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Sunday December 5, 2021

Never Say Goodbye

Jewish emigration from Calcutta
American servicemen at Maghen David Synagogue in 1944 at the Simchat Torah festival. Facilitated by Ramah Ilana Sondak, courtesy Deborah Acosta Leight

Busy in my childhood world, I was aware but unconcerned that my aunties, uncles, and cousins were emigrating to London, America, and Australia: a few made Aliyah (moving up to Israel, a basic tenet of the Jewish faith). In the sixties, when relatives left, we rarely saw or heard much from them as they immersed themselves in building their new lives. When my granny left for London in 1968, we regularly received pale blue aerograms describing her life and inquiring about ours. My parents were among the few Jews who opted not to emigrate.

Ironically, emigration began when the Jewish community was at its peak in terms of numerical strength and influence. The Calcutta Jewish community, referred to as the Baghdadi Jews, came to the mercantile city seeking economic opportunities as the star of the British empire was on the ascent. My ancestor, Shalome Ha Cohen from Aleppo (Syria) was the first settler to come to Calcutta in 1797 via Surat where he was a leader and spokesperson for the sizable and prominent Jewish colony. He found ample business opportunities in Calcutta and sent for his family. Over the next 150 years Jews from across the Middle East followed forging a thriving mercantile network that extended from Basra to Shanghai. Calcutta was a pivotal center in this Jewish Asia circuit. 

Jewish history Sassoons
The Sassoon family were business magnates with interests stretching from London to Shanghai.

By the 1940s there were more than four thousand Jewish community members and a host of Jewish institutions to serve their needs. A new and larger Jewish Girls School than the one on Pollock Street (1926), formerly on Ezra Street (1881), was being built on Park Street with sprawling grounds and a hostel for girls (1955). There was no inkling that in barely ten years there would be hardly any Jewish girls in Calcutta to attend the school! Today the student population is pre-dominantly Muslim.

The nineteen forties were tumultuous. British and American soldiers were stationed in Calcutta, including Jewish service men. There was a British and American Chaplain (Bloch and Seligson) active in Jewish community affairs. Refugees from Europe were assisted by prominent members of the Jewish community and welcomed in Jewish homes. Waves of Jews from Rangoon trekked to Calcutta as well. Through these influxes the Jewish community increased in numbers to about five thousand.

The Calcutta Key booklet
The Calcutta Key booklet was meant for American soldiers stationed in Calcutta

As quickly as the Jewish presence peaked, so it waned. Some servicemen married Calcutta Jewish girls taking them home with them. Burmese Jews obtained refugee status making it easy for them to emigrate to America. European Jewish refugees left Calcutta after the War. Wealthy Jewish industrialists reeling from the Partition riots, unsure of what a “Socialist” future in an “Indian India” where banks were slated for nationalization, would mean for them. They sold their businesses and properties, took their money and left. Middle-class and poorer Jews working for Jewish companies, became unsure of their prospects. England made it easier for Indians to emigrate as Commonwealth members. Many Jews, like other Indians, chose to settle in London. Australia opened their doors to those who passed the notorious “paper bag test.”  Those lighter than the proverbial brown paper bag got preferential treatment and thus fairer Anglo Indians and Jews were accepted as immigrants to Australia. Zionists as well as some poorer Jews immigrated to Israel after it became a nation in 1947.

Jewish community information in the calcutta key booklet
Inside page of The Calcutta Key booklet notifying Jewish soldiers about religious congregations

With so many global forces at play, the number of Jews leaving India accelerated. By the sixties, those who stayed back, like my grandmother who was deeply religious, found they could no longer maintain their Jewish lifestyle and rituals. Others were afraid that dwindling numbers would encourage inter-marriage, strongly discouraged, though not as rare as community members made it out to be. 

The immigration story of Masuda Armala (widow in Arabic and Hebrew) is classic. She would sell saieed roti (pita bread made by the Saieed family) from door-to-door and danced at Jewish weddings, in traditional Arab style, balancing a glass of wine on her head, and generously compensated. Wealthy community members were philanthropic enough to address the needs of poorer members through dedicated institutions. When Masuda was emigrating to London, she had to declare her financial status and profession. “I am a beggar,” she proclaimed imperturbably. Taken aback the official asked how come she had a fair amount of money, to which she curtly answered: “I am very good at my profession!”

Masood Hossain synagogue caretake Calcutta
Masood Hossain, one of the Muslim caretakers of the Neveh Slalom synagogue

The Jews who did stay on in Calcutta and India, flourished. Most notable among them was my grand-uncle General Jacob, the visionary behind the Bangladesh war, Governor of Punjab, and Goa. Those who left took fond memories of Calcutta with them, grateful for the century and a half they spent in the city where they prospered and never faced any discrimination. Those who grew up in Calcutta did not sever ties, and those who could visit, would. When attending synagogue, the older generation of Muslim caretakers greeted them. They have maintained the synagogues for four generations. 

Lieutenant General J F R Jacob
Lieutenant General J F R Jacob, Hero of the Bangladesh Liberation War ( 1971 ) Governor of Punjab and Goa

A few wealthy Jews kept their homes returning annually to enjoy the winter sun, the Jewish delicacies from Nahoums that included cheese sambusas, plaited salted cheese, cheesecake, and the Calcutta races. The B. N. Elias family property on Park Street, beside the Post Office, has recently been demolished. From an apartment at Apsara, a high rise, I would see tikya drying on the expansive terrace. Tikya made from red sour plums (bor) is cooked to a pulp, mixed with chilli and salt, and dried in circles on white sheets. I remember my mother scolding us for eating the tikya that would dry on large aluminum bartans (trays) before it even dried! My Uncle Sanoo and Aunt Seemah kept their Calcutta Club membership alive and looked forward to entertaining their friends there during their frequent visits to Calcutta.

Sanoo Twena, photo Sanjeet Choudhury
Sanoo Twena studied and worked in Calcutta, as a senior executive in Dunlop, he emigrated to Israel in the 70's but regularly visited

Jews loved racing and found ways to make bets through intermediaries on the sabbath, a racing day. There are colorful accounts of two palatial mansions that dominate Park Street, Queens Court (formerly Galston Mansion and renamed after the visit of the Queen) and Palace Court owned by the Jacob family, were wagered frequently at the races. A legendary racing story is about Eddy Luddy who painted a white horse brown to enter it in a particular age category. Unfortunately, it started pouring! By the time the “masquerading” horse completed the rounds at the Labong racecourse (Darjeeling), the paint had all but washed off! Eddy fled as rapidly as possible!

Muslim girls in Jewish festival in Calcutta
The photo of Muslim girls in the Jewish girls school should be captioned "Carnival at the Jewish Girls School, December 2018

As the older generation who came of age in Calcutta grew too feeble to return, their children and grandchildren come to relive the Calcutta Jewish experience they have heard so much about from their parents and grandparents. They visit the synagogues, the Jewish Girls and Boys school their parents attended, Nahoums, the cemetery and locate their old family homes if they are still standing. They walk through the neighborhoods where their families lived to reconnect with their Calcutta Jewish past. Many are curious to experience the enthralling city more fully. Rahel Musleah, whose father was a Rabbi, brings Jewish tours to Calcutta. In the footsteps of her father Ezekiel Musleah, she recites the prayers at both the Maghen David and Bethel synagogues, bringing the melodies of our community and the synagogue alive again.

Soon there will be no Baghdadi Jews left in Calcutta. Jewish Calcutta will be a memory, but a memory worth keeping alive – a place where Jews never faced discrimination and were embraced, not tolerated. Jews and Muslims forged strong links based on a shared religious and cultural heritage – they are the custodians of our synagogues, our most cherished heritage. At the rededication of the synagogues (2017) it was a choir of Muslim girls from the Jewish Girls School that sang traditional Jewish songs for the assembled guests. Though small numerically, we were a significant presence. Like the other minority communities of Calcutta, we left an indelible mark on the city, its spirit and culture. Calcutta practiced an authentic multiculturalism centuries before the term was coined. 

Images courtesy: Sanjeet Chowdhury & Jael Silliman

Some of the images used in this article were shown at BEKI Gallery, Congregation, Beth-El-Keser Israel, Connecticut, USA

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3 Responses

  1. Fascinating account. I, a Jew, have brought my dance company to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1994, 1997, 2006 and 2016. So some element of a Jewish artistry and sensibility has come back but not roost. Jewish families like mine from the U.S. are often secular but arts and culture are deeply respected and ingrained. I studied classical piano for 13 years before becoming a dancer and when our performance was to be held on a platform stage beautifully erected over the waters of Salt Lake, I needed a grand piano so my musicians could perform live. Denied use of the baby grand that I knew from an earlier trip was kept up in the residence of the U.S. Consul General, I found a music store on a small street where one grand piano was for rent. The shop was called Braganza & Co and has its own rare and colorful history. The piano had to be repaired and tuned and I found a wizened old man, probably an employee of multiple decades, taking it apart and essentially rebuilding it. Voila! It took 6 sturdy men to carry the piano over the sands of Salt Lake but the show went on with fanfare and 2,000 audience members arrayed on the banks of the lake.

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