If you found yourself in the small lane beside Pollock Street, deep in the commercial old part of Calcutta in the 1880s, you would have seen the Jewish School of Girls abuzz with little girls in uniforms of royal blue skirts and white and blue striped blouses, with the Star of David designed on them, going about their day. Today, these girls are nothing but a memory in this institution, and 90 percent of the students here are actually Muslim― a veritable anomaly given the turbulent past between the two communities. Offering quality education at subsidised rates, many of the students are the first generation in their families to get an education, and although the teaching of Hebrew has been discontinued, Saturdays continue to be observed as the Day of Sabbath. This institution, established in 1881, is a prime example of the several contributions the Jewish community has made to Calcutta and its cultural fabric―a community that, today, has less than 30 members left in the city, most of whom are elderly.
We first briefly explored India’s ancient relationship with Judaism in ‘5 Of India’s Most Unique Minority Communities & Their Stories’ but, as it happens often with stories, the pages sometimes start turning themselves to open a particular chapter, and we land today on ‘Recalling Jewish Calcutta.’ This digital archive was founded by scholar, author and feminist Jael Silliman who, at almost 60, is one of the youngest member of the Baghdadi Jewish community. The project extensively chronicles the history, work and culture of the community, ranging from a visual repository of posters, to a film gallery including names of women pioneers whose works merit recognition, and also includes knick-knacks such as recipes, family photographs and Hebrew documents.The archive is a tribute to their glorious history in an age where the numbers of those who remember a Jewish Calcutta at all are quickly dwindling.
“I realised that once the few Jews remaining in Calcutta pass away, there will be little evidence left of a Jewish presence here, as well as their contribution to the city and the rest of the country. That is when I decided to begin working on archiving the Jewish way of life over the centuries,” Jael says. She began writing to everyone that she, along with her family knew in the community, most of whom were, by this point, scattered around the world, in a bid to collect photographs of their ancestors, letters, seals, any document that they felt symbolised their traditional culture, their stories or anything else they wished to share about their lives in Calcutta.
To her immense surprise, she received enthusiastic responses from as far and wide as Australia, England, Israel, the US and Canada; she even acquired several ketubas, which are Jewish marriage contracts, including one that was written during the 19th century, from London. Written in Arabic, it is adorned with British emblems (of the unicorn and crown) and teems with poetic language.
Through this archive, Jael hopes to help the Jews who, like her, grew up in an independent India but eventually emigrated, to reconnect with their city of birth On a larger scale, this is an effort to keep Jewish lore alive.
Landing on Indian shores
The Baghdadi Jews initially migrated to the balmy Eastern city during the British Raj, in 1798, much later than the other Jewish diaspora communities in India, such as the communities in Mumbai, Manipur and Cochin who were the first ones to touch down in India.
“There was very little interaction among the three distinct Jewish communities in India; they spoke different languages, observed different traditions and were products of very different cultures. They also lived in three very different regions of India,” Jael says.
The Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta were merchants and traders from Iraq who would ply trade routes established by the community. Although their population never exceeded 5,000 members in the early 19th century, by the 1940’s they had successfully had a sprawling impact on life in the city , setting up schools, synagogues, a hospital and what are some of the oldest shops remaining in the city today.
Here’s a map to give you an idea:
Calcutta was teeming with opportunity at the time as it was connected to both river and ocean traffic, and the Baghdadi Jews were responding to the new economic potential created in this commercial centre by colonialism. The first Baghdadi Jewish immigrant was Shalome ben Obadiah Ha Cohen, of whom Jael Silliman is a direct descendent, and he went on to become the court jeweller to the King of Awadh. Having established the key economic institutions for trade to flourish, the community was ensured political protection and security in their business enterprises and thus, the community flourished. Opium trade earned them great fortunes, and they went on to invest in cotton and jute products as export staples, partnering both Indian and European commercial interests.
The Jewish relationship with India & colonialism
The Jews’ relationship with India and colonialism was an irrefutably complicated one. They were very loyal to the British as they were facilitating the colonial project, and often identified themselves more with the colonialists than the natives of the land― a trait that endures in some of the elderly of the community who have lived through the Indian Independence era. Jael shares that while she herself grew up in an independent India and strongly identified with the country’s cultural, many of the older Jews retained ‘very colonial mentalities’ about race, based on how social life was structured in colonies at the time.
“They wore dresses, did not identify with an “Indian India” and still lived in predominantly Jewish worlds,” she says. “They did not mix with others and seemed very narrow-minded, outdated, and anachronistic to me. It was certainly not a world I wanted to be part of; it was a backward-looking rather than a forward-looking community and had little to offer me as a young person. I wanted to be part of the Indian mainstream and was full of idealism about India’s future. I winced when my grandmother would refer to my friends casually as ‘natives’.”
The Jewish exodus
The Jewish exodus started in the 20th century due to a number of factors, all of which eventually tied in with their cultural identity ― in particular, what they anticipated it would be in newly independent India. With the second World War, there was an influx of hundreds of European and American refugees who later returned to their native countries with community members as war brides, and in the 1940’s and 1950’s, several other hundreds of Calcutta Jews responded to the possibilities to move to Australia, England and other Commonwealth countries, much like many other Indians and minority communities.
The formation of the state of Israel in 1948 resulted in another exodus, either out of religious sentiment, or because of the impending uncertainty they anticipated for their community in the wake of the newly-acquired Indian independence, and thus by the latter half of the 20th century, the community had shrunk considerably. Those who chose to stay behind raised their kids in Calcutta, but the next generation moved out eventually as well. In fact, the last time the community reached a minyan, a quorum required for religious obligations, the Israeli ambassador to India and five other Jewish men had to be flown down to participate in Simchat Torah rituals.
Traces of Jewish culture left in Calcutta
Three impressive and large synagogues, two schools, and a cemetery in Narkeldanga are some of the architectural and institutional legacies left behind by the community in Calcutta. Chowringhee Mansions, Esplanade Mansions, Ezra Mansions and the Ezra hospital, and two buildings in the zoo that are owned and endowed by Jews still bear Jewish names, and other glimpses such as Belilios Street, Ezra Street and Synagogue Street endure, along with a Hebrew printing press and the Narkeldanga Jewish Cemetery. Still, many other mansions, residences and office buildings that were established by this community no longer bear their Jewish names today, and their association with the community is little known.
Nahoum’s confectionary at New Market is one of the legacies in which we take special interest, for tales of the plum cake, cheese muffins, brownies and pastries have travelled from the Eastern Coast all the way to us here in Mumbai. Set up in 1902 by Nahoum Israel, the shop eventually changed hands from one generation to the next, until David Nahoum took the reins in 1964. Today, the shop is run by the Jewish owner’s Hindu friend.
The need to recall Jewish Calcutta
After spending over 30 years abroad, Jael Silliman moved back to Calcutta a few years ago, and this was when she embarked upon this deeply personal journey of archiving.
“It was important to highlight how much Jews loved India,” she tells us. “We have never faced any sort of communal violence in this country since the community settled down here so many centuries ago, and this is truly multiculturalism at its best. We have always received so much love and acceptance here, and anti-Semitism was never a problem; the only attack on a Jewish institution that took place was on Chabad House in Mumbai during the terrorist attack in 2008.”
Professor Amlan Das Gupta, faculty of English at Jadavpur University, assisted her in setting up this digital archive with the help of his students, who were at the time working on a project that would document Colonial Calcutta. Funded by a grant from the Sir Ratan Tata Trust, as well as the Fulbright-Nehru grant that Jael acquired, they succeeded in gathering and consolidating all the material and designing the website to make it the treasury it is today.
Jael admits that she herself learnt a lot while working on the archive.
“I had always thought of my world as quite boring, with all these old fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned ladies,” she said. But, as it turns out, they were far from boring. She shares, “A Jewish woman was the first woman to make an application to argue in Calcutta’s law courts. Pramila [Esther Victoria Abraham], one of the very well known Bollywood actresses and the first Miss India, was a Calcutta Jew.”
As we waded through the gems Jael has put together, we realized that she was not just chronicling the history of Jewish Calcutta, but the history of Calcutta itself, for the cosmopolitan hub it deserves to be immortalised as.
“I also want people around the world to realise that there are so many different kinds of Jewish communities who have adapted to their place of migration and imbibed local cultures. The Holocaust is not the only thing that we should be remembered for, or by, and with ‘Recalling Jewish Calcutta’, I hope to shed light on the countless cultural aspects of Calcutta, and India,that the community has helped shape. This is at once a tribute to my community, to the city of Calcutta and to India.”
In today’s day and age, when dogmatic agendas are at large, an archive like this only succeeds in underscoring India’s longstanding relationship with a pluralistic, multicultural society, and reminds us of the kind of love and acceptance we have shown in the past for each other’s differences, so that we may mirror them in the future.
[Jael Silliman is a former Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Iowa and the author of the new book ‘Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope’. She recently published a novel, The Man With Many Hats, that is also set in Jewish Calcutta.]