Jews of Calcutta on verge of dying out

Calcutta, India – Shalom Israel fights his way through this chaotic city, the weight of generations heavy upon his shoulders.

He squeezes past tea stalls and sidewalk electricians, past idle rickshaws and honking cars. He edges through rows of vendors selling sparkly hair clips and, finally, pushes open a rusty gate hidden from the street.

Israel, one of the last Jews of Calcutta, has reached a cobwebbed synagogue, a once-grand building with imposing doors that nearly always stay shuttered.

Israel comes every Friday to light candles, say prayers, and check on the three synagogues still standing. Most weeks he is the only visitor.

There were once 5,000 Jews living in this teeming port city, but today, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, there are fewer than 35. Israel, 38 with a thin beard, is the youngest by nearly 25 years.

He lives inside the only place left where Jews aren’t a minority – the Jewish cemetery. He cares for the graves of his father, his great-grandparents, his uncles and his aunts, along with more than 2,000 other Jewish tombs.

He also tends to Jewish elders still living, handles the last rites when they die, and, to stay kosher, butchers his own meat.

It’s not easy being the last of your people.

Repopulating the community would be tough. There aren’t many unmarried Jewish women in Calcutta – Israel is single and doesn’t know any women younger than 60. His sister married a Hindu, for which the elders shunned her. The last Jewish wedding anyone can remember was in 1982.

In this country of 1.1 billion people, there are believed to be roughly 5,000 Jews – not enough to be counted as a distinct group in the Indian census. Jews first came to India as traders about 250 years ago, and today their largest community is in Mumbai, the country’s most cosmopolitan city.

Calcutta’s first Jews are thought to have arrived in the late 18th century, descendants of the Jews who came from Syria, Iran and Iraq. They thrived as diamond traders, real estate agents, exporters, spice wholesalers and bakers – one Jewish bakery famous for its plum cakes still stands, run by the founder’s octogenarian grandson. Rickshaws and taxis still ply Synagogue Street and other roads named for prominent Jews.

The Jewish community built at least five synagogues and two schools. Today there are 700 students at the Elias Meyer Free School and Talmud Torah. Not one is Jewish, and nothing particularly Jewish is taught there.

The birth of independent India in 1947, and the creation of Israel the following year, marked the beginning of the end for Calcutta’s Jews. Many left for the new Jewish state; others moved to Europe or the United States in search of better business opportunities.

Some stayed behind, but life was different. During services, women left the temple balcony, where they used to sit in keeping with Orthodox custom, and sat with the men in the main hall – the synagogue felt too empty otherwise. Slowly, the Jewish butchers put away their knives, the bakers turned off their ovens, the teachers boxed up their Hebrew books.

The stalwarts stayed to care for their aging parents, to raise their children or simply because Calcutta was home.

Aline Cohen, 62 was born after the community’s heyday, but she still remembers rowdy festivals and packed synagogues. Now, there aren’t enough able-bodied men to form a minyan, and no one but Israel regularly visits the temples. The Jews rarely get together except at funerals, and sometimes not even then.

“It is lonely,” said Cohen, whose three children were raised in Calcutta but have since left. “We all have non-Jewish friends, but there’s a spiritual loneliness. You miss Sabbath services … You miss the feeling of community.”

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