Catch a falling Star
History has its own way of making amends. About 200 years ago, Baghdadi Jews fled the Ottoman Empire and Iran to escape being focibly converted to Islam and found refuse in Mumbai and Kolkata. Today, a Muslim family guards the flames of Shabbat from the surging crowds at Kolkata’s three exquisite synagogues — Magen David, Beth Le and Shalome. “Hum purkho se is jagah ki hifazat kar rahein hain (we have been guarding this place for generations),” says Anwar Khan, as he opens the wrought iron gates of the Magen David synagogue, situated at the crossing of Canning Street and Brabourne Road in central Kolkata, to usher us in.
On the other side are stalls selling trinkets and cosmetic jewellery. “If they had their way, they would take over the synagogue too,” says Khan. “But one can’t really blame them. They have to make a living,” he adds as an afterthought.
Afterthoughts abound under the steeple of the Magen David synagogue. Even as PK Mishra, regional director, Archeological Survey of India (ASI), east, tells us about his plans to develop the three neglected synagogues as tourist attractions, he adds a bit about the encroachers and hawkers. “They have to be rehabilitated. We need to see how,” he says.
The Jewish diaspora reached India as early as the first century. The three Indian Jewish diaspora communities have their own distinct history. The Cochin Jews arrived in 72 AD after the Roman destruction of the second temple, the Bene Israel Jews of greater Bombay arrived 1,600 years ago to escape persecution and the Baghdadi Jews came in the late 18th century. The Jews of Kolkata have had a largely peaceful and prosperous existence in the city; they established the real estate trade and their names are associated with some well-known buildings of Kolkata, including Esplanade Mansion, Ezra Mansion and Chowringhee Mansion. A fact that is not reflected in their dwindling numbers (from a healthy 5,000 during World War II, they are down to the last 30). “Young people want to pursue their future elsewhere,” says Ian Zachariah, an adman and a member of several managing committees of Jewish schools and synagogues.