The Magen David In Kolkata

With the dwindling number of Jews in Calcutta – just over 20 by last count –  unable to summon up the minyan, or the requisite ten men to hold a service, their shuttered places of worship stand mute witness to the once fabled diversity of their adopted land.

They arrived in search of better prospects to a thriving metropolis. Their descendants opted out of an uncertain future in a newly independent country and followed the departing colonial rulers to England. A year later many more chose the promise of a brand new homeland. Possibly further spooked by the Hindu-Muslim carnage post partition, although they were never ever persecuted. And as the city’s fortunes declined the exodus to more prosperous shores continued, leaving behind only those too old to adapt to a new life in a strange country, even if it was their own.

The first documented Jewish arrival was that of Shalom ben Aaron ben Obadiah ha-Cohen (Shalom Aaron Cohen), a diamond merchant from Aleppo, via the port of Surat in Gujurat in 1798 (who eventually became official jeweler to the Lucknow court). Baghdadi Jews followed the Syrians in the early nineteenth century and soon outnumbered their Arab brethren. At their peak they collectively numbered more than 5000. A community of affluent traders that filled the gap between white and black Calcutta, and whose legacy lives on in the schools, hospitals and monuments they left behind, and the streets that carry their names.

The Nahoum & Sons confectionery founded by Nahoum Israel Mordecai in 1902 that catered to the community’s sweet tooth and whose cakes were sought after at every British and Anglo Indian wedding, is possibly the only surviving Jewish establishment still run by an aging descendant of the original family*.

The Neveh Shalome built in 1831 was the first synagogue in Calcutta. It fell into disuse early on and has since been totally abandoned  The Beth Al Synagogue and the newer Magen David, now protected monuments under the Archaeological Survey of India, are better preserved, although you wouldn’t know it from the masses of plastic tat vendors blocking the latter’s gates. Interestingly, both are looked after faithfully by their hereditary Muslim caretakers.

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*Until recently, the Nahoum family maintained the synagogues and permission to visit had to be procured from them. We went with Manjit Singh on his aptly titled Culture Kaleidoscope Tour.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

81 thoughts on “The Magen David In Kolkata

  1. Interesting the community declined so much. Although a small part of the Gib population, the Jewish community here is well established, I think we have four synagogues, and numbers here are pretty consistent. The inside photos made the synagogue look very elegant. Looked Arabic in style too with those beautiful arches.

  2. Outstanding job capturing the inside (seriously!). Looks majestic. It’s great to know that it still stands today and that they never get rid of it.

  3. None of my relatives stayed on after the 2ndWW.
    My great-grandfather’s bakery is still operating with his name!

    It’ll be wonderful to meet you. I’ll certainly let you know when I come to India – its something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child.

  4. Hi Madhu,
    Fascinating and interesting post. Sincere congratulations on the historical research.

    I’m so glad I popped over and saw this post – [Its thanks to Christine (of Dadirridreaming) ] – I needed to be reminded how much I still want to come see the country of my mother’s birth. I think you know that my mother was born in India?
    100 years ago we had a large family living there. They’re scattered around the world now. But the history is there. A few years ago my sister found our great-grandfather’s grave at one of the Jewish cemeteries in Bombay, and his bakery is still operating in Bombay

    My mother’s family lived in Calcutta after she and her sister finished high school. My aunt worked at the Great Eastern Hotel. Is it still there?

    love rosie

    1. Oh my what a co-incidence! And how amazing to find your great grandfather’s bakery still in operation!!
      The Great Eastern reopened late last year, just a month before our visit in fact, after a prolonged closure. Did you have any other relatives that continued to live in Calcutta? A trip in search of your roots is certainly warranted Rosie. Let me know if and when you plan a visit. A pleasure to see you here 🙂

    1. Even more so to find Jewish readers with roots in Calcutta Patti! What are the chances of that? Happened with my ‘Death Railway’ post as well!!

  5. You present history and contemporary society in such a fascinating way always, Madhu!
    Your post reminded me of our trip to Israel many years ago now, to Jerusalem. One of the events planned for us was a dinner visit to a family of Indian Jews. Now I can’t remember whether they were from Cochin or not, it could have been Mumbai or Calcutta. It seemed so exotic to us, these were Jews from INDIA! Your description gives more dimensions to this one-dimensional souvenir.

    1. I have always been fascinated by Jewish history, and the thought of Jewish presence in India seemed exotic to me as well! Glad you enjoyed this Judith.

    1. My knowledge was limited to the Cochin synagogue as well Bronwyn. This led to some fascinating research. Mumbai should be even more interesting. Thank you for reading.

  6. Many years ago, my seat in the synagogue here in Jerusalem, was next to an Indian Jew who immigrated here right after the declaration of statehood. He used to tell me of his life in India, and what beautiful neighbors the Indian people were… how much he loved his life there, even though he took great pleasure in returning to the land of his ancestors. His stories made a deep impression for me. And so, it doesn’t surprise me that the Indian synagogue is respected despite the scarcity of Jews in that fine city.

    1. Strange how we form impressions of religions isn’t it Shimon? We are a generally tolerant nation. We were at least. But it strikes me that geography dictates who we tolerate or hate. The Jewish people were never perceived as a threat here. But neither were Muslims, until partition. Then everything changed overnight and we were – both – ready to massacre neighbours over those perceived differences. I appreciate your stopping by to share your thoughts.

  7. Great post Madhu. The synagogue is quite an oasis of tranquility from the omnipresent street vendors. As I recall, there is a very busy mosque nearby adding to the chaotic scene.

    1. The chaos outside was pretty intense Ron. It isn’t that Chennai is any less chaotic. We generally don’t walk around those areas on a day to day basis like we do when we are tourists. I really need to get out and chronicle the ethnic streets here when the weather improves a bit.

  8. Very interesting background about the Jewish community. We have a couple of hundred Singaporean Jews – many contribute marvellously to our society.

  9. I always find the history behind your posts so fascinating. Thanks to you Madhu I am gaining a bit of knowledge about parts of the world I may never be able to visit. I too found it heartwarming to know that it is being watched over.

    1. I admit to being a history buff Luann. The back stories enhance my enjoyment of a destination. I am happy that you enjoy reading them 🙂

  10. This is amazing – the pictures and the story behind them. Truly appreciate the effort you put in understanding and documenting the (his)story. Thank you.

    1. To me these buildings are essentially a pile of stones, however beautifully put together, without their back stories. But i also worry about putting off people with too much detail. 🙂 Thanks for reading Paritosh.

  11. Those interiors are sublime Madhu – such a shame that so few are left to keep it as a functioning place of worship. Before reading this I had no idea about the rich Jewish heritage of Calcutta/Kolkata.

    Something tells me the Sassoons of Mumbai are one and the same with those who dominated business and real estate in pre-war Shanghai; the famous Peace Hotel on the Bund was built as ‘Sassoon House’ in the late 1920s.

    1. You sent me on a fascinating Sassoon search James! And Victor Sassoon, the person associated with the Peace hotel is indeed the great grandson of the first David Sassoon from Baghdad – the founder of the library in Mumbai! There are many lord and baron Sassoons, intermingled with the odd Rothschild, floating around Europe apparently! Enjoyed hunting them down. Thanks 🙂

      1. You’re welcome, Madhu. 🙂 Perhaps the Sassoons will be the worthy subject of a future post, either on your blog or mine!

  12. What beautiful places. It is good that they are preserved – they are part of your country’s rich history. Thank you for the history and the photos. This is the first time I have seen the inside of a Jewish temple.

  13. Once while attempting to visit the Jewish synagogue in Cochin, it turned out to be closed for the sabbath. All the disappointed Jewish tourists got together and formed a minion. By chance there was even a cantor from Toronto present and a Friday night service followed though in the strict orthodox manner of men and women sitting separate. Only Jews were allowed.

    1. How interesting!! I would have loved to witness something like that! Thank you for stopping by to comment Nina. A pleasure to ‘meet’ you 🙂

  14. It’s sad, isn’t it, to think of people moving away from the community they built over time, but it’s such an interesting phenomenon. I remember being fascinated by the Cochin synagogue – so different to the Victorian grandeur of this building.

    1. Yes, interesting and kind of inevitable. And there isn’t much on offer to tempt them back. I have never visited the Cochin synagogue. I expect it would be simpler considering local architectural norms.

  15. We visited the synagogue in Cochin and learned how few Jews are left to care for it. They also don’t have ten men for a service.
    It would be nice to see foreign Jews reacquaint themselves with Jewish history in India and pay homage. Perhaps they do. Like you said, they weren’t persecuted there.

    1. I heard Mr. Nahoum lovingly cared for the synagogues for decades in the fond hope that the younger generation might want to return someday. I understand their reluctance to return though, Kolkata has little to tempt them back at this point.

  16. So sad that they couldn’t make up their numbers to 10 men for a service but heartwarming to know the synagogue is now cared for by a Muslim family. Fascinating post

    1. Thanks Suzanne. I found it heartwarming too. Shows how geography decides how we relate to people of a different faith

  17. Thanks for the informative post Madhu. Mumbai is home to most of the remaining Jews in India, but I wasn’t aware of the history.

    1. I know. They arrived several centuries ago and are called the Bene Israelis. The Cochin Jews date back even further, perhaps a thousand years and apparently came directly from Judea! Thank you for your visit and comment Kan.

  18. It’s so touching that a Muslim guard keeps watch over this temple, Madhu. I can imagine in happier times that this place was once very busy. I’m amazed that there are so few Jews left n such a densely populated city.

  19. Thank goodness they are being preserved and interesting that it is by a Muslim family, The interior photos are all of the Magen David?

  20. Really interesting info and I, like Sally, was especially enamored by the ladies stairwell albeit a difficult climb for an aging woman. The number 20 is certainly exact!

      1. I was really intrigued that you knew it was “20” smiles, but still very sad. So many things are changing.

  21. Wonderful post. I visited the Old Jewish Quarter in Prague recently and found it fascinating. Several of the old synagogues and related buildings have been converted to museums to preserve the Prague/Czech Jewish culture. Worth a visit if you get to Prague.

  22. oh woow I loved that stainded window.. you know the house i use to have , had a stained window and it broke when someone thre a stone or something and i enquired for replacement .. put it this way I could not afford it 🙂

    Lovely fotos mam

  23. I like the stairs seen that lead to the ladies’ gallery. Jewish culture and religion are my heritage, and it still makes me STOP and PONDER that in the more religious branches women and men cannot sit together in prayer.

    1. We have temples here that haven’t moved with the times too. Some deny entry to women from puberty to menopause!!

  24. Interesting that the Neveh Shalome wasn’t/hasn’t been restored. Was it too far gone to think about doing that? Your photos of the Magen David are lovely.

    1. Thank you Angeline.There is little info online, but I gathered that there was some inter synagogue rivalry with the Magen David, built right next door, that forced it to shut down even before the exodus began.

    1. They apparently had a service last year during the visit of the Israeli ambassador, but needed people from his entourage and other visitors from Delhi to make up the requisite number. Bittersweet is right. Thanks Kat. Happy July 🙂

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