Jews leave a digital footprint on Kolkata

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KOLKATA: Jael Silliman, at 59 one of the youngest members of the dwindling Baghdadi Jews community in Kolkata, has stitched together a remarkable digital archive that traces two centuries of the community’s story.

The project not only puts to rest the community’s fear about their future and vulnerable past once this last strand snaps, it will also enable Jews who emigrated to reconnect with the city of their birth. The community that was 3,000-strong at the time of Independence saw an exodus to the Promised Land after the birth of Israel a year later.

With others emigrating to the West, the count declined steadily and now teeters around the two–dozen mark. On Saturday, it lost another member — 97–year–old Aaron Harazi — whose last video interview is posted on the archive. “Aaron was such a livewire in the community. But he will live on forever as part of the archive,” said Jewish Girls School board member Joe Cohen, who contributed to the archive as did scores of Jews across the world.

The thought of documenting the history of Kolkata Jews has been on Jael’s mind for some time. “When Jews visited the city, I would take them to the synagogues and talk about the old Kolkata and what role Jews played in it. But I’d wonder, what if I am not there? Will the history of Kolkata Jews disappear like the synagogues have, hidden behind rows of shops?” Jael said. She toyed with the idea of telling the history through posters when Professor Susan Scriebman from An Foras Feasa, the Institute of Research in Irish Historical and Cultural Traditions, came visiting and told her to consider a digital archive instead.

The idea immediately appealed to Jael. “Being digital, it would allow access to everyone – be it a Baghdadi Jew in Israel, America or Australia. As resource, I could include texts, photographs, sound files and video,” she said. But she had no clue of technology. Plus, the only materials at hand were some books with images of the Kolkata Jewish community and some family photographs. Susan helped her connect with Dr Amlan Das Gupta at the School of Cultural Texts & Records (SCTR) at Jadavpur University. The school was working on colonial Kolkata and was keen to obtain information on Jewish community that played a critical role in the city’s mercantile development.

“SCTR had the means and expertise to handle the archive. With assistance from students, we started to film and photograph buildings, institutions, and community members. I then networked with families and extended families around the world, asking them to send whatever they for the archive,” said Jael.

Jael started with Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah, who has done foundational research and writing on the community. She also met Ken Robbins, who has a collection of Indian Judaica. The community enthusiastically sent across whatever they had. “I came across the fabulous collection of Ilana Sondak who shared her collection. Edmund Jonah had a treasure trove of family photos. He wrote an essay on his mother and her time in silent movies, replete with photos. I traveled to Delhi and Bombay to meet with children of actress Esther Victoria Abraham aka Pramila and Kamal and returned with wonderful photographs,” she recounted.

As word got around, more information and material trickled in. A booklet emerged on a refugee from Vienna, Elise Braun–Barnett and her memories of Calcutta. Sano Twena extended a collection of books on Kolkata Jews and shared the album belonging to Ronnie Jacob of Kolkata illustrations in the colonial period. Maurice Gubbay shared a video he had filmed of matzah making in Kolkata in the 1990s. Sano Twena also sent information on artist Gerry Judah and his monumental works. Gerry and Manny Elias sent images from the UK.

“When Jael began work on the archive two years ago, we had never thought it would be so expansive. People in their 80s and 90s sent documents, writings and photographs. Those who didn’t know how to scan or mail got their children and grandchildren to do it for them. We realize now that the timing of the archive was perfect. Had it been a decade earlier when scanning machines weren’t so common, many would not have parted with their original material. And had she waited a decade more, many of them would have been no more,” mused Jael’s mother Silliman.

The archive also has videos and music uploads. “Mavis Hyman allowed me to use her recipes. Rivers of Babylon let me download their entire CD and Rahel Musleah allowed me to use a couple of tracks from her CD, ‘Hodu: Jewish Rhythms from Bagdad to India’. Rabbi Musleah also gave me tapes of his chants that he has documented in Kol Zimrei,” Jael said.

“The archive is a valuable resource base. We hope the initiative inspires others,” said Das Gupta.

Now that the archive is in place, Jael who earlier authored the novel ‘The Man With Many Hats’ on Jews in Kolkata, will do a research on how the Jews of Kolkata were perceived by other communities. The research is funded by a Nehru Fulbright Senior fellow grant she received in August 2014.


The Baghdadi Jewish community came to Kolkata during the Raj. Founder Shalome Cohen, a trader, arrived on August 4, 1798, from Aleppo, Syria via Surat and took up residence in Murghihatta with his retinue.

Cohen traded in gems, rosewater, Arabian horses, spices, silks and Indigo. He was a court jeweler to the Nawab of Oudh and also traveled to the court of Maharaj Ranjit Singh.

World War II brought many European and American Jews to Kolkata. Some came as GIs and a few married Kolkata Jewish women who left as war brides.

Kolkata Jews started immigrating to Israel, Australia, England and other Commonwealth countries through the ’40s and ’50s

The fragility of the community in Kolkata is best reflected in the condition of the grand institutions it set up. The synagogues are no longer in use as there aren’t enough men to meet the minimum presence required. And though the Jewish Girls School thrives to this day, there has not been a Jewish girl in the school for about 40 years


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