By Sahana Ghosh
Kolkata, (IANS) Kolkata’s Jews are a disappearing lot. The once thriving community of some 3,000 has now shrunk alarmingly to just 27, the lowest figure since their arrival in the late 18th century.
The creation of Israel in 1948 saw a majority of Jews leave the city. Gradually, the young branched out to other countries for better prospects, leaving the elderly behind.
Among the few who remain include an equal number of men and women.
For the unmarried males, there are no single Jewish women. Although inter-community marriages among Jews are a taboo, it is not unheard of now in Kolkata.
Shalom Israel, one of the youngest at 40 and superintendent of the lone Jewish cemetery here, says: “Sooner than later, there will be no one left to tend to the cemetery after me.”
Having faced persecution throughout history in the lands they inhabited as a minority, Kolkata has been an exception for the Jews, who have had an intimate relationship with the metropolis.
Even after the terror attack in 2008 on Nariman House, the Jewish centre in Mumbai, Kolkata’s Jews didn’t feel threatened in any way.
“There aren’t many left,” moans Ian Zachariah, a 68-year-old veteran ad man and a member of the several managing committees of Jewish schools and synagogues.
He is also a descendent of the first Jew in Kolkata, Shalom Cohen.
Most Jews who came here were Baghdadi Jews – primarily from Iraq – and smaller groups from Syria and Afghanistan. The lone Jewish cemetery has graves of Russian and Polish Jews as well.
Shalom Cohen, a jeweler from Syria, arrived in Kolkata via Surat in the 1790s, with the intention to trade.
Since then, many reputed Jewish families have made Kolkata their own, raising edifices like the Chowringhee Mansion, Esplanade Mansion and Ezra Hospital. They also built business empires.
Interestingly, the caretakers of Kolkata’s two magnificent synagogues on Canning Street and Pollock Street Street are Muslims.
Says Anwar Khan, one of the them: “Our ancestors have looked after the property and we’ll continue to do so.”
Sadly, the once regularly used synagogues are now open to the occasional tourists, many of whom are the descendents of Jewish families of Kolkata now settled in Israel, Britain, Australia and Canada.
David Nahoum, owner of Nahoum and Sons, the 110-year-old landmark Jewish Bakery in New Market, is now in his 80s and too infirm to move.
With Jews here in the 65-plus age bracket, travelling is difficult and therefore gatherings are uncommon.
But when they do meet, for example when an Israeli ambassador visits Kolkata, the hall of the Jewish Girls School suffices.
The Jewish Girls School and the Elias Meyer Free School Talmud Torah are open to all irrespective of their religion.
The original Judaeo-Arabic speaking settlers started adapting their Middle Eastern lifestyle to that of then Calcutta and gradually English and Bengali became a part of their spoken languages.
The tradition of keeping Kosher (food prepared in line with Jewish dietary laws) is rare now, with most preferring the Bengali Maacher Jhol as much as any other cuisine.
However, their core beliefs have never changed.
And despite the overall bleak picture, the Jews are here to stay.
Acknowledging this, Zachariah says: “Some of us have been here longer than many Bengali families. I belong to Kolkata, this is my home.”
Truly, for these children of Israel, home is where the heart is.
(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at email@example.com)