Jews of Kolkata: A slice of historical past | India Information – Instances of India

 Jews of Kolkata: A slice of history | India News - Times of India

2021-11-24 14:26:32

KOLKATA: Hurrying down the busy Burrabazar space, Elisha Twena, 78, one of many final Jews of Kolkata ducked right into a gate hidden by pavement retailers promoting trinkets on the crossing of Brabourne Highway with Canning Road, main right into a stately crimson constructing with a tall steeple.
Strolling in by means of an arched door with the ‘Star of David’ embellished over it, Twena entered an enormous corridor with chequered marble flooring, regal chandeliers and historical followers hanging from a two-storied excessive roof, Rennaisance stained glass home windows, and ornate floral pillars shipped in from Paris gave it a medieval grandeur.
The constructing which can simply be mistaken to be a Central European church however for its setting is the 137-year-old Magen David Synagogue, thought-about one of the vital magnificent Jewish temples in Asia, constructed by the nineteenth century realtor and enterprise tycoon Elias David Ezra, whose legacy nonetheless lingers on in a avenue named after him in central Kolkata.
Just like the 20-30 odd Jews left on this japanese mega-polis down from a peak inhabitants of 6,000 simply after World Battle II, the Magen David the place non secular companies have lengthy stopped and its older neighbour Neveh Shalom Synagogue in-built 1831, stay tucked away in obscurity, hidden to all however those that search it.
“All my classmates from Kolkata’s Jewish Boy’s College who used to return to this synagogue, migrated out within the Sixties and Nineteen Seventies looking for higher prospects … we now do not actually have a Rabbi left right here,” mentioned Twena, a pensioner who lives in a penthouse on Louden Road.
Waving his arms in the direction of an empty driveway and backyard, he reminisces “that is the place we used to play cricket after non secular companies … there are not any youngsters left to play now, the youngest amongst us is 53 and the oldest 96.”
Nonetheless, he has no regrets.
For him Kolkata or Calcutta as he nonetheless calls it, is without doubt one of the essential centres of Jewish life, and has been ever since Shalome Obadiah Ha-Cohen, a service provider from Aleppo landed within the metropolis, some 223 years in the past to change into court docket jeweller to the Nawabs of Awadh and Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Legend has it that he was requested to worth the ‘Kohinoor’ diamond amongst different jewels within the ‘Lion of Punjab’s’ treasury.
As Ha-Cohen was joined by his kin and others from the Baghdadi or center japanese Jewish neighborhood, the town grew to become a hub for Jewish enterprise and commerce with connections with Shanghai within the east and London within the west and all essential port cities in between.
Together with Armenians, Greeks, Parsis and Chinese language, Jews introduced a particular cosmopolitan flavour to colonial Kolkata. The close by Pollock, Ezra and Synagogue Streets thrived with Jewish households settling down there and the Jewish New 12 months was celebrated with as a lot fervour as Durga Puja and Christmas.
“We have been largely Arab Jews, conservative jews, however as we interacted with Indians and Europeans, we modified. We shed center japanese apparel for western garments, the magnificent Magen David was constructed in such a fashion that from afar it seems to be like a church, incomes it the nickname ‘Lal Girja’ (Pink Church) … on the similar time we left an indelible affect on the town,” mentioned Jael Silliman, 66, a well known creator and scholar.
Hospitals, synagogues, boys’ and ladies’ faculties, apart from quite a few instructional and charitable establishments have been arrange.
Ezra who arrange the Magen David in his father’s title and married into the rich Mumbai-based Sassoon household, typically known as the ‘Rothschild of the east’, additionally owned lots of Kolkata’s landmarks – which included Chowringhee Mansion, Esplanade Mansion and Ezra Mansion.
Different Kolkata Jews owned jute mills, cigarette corporations, textile and export corporations together with blue-chip corporations – Agarpara Jute Mills, Nationwide Tobacco Firm and Nice Pyramid Insurance coverage.
Kolkata acquired its first Hebrew press in 1840, and its first Judeo-Arabic weekly ‘Mevasser’ in 1873.
Bene Israeli Jews from Mumbai too flocked to the town, as did European Jews, victims of Nazi Germany’s persecution. By the point the Second World Battle engulfed the world, Kolkata’s Jews numbered practically 6,000.
Nonetheless, the majority and the center of the neighborhood remained Baghdadi Jews.
Kolkata’s Jews excelled on the earth of films too, Rachel Sofaer grew to become a prime heroine of the silent period below the stage title Arati Devi, whereas Ezra Mir below the title Edwyn Myers grew to become a well known movie director.
With independence, partition riots and socialistic flavour to India’s financial insurance policies, many Jews, who have been among the many first free marketeers on the earth, determined emigrate. “Most of my classmates went to Australia, Canada, the US and England,” mentioned Twena. Only a few migrated to the promised however much more austere land of Israel.
“Most of them went into enterprise overseas and have become millionaires. They nonetheless come to Kolkata … however their enterprise, household are actually there,” he identified. Twena mentioned regardless of favouring free enterprise, Kolkata Jews have been eclectic of their beliefs and amongst others who held radical views, he had a instructor Saul Ezra, who was a Leftist and a private good friend of West Bengal’s late Marxist chief minister Jyoti Basu.
The surviving Jewry of the town is, nevertheless, not sure what number of are to be counted as Jews. Therefore the determine for Kolkata varies between 20-30.
“I do know it sounds unusual, however there are variations over whom to think about a Jew. Historically, youngsters of a Jewish mom are Jews,” mentioned Silliman.
Nonetheless, many males married exterior the neighborhood and their offsprings too are counted as Jews after a troublesome conversion course of.
The matrilineal custom has meant that Brian Auckland, 68, who’s on the board of Magen David and the Jewish Lady’s College, is counted as a full Jew. It additionally meant that Regina Guha, daughter of Pearey Mohan Guha, an prosperous nineteenth century Bengali lawyer, and Baghdadi Jew Simcha Gubba, who gained fame by changing into the primary Indian girl to move the regulation examination in 1915, and her sister Hannah Sen, a well-known Indian freedom fighter, who later grew to become a Member of the Rajya Sabha are counted as Jews.
“Kolkata’s Jews continued to serve India loyally after independence. There have been Jewish sheriffs and magistrates on this metropolis and lots of have been officers within the armed forces. Lt. Gen. J.F.R Jacob, who was posted right here as Chief of Employees, Japanese Command, performed a crucial function within the 1971 victory, whose fiftieth anniversary we’re celebrating,” mentioned Auckland.
Regardless of the diminishing numbers, Jews and Kolkata proceed to cherish one another. The caretakers of the David Magen in addition to two different synagogues and a cemetery are non-Jewish Kolkatans. As are most lecturers on the two elite faculties run by the Jewish society. “All our college students are non-Jewish and have been so for a few years,” mentioned Auckland.
Mentioned Masud Hussain, 42, caretaker of the Neveh Shalome Synagogue, “we glance after their ‘dharover’ (legacy) as a result of we all know wherever Kolkata’s Jews are, they nonetheless really feel for this place. That is their metropolis.


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