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People of the Promised Land

As Kolkata celebrates its tercentenary, let us turn back the pages of the city’s three hundred year history and pause at a chapter which, though etched in a firm hand, is steadily fading today. It is the story of the Jewish community in Kolkata, which two centuries ago embraced the city as its own, adding yet another dimension to Kolkata’s multi-faceted growth.

In August 1978, an ambitious young merchant traveled from his native town of Aleppo in Syria in search of fortune, finally arriving in Kolkata – then the hub of commercial activity and the seat of political power in India. Shalom ben Aharom ben Obadiah Ha-Kohen, the first Jew to settle in Kolkata, was by no means the first to visit the city. Jewish traders long before him had visited this bastion of trade. Historically however, the Jewish community of Kolkata is the youngest for more than a thousand years ago, the Bene Israel and Cochini Jews had settled in western and south India. Waves of persecution of Middle Eastern rulers compelled them to seek shelter in India, the land of religious tolerance and profitable trade. Not surprisingly, most early; Jewish settlers were traders – links in a chain of trading posts stretching from Shanghai to London – dealing in opium, indigo, cotton yarn, silk and piece goods, Veniceware and precious stones, gold leaf, ivory and coffee.

Kolkata’s Jewish community belongs to the Eastern or Oriental group, tracing its antecedents to migrants from Baghdad and other parts of the Middle East, and through them, to the Babylonian Jews. In recent times however, they tend to regard themselves as part of larger grouping known as Sephardic (or the Jews of Spain) that consists roughly of one-sixth of the world’s fifteen million Jews.

Leafing through the diaries of Shalom Cohen, the founder, and his son-in-law, Moses Dueck Cohen, the consolidator of the Kolkata community, a saga of adventure, romance and enterprise unfolds. Flamboyant, at times unscrupulous, but always daring, Shalom Cohen’s fortunes had their ups and downs. Debts forced him to flee to Dutch Chinsurah and French Chandernagore. Business took him to Lucknow as jeweler to the Nawab of Oudh and to the court of Ranjit Singh to value the ‘invaluable’ Ko-I-noor. He died in 1836, and was buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Narkeldanga that was his gift to the community.

Unable to find a suitable husband for his eldest daughter in the nascent community, Shalom Cohen arranged a match with a friend’s son in Syria. Thus Moses Dueck Cohen arrived in Kolkata in September 1806, and on Shalom Cohen’s death, became the head of the community. Quite different in character to the founder-father, Moses is best remembered for his dedicated service to the community. As paquid (official head), he played a leading role in documenting the regulation of the congregation which have come to be known as the community’s first Constitution August 29, 1825 and in the establishment of the first formal synagogue – Neveh Shalom (Abode of Peace, 1826) – as well as the first purpose-built synagogue – Bethel – in Pollock street, where it still stands.

Moses’s death in 1861 saw the end of an era. The mantle of leadership now fell on the Baghdadis, who by this time, far outnumbered the original setters from Aleppo.

A century after the community had taken root in Kolkata, there were about 1900 Jews in the city. They now began to move from their original homes in the congested Chinabazaar area to the Burrabazaar and Kolutal wards. Towards the close of the 19th century, the wealthier members settled in the more select residential areas south of Park Street. Following the order of the day, many began to adopt western dress, etiquette and the English language, and came to play a prominent part in Kolkata’s public life. However, even up to the 1940s a few continued to dress in their traditional attire – amama (turban), dagla or abay (long, loose gown), hazim (broad belt) and jubba (outer coat) for the men, while the women wore an intricately embroidered blouse under the flowing dariyee kassa – a long open-fronted dress, clinched at the top.

The Kolkata Jewry were held secure for the first hundred years by strict observance of synagogue prayers and religious festivals. The magnificent Maghen David Synagogue (Shield of David) stands resplendent in crowded Canning Street. Built in 1884 by Elia David Joseph Ezra, Kolkata’s first Jewish Sheriff, it is reputed to be the largest and most splendid in the Orient.

The Jewish calendar, like that of the Bengali, is dotted with a number of High Holy days. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” and is devoted to prayer and fasting. Of all their festivals the most enjoyable, especially for children, is Purim (February or March).

It commemorates the rescue by Esther of the Jews of Persia. Children celebrate with fireworks and receive cash presents. Adults gamble through the night – games like Loo and Towli (backgammon) being popular. Pesah or Passover, celebrating the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, is in April. It was also a time for a thorough spring cleaning of Jewish homes and kitchens to ensure that not a scrap of leaven is adhered to any surface. Senior citizens remember the community baking of Mussa (flat, round wafer-thin unleavened bread) by Jewish women in the precincts of Bethel Synagogue before Passover. Moist mussa is dipped in halek (thickened boiled juice of dates garnished with almonds and walnuts) – a nostalgic link with the country of their origin. The breaking of Pesah is marked by eating Jewish pastries and the well-known Bengali sandesh and rossagolla. During Sukkot, the synagogues wore a festive look, and many Jewish homes built sikkas (tabernacles) of bamboo and palm leaves which were decorated with lanterns, tinsel and seasonal fruit – a practice which is a rarity today. Essentially a harvest festival it was a time for rejoicing and thanksgiving.

Joyous occasions are celebrated with a variety of Jewish of Kolkata have retained the essential characteristics of their own cooking, sub-continental flavours have somewhat transformed them from the original. They continue to serve certain traditional dishes chiefly due to the fact that Jewish cooking emanates form religious festivals, biblical symbolism, traditional associations and the requirements of the kosher law. Popular during Jewish feasts are Pilau Matabak (fish pilau), Mahashas (stuffed vegetables with rice and chicken), Aloo Makala with Methi Chutney (deep fried potatoes and green fenugreek chutney), Maraq (light spicy chicken soup with vegetables), Chitanee (Chicken in onion sauce) and Fluden (layered fruit pudding).

The biblical admonition: “Thou shalt not cook the kid in its mother’s milk” is the humane law which led to the separation of dairy and meat foods. Till the early 20th century most Kolkata Jews, at least at home, were strictly kosher. Often the kitchen was supervised by an elderly Jewsih woman –perhaps a poor relative or widow. A retinue of Muslim cooks from Midnapore district worked in the homes of the affluent. They were both favoured and feared by their Jewish memsahibs whose knowledge of Jewish cuisine and customs sometimes fell far short of that of their meticulous bawarchi (cook). Senior members of the community lament that the exquisite sets of Limoges crockery; and silver cutlery which have been handed down gather dust in old Jewish homes – now mere reminders of the days when Pesah was scrupulously kept. Though the Mussa Board still functions, the demand for unleavened bread is almost nought and a kosher kitchen difficult to maintain. With the memsahibs gone, the Muslim cook with his jealously guarded treasure trove of Jewish delicacies is a fast dying institution.

A member of the community in Kolkata reminisces: “Sometimes weddings or engagement parties were catered at home. I’ll never forget watching the food for hundreds of people being cooked on open fires in the courtyard of the family home. It was a magical scene, as was the sight of the bridegroom and his retinue approaching the house, with torches and bearing gifts for the future bride.”

In the 20s and 30s, the elite of the community enjoyed a privileged life, attending English-speaking schools and embracing several aspects of Western culture. The “Kolkata Season” (November to February) was given over to lavish parties, ceremonial gatherings, the races and other sporting events. The colonial mansions and sprawling gardens of such illustrious families as the Ezras, B.N. Elias, Gubbay, Curlenders and Myers were the venues of grand dinners and dances. The business acumen and Midas touch of these families is still remembered today with awe and admiration. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the rags to riches tale of B.N. Elias. From humble beginnings, Benjamin Nissim Elias built an industrial empire encompassing the National Tobacco Company, jute mills, dairy farming, fertilizers, real estate, insurance and coal mining that soon earned him the epithet of the “Croesus” of the community. The name “Ezra” is synonymous with some of Kolkata’s most elegant buildings – Essplanade, Chowringhee and Ezra Mansions. Two members of the family – Joseph and David – were appointed Sheriffs of Kolkata. The latter was knighted in 1927, and served as Director of the Reserve Bank of India, several industrial organizations, the Zoological Gardens and the Bengal Veterinary College. Though most of the descendants of these a families have migrated to other parts of the world, while they were in Kolkata, they provided employment to a large section of their community and their philanthropic activities benefited those both within and out-side it.

But despite their westernization, most Jewish families were very conservative, especially with regard to their women. As Sally Ludden Solomon remarks: “During the break in services, it was customary for us to look for our favourite boyfriends strolling in the courtyard that separated the two synagogues (Neveh Shalom and Maghen David). There was no question but that we would ‘marry Jewish’, according to the wishes of our parents.”

With the fall of Burma and Singapore, the war was practically on Kolkata’s doorstep. There was a massive influx of Jews fleeing from that country, many of whom had to trek thousands of miles before they reached the safety of India. As a result, Kolkata’s Jewish population swelled to an all time high of 3800 or thereabouts. A central body, the Jewish Association of Kolkata, was formed in 1945, and its monthly paper “Shema” became the community’s mouthpiece.

Esmond David Ezra (who has recently published a chronicle on the Kolkata Jewry) recalls that in the latter half of 1942 the city became an important staging post for the Allied Forces and great hospitality was shown by the Kolkata community to the Jewish members of the forces. The Judean Club – formed in 1929 and closed down in the mid-70s-became very popular with regular dances and social events being organsied. He remembers the largest congregation ever at Maghen David which included many Jewish servicemen on Kol Nidre night in September 1945. The impact of the war on the women is best described in Sally Luddy Solomon’s words: “Young women were quickly becoming war brides. Jewish parents, many of whom had never left the shores of India, found themselves bidding farewell to their daughters with very little hope of ever seeing them again. And so we scattered to the north, south, east and west – our childhood receding into a never to be forgotten dream.”

On August 15, 1947 India won her independence, and in May 1948, the State of Israel was born. Kolkata with her legendary warmth had drawn these people form a distant land within her fold, and now, a century and a half later, she watched with regret the exodus of these very same people to their “Promised Land.”

Though many of the well known Jewish institutions are mere shadows of their past, a few remain, providing sterling service to those who have stayed back. The Jewish Women’s League, formed in 1913, continues its numerous welfare activities. The Jewish Girl’s School – at one time among the best in the city which combined a British style curriculum with Hebrew studies – and Elias Myer Free School have thrown open their doors to all communities and the handful of Jewish students on their rolls are of mixed parentage. But a agleam of hope for the dwindling community is found in Nahoum & Sons, occupying pride of place in New Market. Today, this family is perhaps the sole torch bearer of a tradition of flourishing business Kolkata had once nurtured. It is a popular meeting place for former Kolkata Jews on vacation from abroad for whom Kolkata still holds a special magic. The Kolkatan’s loyalty to Nahoum’s confectionaries continues unshaken, and be it birthdays, Durga Pja or Christmas, their delicacies form an important part of the festivities.

The Jewish population presently stands at a mere 100 or so, but the community still forms an intrinsic part of Kolkata’s nine million. Those who remain reminisce about “the good old days.” In place of Arabic and Hebrew, English and the vernacular have taken firm root in their homes, while fragrant whiffs of curries waft out of their kitchens. “Synagogue Street” is just another lane in the labyrinth of Kolkata’s streets, but stands as a silent reminder of the community’s zeal and faith in a strange land. The Maghen David, once resounding with incantations in Hebrew, seldom echoes with recitations from the Talmud and Torah. The ultra-conservative community have thrown open their doors to intermarriages, their strong Semiitic features blurring with time. An occasional candle at Hannkkah brings back waves of nostalgia into the Jewish home, and the very same grit and determination that brought Shalom Cohen and Moses Dueck Cohen all the way form Syria lives on in them. Rosh Hashnah (New Year), the rare wedding and barmitzwah are welcomed with great enthusiasm and rejoicing, yet as one septuagenarian says: “Nobody today thinks of long term planning. A time will come when the only Jews left will be parents, grand parents and great grand parents. It’s a transitional period. Whether it will be tragic or happy, history will decide.”