Once a community of 5,000 founded by Jews from Aleppo and Baghdad, the 40 Jews of Calcutta will die out in 10 years' time, according to Robert Hirschfield in The Forward. Although antisemitism was never a problem, a key factor explaining the exodus of Jews from Calcutta was insecurity resulting from Hindu-Muslim strife in 1947.
Nahoum & Son’s Bakery, in the labyrinthine New Market in central Calcutta, is the embarkation point for making contact with the city’s Jewish community. David Nahoum, its undisputed leader, said to be about 90 and in ill health, no longer sells plum cakes, greets visitors or gives interviews to reporters. The first two responsibilities have been outsourced to Mr. Hulda, Nahoum’s friend, business associate and a Hindu.
The Jewish community of Calcutta numbers fewer than 40. The average age hovers around 75. The three youngest members of the community, two brothers and a sister, are in their 30s, with the youngest, 35-year-old Mordechai Israel, in the process of making aliyah.
“We are a dying community. We know that,” said Ian Zachariah, a burly 66-year-old ex-ad man who worked in the Calcutta office of J. Walter Thompson. “We have another 10 years. Maybe a little more.”
The community began optimistically, wrapped in the mystery of the East. It started with Shalom Cohen’s arrival from Aleppo, Syria.
“He came over in 1784,” said Flower Silliman, who at 80 acts as the community’s unofficial historian. “He was the court jeweler of the Nawab of Oudh.”
Others followed from Aleppo and Jews from Iraq joined them. (This is a Baghdadi-Jewish community, the name given to Indian Jews who came from the Middle East.)
A light flickers in Silliman’s eyes when she speaks of the first settlers: “They were very adventurous. They were traders [her maternal grandfather was a trader] who traveled all over the East, cooking their own food on deck, because they ate kosher food and had to prepare it themselves.”
Silliman made an extraordinary journey of her own several years ago. She moved back to her native Calcutta after 30 years of residing abroad. (“It is home,” she said simply.)
Ever since the late 1940s, with India’s independence and the creation of the State of Israel, the migration of Jews from Calcutta, with the exception of Silliman and maybe a few others, has been irreversible. It’s hard to imagine the bustling community of 5,000 that existed in the city before World War II.
The terrible Hindu-Muslim carnage in Calcutta following the 1947 partition fueled Jewish insecurity. Many were also unsure what their place would be in the new, Hindu-dominated India.
But “antisemitism has never been a problem in India and we are grateful for that,” said Aline Cohen, 64, who took over performing the tahara (the Jewish ritual of purification in which a body is cleaned before burial) from women who had grown too old to minister to the dead.