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.
*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.