The Last Jews of Calcutta

Having once served a thriving community, Calcutta’s Magen David synagogue now lies empty

It is a busy time for pupils at the Jewish Girl’s School in central Calcutta. Many of them are taking their final exams. They are all smartly dressed in uniforms which have the Star of David on their blouses, but their nervous mothers waiting outside are wearing the ‘salwar kameez’, or ‘burkas’.

Most of the students are now Muslims and few can remember the last time a Jewish pupil was studying at the school. Like many in one of the world’s largest cities, they know little about the Calcutta Jews.

In her late 50s, writer Jael Silliman is trying to change that. Before the community completely disappears, she – one of its youngest members – is compiling a digital archive that will record their history. Her inbox is full of photos and materials sent by members of the Calcutta Jewish diaspora who are now scattered across the world.

This was once a thriving community. The first Jew, Shalom Cohen, arrived in the city in 1798 from Syria. His financial success encouraged others to follow from Iraq and by World War II more than 5000 lived here. Now, less than 25 Jews call Calcutta their home.

Jael says: “Many left when it became clear that the British were about to leave India as they were worried about the direction the country was heading in and, once a few started to go, others quickly followed.”

Synagogue with a steeple

They left behind one of the largest synagogues in Asia. The Magen David was built in the mid 1880s and used to be crammed full of families, with the men sitting downstairs and the women upstairs, on its wooden pews. Heavily influenced by the design of the British churches that were being constructed in Calcutta at the time, it has a steeple, which is unusual for a synagogue.

Jael Silliman says that “the community had to write to the Jewish leaders in Baghdad to get permission. When it was finally given, there was a caveat that the steeple must be higher than all the buildings that surrounded it.”

The synagogue, which was the centre of this once vibrant community, now lies empty.

Outside its gates, most of the street vendors think it is a church. When I tell them that it is actually a Jewish place of worship they look confused. One of them asks me: “Are you sure?” But then his friend adds: “He is right. This is the building that is looked after by Rabul Khan.”

Once you walk through its gates, you will be met by the Synagogue’s Muslim caretaker. Rabul Khan’s family have been looking after the Magen David for generations.

Whilst handing me a ‘kippah’, a Jewish cap to cover my head, he smiles as he remembers the days when it was full for prayers, or ‘namaaz’, as he calls it.

As I am about to leave, he gestures to me to stop. He asks me a question: “Do you think they will come back?”

Not sure of how I should respond, I shrug my shoulders.

“Well, until they do, I will be here to look after this place for them,” he says.

‘Claustrophobically Jewish’

One of those who did return was Flower Silliman, Jael’s mother. She is in now in her 80s but has more energy than most 40 year olds. She left Calcutta to set up home in the United States and then Israel. But she always missed the city of her birth, because for her being Indian is as important as being Jewish.

She describes her early life as “claustrophobically Jewish”. Except for her servants, all the people she knew were Jewish as her parents were scared about assimilating into local life.

But Flower was ashamed of that, so she started to rebel. She insisted on learning Hindi, not French, and when she was at college in Delhi she joined the Indian independence movement.

She still vividly remembers the day she arrived back at Howrah station wearing Indian clothes: “My mother was horrified, ” Flower tells me.

“To her it was like her daughter had gone to hell, and she made it clear to me that I would never wear these clothes whilst I was living under her roof.”

Once a month, Flower and six other members of the Jewish community meet to discuss how to maintain their synagogues, cemetery and schools. There are funds available, but with so few members of the community left it is not easy. They are also all aware that in 30 years’ time there will probably be no Jews left in this city.

They see the three synagogues and the cemetery as their architectural contribution to it. But it is the Jewish Girls’ School that they believe will be their lasting legacy.

School secretary Joe Cohen says: “The community is more than 200 years old and have been very well treated by people in this city.

“Running the Girls’ School is our way of giving something back to Calcutta.”

Fees are kept low so that families from the local Muslim community can educate their girls. Joe Cohen says she hopes that “in 200 years’ time the Jewish Girls School will still be going strong and be as important to Calcutta as it is today.”

That will mean that some children in the city will continue to have a holiday on Yom Kippur and Passover, though they will probably not be watching Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments as students do now to help them understand Jewish history.

Abeda Razek used to be a student here, now she is teacher. She tells me: “Muslim parents are very grateful to the Jewish community for running this school and the children love celebrating Jewish holiday as it means they get extra days off.”

The Jews of Calcutta may soon disappear, but others in the city will be celebrating their festivals for some time yet.


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