By Mohsin Maqbool Elahi
With the opening of the telegraph in 1853 and a railway network in India, Calcutta soon became a trading centre. It started attracting traders from all over, including Jewish ones. A Syrian from Aleppo called Shalom Aharon Obaidah Cohen arrived in Surat in 1762 and within a short span of time established himself as a trader. He moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1798 where he developed a profitable trade in jewels and precious stones. In 1816, he became the court jeweler of the Nawab of Oudh and his son at Lucknow.
Besides Syria, Jews also started arriving from Baghdad (Iraq), Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran. They were popularly known as Baghdadi Jews. Soon they were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from Romania who were being persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.
The first generation of Jewish settlers in Kolkata spoke Judeo-Arabic at home and adhered to their Arabic style of costumes. The next generation of Jews adopted European dress and lifestyle and English as their language of communication. The Jewish population had grown to 5,000 in Kolkata by the 1940s. Now only 27 remain; most of whom are in their 60s or above. With the creation of Israel in 1948, Jews started moving out. However, the majority of these left for Singapore, Australia, Canada, and England. Ironically, I recalled reading a news report more than a decade back about the lone Jew left in Kabul, who was taking care of the synagogue there.
There used to be five synagogues in Kolkata. Now only two are left: Beth El Synagogue and Maghen David Synagogue. During my childhood in Kolkata, I often used to catch a glimpse of the Beth El Synagogue, while headed for my grandfather’s house on Pollock Street and the Neveh Shalom Synagogue on the way to my father’s fireworks shop on Canning Street. The latter was built by Ezekiel Judah Jacob in 1825. It was reconstructed in 1911. A road running parallel to Pollock Street was called Ezra Street. Ezra Street was named in memory of David Joseph Ezra. However, little did I know then that both Ezra and Pollock were Jewish names. Even though I did not know the names of any of the synagogues, I was definitely interested in the architecture of Neveh Shalom Synagogue, which kept me mesmerized. Interestingly, the caretakers of both the Beth El Synagogue and Maghen David Synagogue are Muslims.
Several years back, while reading about their history on the Internet, I came to know that the Beth El Synagogue was built in 1856 by David Joseph Ezra and Ezekiel Judah. It was rebuilt and extended in 1886 by Elias Shalom Gubbay. It has stupendous stained glass windows just above the main entrance. The Maghen David Synagogue was built in 1884 by Elias David Joseph Ezra in memory of his father, real estate magnate David Joseph Ezra. It has a fine collection of Torah scrolls. Tourists are fascinated by its checkered marble flooring, intricate stained glass windows and ornate Corinthian columns. Both have been declared protected monuments by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Manasseh Meyer was a Jewish philanthropist and businessman, born and educated in Kolkata but better known as a benefactor to the Jews of Singapore. After spending some time in Singapore, he returned to Kolkata to complete his Hebrew studies. He built the Manasseh Meyer building and it is now used by the city’s police department.
If you have lived in Kolkata, you are bound to have been addicted to the plum cakes or pastries or buns or breads of confectioners, Nahoum and Sons. The confectionery was set up in 1902 at the labyrinthine New Market by Nahoum Israel, who was one of the first Jews to arrive in Kolkata. Within a few years, it had won itself a rich British clientele. When the British left after India won independence in 1947, it started attracting locals by the hordes. Later, Nahoum’s son, Elias started running it and then his grandson David, now succeeded by his brother Isaac. Whenever my siblings or my birthday was celebrated, our father always got us a large birthday cake from Nahoum’s along with lovely candles of various colours. The cakes were always absolutely scrumptious, leaving us licking our fingers. Those days birthday cakes were actually eaten, not scrubbed on faces!
The confectionery is still highly popular among locals and tourists alike. Anybody who talks about or writes about Kolkata is most certain to mention the 112-year-old landmark Jewish bakery.
The community set up two schools: The Jewish Girls School and the Elias Meyer Free School Talmud Tohrah. Both schools are thriving and well endowed, although Jewish studies no longer study there. They are English-medium schools open to all, irrespective of their religion. In fact, 90% of the students in the girls’ school are Muslims.
Many reputed Jewish families have made Kolkata their own, raising edifices like Chowringhee Mansion, Esplanade Mansion, and Ezra Hospital. Besides, they built business empires, mansions, and synagogues.
There are two Jewish cemeteries in Kolkata, a private one at U.C. Banerjee Road and another one at Narkeldanga, which is cared for by Shalom Israel, the youngest of the Jews in the city. It houses thousands of graves, including the tomb of Shalom Aharon Obaidah Cohen, Kolkata’s first Jew. It also contains graves of Russian and Polish Jews.
Mohsin Maqbool Elahi is a journalist who works for Dawn (newspaper) in Karachi. He has also worked for The News (newspaper) and several magazines. He completed his MA in International Relations. He loves writing limericks and haiku, along with other forms of poetry, book reviews, and articles on culture, education, environment, film, and music. He occasionally writes for The Shillong Times and has also written for Citrus (e-magazine). Email: email@example.com
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