Kolkata’s Jewish Legacy
Kolkata has always been a melting pot of cultures and communities, so it’s no wonder that a sizeable population of Jews once made the port city of Calcutta their home. At its peak, along with the British, Calcutta was home to Armenians, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Chinese and Jews.
– The once thriving Jewish population, which included some of the wealthiest merchants in the city during the British Raj, is now down to 20-odd people but their architectural legacy – ornate buildings, mansions, schools and synagogues – is testimony to the grandeur of the community.
The Jews that arrived in Calcutta in the 19th century were Baghdadi Jews, that is, Jews who hailed from Baghdad, which was a centre of Jewish learning. They were essentially traders who flocked to the then commercial capital of Calcutta to make their fortune. At the time, Calcutta was the second-largest port city of the British Empire, after London, and it attracted migrants from far and wide.
Interestingly, the first recorded arrival of a Jewish person in Calcutta was of Shalom Aharon Obadiah Cohen in 1798; Cohen was from Aleppo in Syria. However, six years before he arrived in Calcutta, his first halt in India was Surat, where he became a successful trader. From there, he moved to Calcutta in search of a bigger fortune. The Jews from the Middle East were a close-knit community and set up some of the largest businesses in Calcutta way back then.
‘B N Elias’, named after its founder Benjamin Nissim Elias, was the largest Jewish firm in India. The family owned several businesses including the National Tobacco Company and the Agarpara Jute Mills. The company also had several real estate interests even in the heart of the business district in Dalhousie.
For those familiar with Kolkata, the sprawling white building, Esplanade Mansion, close to the Raj Bhavan, was built by another Jewish captain of industry, Elias David Joseph Ezra. Other buildings built by this real estate baron include Chowringhee Mansion close to the Maidan. His descendant, Sir David Elias Ezra, not only became the Sheriff of Calcutta but was also Director of the Reserve Bank of India. His mother, Flora Solomon David Sassoon, belonged to another prominent Jewish family, the Sassoons. They were the most prominent Jewish family in India and owned 15 textile mills in Bombay.
Incidentally, Ezra Street in Kolkata is named after this family of prominent Baghdadi Jews, the Ezras. They played a prominent role in founding the only Jewish girls’ school – The Jewish Girls School – in the city. It was set up especially to educate girls from the Jewish community.
However, after India’s Independence in 1947 and the uncertainty that loomed over their future, many Jews migrated to the newly created state of Israel (1948). The ‘50s saw a large exodus of Jews to places as far away as America and Australia too.
Looking for Kolkata’s Jewish past will lead you to the impressive buildings that the community had built, the most notable being the three Jewish synagogues or places of worship in the heart of central Kolkata. Located within walking distance of each other, these synagogues have led to renewed interest among visitors and locals, with recent efforts being made to restore and maintain them.
Nothing quite prepares you for the visual splendour of the Beth El Synagogue on Pollock Street. The imposing entrance, with traditional Jewish iconography, stands out in a narrow lane adjoining a crowded business district. Built in 1855-56 by Joseph Ezra and Ezekiel Judah, the blue-and-white interiors of the synagogue are very striking.
All Jewish synagogues are distinct and have a semi-circular dome in the front, representing the star-studded heavens. The Holy Ark, which is the holiest place in the synagogue, contains the sacred Torah scrolls behind curtained doors. Only the Rabbi has access to these.
What makes the synagogues in Calcutta different from most others built elsewhere is that these were built in the 1800s and therefore follow the traditional synagogue layout, unlike modern-day ones. So apart from the ‘ark’ in a typical, old-fashioned synagogue, there is also the ‘Bimah’, a raised platform in the middle of the congregation pews, which is used for the reading of the Torah.
The most familiar Jewish symbols of the Ten Commandment tablets are always found inscribed prominently in the holy sanctum. Another familiar Jewish icon is of the seven-branched ‘menorah’ or ceremonial candle stand, which is visible all around the synagogue on paintings, tiles and on the walls.
Enhancing the beauty of the Beth El Synagogue are the beautiful blue, red and white stained glass windows. In the old days, when the congregational prayers brought in the faithful, women were relegated to the upper balcony while the men, wearing their skull caps, would sit in the pews downstairs.
The Beth El Synagogue is the only one among the three which still has the designated site for a ritual bath, ‘mikwah’, which was used during weddings and special ceremonies.
Walking through the synagogue is like going on a journey back in time, with framed black-and-white photographs depicting its heyday.
Less than half a kilometre from here is a sprawling, red-brick edifice that resembles a clock tower. This is the majestic Maghen David or Star of David Synagogue on Brabourne Road. Protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, like the Beth El Synagogue, it was built in 1885 by the real estate baron mentioned earlier, Elias David Joseph Ezra, in memory of his father David Joseph Ezra.
A marble tablet at the entrance records the beneficence of “Elias David Joseph Ezra of Calcutta”. The plaque records how he was “charitable, benevolent, humble and indulgent”. It reads, “He sympathised in the sorrows and sufferings of his fellow creatures with his commanding authoritative and yet affable words. He restored peace in many a household. With his vast means, he provided for the poor.” Significantly, a Star of David which gives the synagogue its name, adorns the entrance along with Hebrew inscriptions.
The Maghen David Synagogue in Kolkata is one of the largest synagogues in Asia and its stunning interiors are a sight to behold. What strikes the visitor on stepping inside are the Italian Renaissance arches that flank both sides of the shrine. Embellishing them further are the ornate floral pillars on which the arches rest, which the Ezras are believed to have had shipped from Paris. The balconies, which were reserved for women worshippers, impart an imposing double-storey effect.
Whether the Beth El Synagogue or the Maghen David, the chandeliers in these houses of worship are imposing and awe-inspiring. The ones in the latter are not just made of glass but have delicate metal carvings! One can easily spend hours admiring the interiors of the Maghen David, especially its stained-glass windows. On the wall opposite the ark, at the back of the synagogue and therefore easily missed, is a colossal, circular rose window in red, blue and yellow stained glass.
At the front of the synagogue, underneath the semi- circular dome, is the ‘eternal light’ burning before the ark, where the holy Torah is kept. As in all typical Jewish synagogues, there are three curtained doors in the ark, and some say that only the Rabbi knows behind which one the holy Torah scrolls are kept.
With no regular services being held in the synagogues in the last few years, it was a momentous occasion in 2018 when the restored monuments were unveiled and migrant Jews from across the world returned to take part in the celebrations.
A stone’s throw from this edifice and within the same compound stands the Neveh Shalome, the oldest of the three synagogues. A far simpler structure, it was originally built in 1831 but with the Jewish population growing, the old Neveh Shalome synagogue was demolished in 1884 to make way for the Maghen David. The elaborate structure of the Maghen David that we see today was built on the site of the original Neveh Shalome. However, the Jews of Kolkata got together and rebuilt the Neveh Shalome in 1910, adjoining the new synagogue.
In fact, the marble plaque at Maghen David reads,
– “Maghen David was built on a site belonging to the old synagogue Neveh Shalom.”
The entrance to the Neveh Shalome today is blocked by street vendors and hawkers, indicating the rare footfalls that these buildings see nowadays.
While the congregation has drastically depleted and services are rare, certain Jewish customs are still intact, like the sanctity of the Sabbath. So one can visit these synagogues on all days, except on Fridays and Saturdays, in keeping with the Sabbath.
From Baghdad to Bombay
Despite the community’s rich contribution to the weft and warp of the city, its social fabric and economy, there is no more than a handful of Jews left in Kolkata. It is perhaps ironic but easy to understand why the Jewish bakery, Nahoums, in New Market is thriving, unlike the community’s synagogues. The recipe for its longevity lies in its mouth-watering cakes, which all but fly off the shelves all year long, especially during the Christian festival of Christmas in Kolkata.
Kavita Chowdhury is a freelance journalist writing on development, politics, women’s issues and the arts.