From its peak of 3, 000, the Jewish community of Kolkata in India is down to just 20, mostly as a result of a policy of Indian nationalisation. Yael Silliman is compiling a digital archive of the city's Jewish landmarks. The Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata had more affinity with the Muslims than the Hindus: today Muslims are the caretakers of Kolkata's three remaining synagogues. Article in Al-Jazeera (with thanks: Tom Gross)
One of Kolkata's three synagogues. It takes a week to clean, say the Muslim caretakers [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]
According to Professor Amlan Dasgupta from Jadavpur University, the
realities of daily life are very different from the politics being
played out, especially in Kolkata, which has always welcomed immigrants.
The city, he said, "is a product of the resulting multiethnicity and multiculturalism".
"Communal coexistence has been common across India and hence we don't
think of it as important. Yet, there is also a problem in becoming
conscious about it," Dasgupta told Al Jazeera. His students collaborated
in the creation of the digital archive.
According to Silliman, the Jews and Muslims have a common history because of their roots in the Middle East.
"In Kolkata, Jewish families hired Muslim cooks because they ate only
halal meat. Hindu families would not want to work in Jewish homes
because of the meat being cooked. Our music, food habits are also very
similar and people tend to forget that the Arab world is the seat of the
Jewish community. Even the early immigrants looked like present-day
Arabs, before they began to reflect a Judeo-British identity," she said.
It is no wonder then that the Jewish Girls' School's students are mostly Muslim.
According to Silliman, the area around the Jewish Girls' School, in
its original location on Pollock Street, was where the affluent Jews
Today, the only remnant of a Jewish heritage in the school is the
"Star of David" on the school uniforms, and having holidays on three
Jewish festival days.
The Jews in Kolkata came from Baghdad about 220 years ago, and
established themselves as successful businessmen. They were also major exporters of opium.
The Beth El synagogue was built in 1856 on Pollock Street to meet the
needs of, at the time, a rapidly expanding community. Its construction
was funded by two of the wealthiest men in the community - Ezekiel Judah
and David Joseph Ezra.
In the 1940s, Kolkata's Jews began to leave because of the violence
preceding the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. Fearing
the loss of their businesses as India began to nationalise its banks
after independence, they emigrated to western countries in large
numbers. Today, there are just about 20 Jews left in Kolkata - the
oldest resident died last month at the age of 97.
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