Disclaimer: Originally published in January 2018. It is being republished since it still remains an interesting topic till today.
Apart from being the erstwhile British capital of India, the city of Kolkata was once a migrant hub of communities such as the Parsis, Armenians, Chinese, and Jews flourishing in its archaic colonnades and fading world history.
But the culturally vibrant capital is witnessing a dwindling number of Jews with less than 10 men available to attend the Jewish Sabbath or the Day of Rest.
Struggling to sustain the community life, the-bare-twenty-Baghdadi Jews are still pining on hopes to revive the whispers of ancient Jewish heritage and traditional individuality.
The History Of Jews In Kolkata
Stories of a once large Jewish community still surpass the ravages of time in the City of Joy. Settling in the cosmopolitan urban culture, the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata are descendants of the Middle East Jews from Iraq and Syria who came to India in the early 19th century to establish trade relationships fleeing the war-torn lands where they were persecuted for their identity.
Shalom Obadiah ha-Cohen was a Jewish merchant from Aleppo in Syria who dealt in trade exchanging gemstones, rosewater, spices, silk and imported Arabian horses. The Nawab of Oudh assigned Shalom as the court jeweler owing to which his family associates came down to Kolkata offering help in his business.
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After Shalom died in the year 1836, Moses Dwek Cohen taking charge of the business, became the main founder of the Jewish community in Kolkata.
The Baghdadi Jews started settling in large numbers in the early 19th century.
Their language attained a Judeo-British tone from the original Judeo-Arabic following influence from the British. Until India’s independence, there were about 6000 Jews in the city.
With Nehru’s socialist leanings, the wealthy Jews grew insecure about their economic prospects.
Most of them re-settled or re-emigrated in the newly formed Israel giving up great jobs in Kolkata in a bid to reunite with their homeland after the Second World War.
The Last Jews Using Food Business To Keep Their Culture Alive
With the unique community on the brink of extinction, a restaurant menu has been chronicling Jewish-Calcuttan cuisine through cookbooks. The eclectic menu of Calcutta Stories has been crafted by an 86-year-old Flower Silliman who has been incredibly inventive by assimilating the Jewish dietary laws in Indian food.
Her experiments with the soft and crispy alu makallah have been branding an unique flavour profile. The piping hot potatoes, tackled by hand instead of forks are one of the star attractions of a merger of Bengali and Jewish dishes.
Adding a twist to the bland and lighter Jewish food, a spicier and fuller version has been appealing to the taste-buds in the non-kosher country.
But as the number of Jews in the city shrank, kosher meat was difficult to find. They adapted to alternative means by using halal meat considering the similarity in the method of slaughter as per Jewish and Muslim dietary laws.
The Presence Of Jewish Schools In The City
The Jewish schools in the city transformed from an exclusive Jewish school to all-inclusive community schools with 90 percent of the students belonging to the Muslim community. Wearing imprinted Star of David on their uniform, the students are assured of quality education at deliberately lower fee prices.
An extraordinary example of bridging the communal gaps by respecting each other’s viewpoints still prevails in such schools where subsidised education is embracing the contemporary world.
Where the history has been echoing tales of distrust among the two sparring communities, humanity triumphs over narrow-mindedness in the Jewish establishments of Kolkata.
The last generation of Jews is doing their best to keep their legacy intact for the future generation. The way the community and the city enriched each other is a testament to the memories of the golden era of the Jews in Kolkata.
Image Sources: Google images and archives of www.jewishcalcutta.in