KOLKATA — On bustling Brabourne Road in central Kolkata, vendors line sidewalks packed with pedestrians, while cars, motorbikes and rickshaw pullers fill the street. Amid the urban din, the Magen David Synagogue sits silent and empty. A Muslim guard stands watch outside. With an estimated 25 Jews remaining in this city of 14 million people, the synagogue is rarely used.
Magen David and the city’s two other synagogues used to be packed on Jewish holidays. For the first half of the 20th century, Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, was home to nearly 3,500 Jews. At its peak during World War II, the population grew to about 5,000 when Jews from Burma and Europe moved to the city seeking refuge, according to Jael Silliman, one of Kolkata’s remaining Jews and the author of a recent novel on the community.
“We thrived here,” said Ms. Silliman, 58. “We had Jewish schools and our own newspapers. But now it’s mostly memories. In a few years we’ll all be gone.”
Ms. Silliman is working to preserve the memory of the community before that day comes. A former women’s studies professor at the University of Iowa, she is compiling a digital archive that will feature documents, photographs and other memorabilia, including a marriage contract written in Hebrew and recipes for culinary delicacies like aloo makallah, a heavenly deep-fried potato dish that blends traditional flavors of India and the Middle East.
“I feel like it’s my civic duty to document my community,” said Ms. Silliman, who expected the archive to be accessible online next year. “We have such a fascinating history, one that is very much tied to the history of the city.”
From the bedroom where she grew up with her siblings — the bunk beds now replaced with art from around the world — Ms. Silliman leads the archiving project, her desk piled with folders of photos and newspaper clippings. She has been gathering material for eight months and has received submissions from members of the Kolkata Jewish diaspora in the United States, Britain, Israel, Australia and Canada.
Among the submissions are photographs of the first Miss India, who went by the screen name Pramila but was born Esther Victoria Abraham to a Jewish family. Stories like hers and that of Rachel Sofaer, who gained fame in Bengali silent films under the name Arati Debi, will be featured in the digital archive’s section on Kolkata’s Jews in film.
The archive begins in 1798, when a jewel trader named Shalom Cohen arrived from Syria via Surat, a port on India’s west coast, and became the first Jew to settle in Kolkata. Most of the Jews who followed, known as Baghdadi Jews, came from present-day Iraq and Syria in the late 18th and early 19th centuries seeking economic opportunity, according to Ms. Silliman.
The community thrived under the British Raj, exporting silk and indigo and playing a pivotal role in the opium trade. After India gained independence in 1947, most immigrated to Britain, Australia, the United States or Israel, when it was established the following year.
“We never felt any anti-Semitism,” Ms. Silliman said. “In fact, India is probably the only country in the world where Jews have always been welcome. But still, most Jews left when the British did. There was talk of nationalizing the banks so people were worried about their businesses.”
Other factors contributed to the Jews’ departure, including the establishment of Israel, Hindu-Muslim riots during Partition, and open British immigration policies for residents of former colonies.
Ms. Silliman left in 1972 for a boarding school in Ireland, moved to a college in the United States, where she settled after her graduation, got married, raised two daughters. Four years back, she returned to Kolkata to research a novel set in the Jewish world of the city. When she came back, she realized Jewish Kolkata and the generation that knew it was disappearing. “I decided to gather this material from community members all over the world while they are still around,” she said.
Amlan Das Gupta, a professor of English at Jadavpur University and lifelong Kolkata resident, said the decline of the Jewish community is representative of other demographic shifts in the city. “Kolkata used to be a very cosmopolitan place, but East India has not prospered the way other parts of the country have, and most members of the once vibrant Jewish, Armenian and Chinese communities have left,” he said.
“The extent to which Kolkata is a diverse, multiethnic city is not as evident as it once was, but the Jews contributed a great deal to making it the city that it is today,” Professor Dasgupta said, noting that many of the city’s landmark structures like the Ezra Mansions were built by Jews.
Ms. Silliman also intends to collect the stories of Indians who lived, worked and interacted with Jews. “You really cannot tell the story of Jewish Kolkata without them all – the business partners and colleagues, friends and neighbors, the students they taught, people they employed in their businesses, their domestic help and the caretakers of our synagogues,” she said.
Indeed, the best hope for keeping the memory of Kolkata’s Jews alive might lie with the city’s other communities. Two Jewish schools continue to educate Kolkata’s youth.
“The Jewish Girls School does not have a single Jewish girl, and 80 percent of the students are Muslim,” said Flower Silliman, 83, a graduate of the school and mother of Jael Silliman, who returned to Kolkata after living for around 30 years in the United States and Israel. “But that school and those girls will be the legacy of Kolkata’s Jews when we’re gone.”
While the seats may remain empty at the Magen David synagogue, Rabul Khan, a Muslim guard who inherited the job from his father, said he would help preserve the memory of Kolkata’s Jews. “I know the Jewish holidays, and my father taught me all the Jewish namaz,” he said, using the Urdu word for prayers. “Whether Jews come or not, we will still be here to watch over this place for them.”
Zach Marks is a journalist based in India. He is researching roadside tea vendors, around the country with Resham Gellatly. You can read more of his work at chaiwallahsofindia.com.
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