1812.

A digital platform will allow access to everyone, whether it is a Jew in Israel or in America or anywhere across the globe,” says Jael Silliman of her archives. “A digital platform also enables me to include photographs, sound files, and videos and texts as resource materials.” It has already attracted the attention of the School of Cultural Texts & Records at Jadavpur University, which was working on a project that delves into colonial Kolkata. The school found in the archive a source of information on the Jewish community which had a major role to play in the mercantile development of the metropolis.

The community observed the two-day Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, in September. But in Kolkata it was a time of bitter-sweet recollections. With the passing of every year, there are fewer and fewer elders left who still remember the Calcutta of their times. “You see, it is a community that has a beautiful outside. The buildings, mansions are still very much a reality,” says Jael. “But inside those buildings, there is nothing, no people.”

Visit the digital archive at

First Published: Sat, November 01 2014. 00:14 IST