Marag b'djeej: Baghdadi Jewish chicken casserole
Their food is like Iraqi-Jewish food - but spicier. With the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta numbering a mere 35 souls, their recipes are all that remains of a once-flourishing community. Chef Dennis Wasko continues his cookery series for the Jerusalem Post:
The first Jews arrived in Calcutta sometime in the late 18th century. This group was comprised of Baghdadi Jews who came from Iraq, as well as Syrian and Persian Jews. All of these Jewish settlers were fleeing from Islamic persecution in their native lands. The Jewish refugees who were forced out of their homes found welcoming safety in Calcutta. By 1800, the Jews had established a vibrant community and thrived as diamond merchants, real estate brokers, exporters, spice traders, and bakers. The first generations of Jews in Calcutta spoke Judeo-Arabic, but by the 1890’s, English was the language of choice.
The Jewish communities of India achieved their maximum population and wealth under British rule, and the small community of Calcutta continued to prosper and trade amongst all the major cities of the Far East and the rest of the world. The native Indian population was very tolerant and the Jewish community was allowed to live in peace and security. The community reached its peak population of about 5,000 during World War II when its numbers were swelled by Jewish refugees fleeing the Japanese in Burma. The community formed a solid minority, and their wedding parties and religious feasts were legendary in the raucous, bustling city. The community rarely faced discrimination as they were too small to bother with. The Hindu and Muslim communities were too busy fighting each other, and Indian Caste conflict also deflected attention from the Jews.
The golden age ended in 1947 with the birth of Indian independence. The native Indian population associated the Jews with the British and Anti-Semitic attacks* began. The founding of the State of Israel in 1948 also had a negative impact on the Jews of Calcutta. Anti-Jewish and Anti-Israel sentiments ran high and many Jews left Calcutta and immigrated to Israel, England, and the United States.
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* As pointed out in the comments below, Jews were not specifically targeted for attack, but could find themselves caught up in inter-communal or anti-British rioting. It was this fear of being squeezed between two hostile communities that most contributed to the Jewish exodus - ed