Did You Know About Kolkata's Jewish Past?

Did You Know About Kolkata's Jewish Past?
Inside the Magen David Synagogue in Kolkata , Photo Credit: Getty Images

Walk back in time to delve into an almost-forgotten chapter in Kolkata’s cosmopolitan history

Uttara Gangopadhyay
August 23 , 2019
12 Min Read

During day, especially during peak business hours, Brabourne Road in Kolkata is a maelstrom of people and traffic. But if you are brave enough to venture into the area, you will be surprised to find hiding in the midst of all the chaos are milestones that indicate one of the city’s little known chapters.

Keep walking towards Canning Street and you will soon find a tower looming against the sky, its roof ending in a finial. Often mistaken for a church, the Magen David Synagogue (1884) is a reminder of the times when Kolkata (or Calcutta as it was then known as) was home to a large number of Jews. The corner tower on the flat roof of the Magen David synagogue has clock faces on its four sides and rises to a height of 140 feet.

Sharing the premises is the Neveh Shalome Synagogue (1910). Not far from here, is the Beth El Synagogue on Pollock Street, dating back to 1856.

Shalom Cohen a trader from Aleppo, Syria, was the first to arrive in Kolkata via Surat in 1798. He was followed by other traders from Syria and Iraq. The first synagogue, Neveh Shalome, was built in 1831. It is sad that little remains of this cosmopolitan chapter of Kolkata except for street names such as Ezra Street, Synagogue Street or Belilios Street, two schools, buildings such as the Ezra Mansion, a landmark confectionary, three surviving synagogues, and a cemetery.

 
 
 
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With none to conduct the religious ceremonies and hardly anyone to attend them, the surviving synagogues too would have faded away if it was not for the recent interest to restore them. The Jewish community funded the restoration. Now the three synagogues are a popular attraction in Kolkata.

 
 
 
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Neveh Shalome Synagogue is the first Synagogue built in Kolkata in the year 1831 by the Baghdadi Jews. The architecture is simpler and is more like a prayer hall. Now it is only open to religious services for the Jews on special occasions only and often when Jews from Israel come to offer prayers. Now the Jewish population in the city is close to nil; about twenty people are left. There is also a small exhibition set up on the 1st floor of the synagogue which archives the memories of the Jewish people right from their settlement in Kolkata. Right on the intersection of the busy and chaotic streets of Braboune Rd and Canning St lies this beautiful place which is among the three survining synagogues in Kolkata. . . . . #synagogue #jewishsynagogue #nevehshalomesynagogue #calcuttasynagogues #cityofjoykolkata #calcuttacanvas #calcuttadiaries #calcuttagram #calcuttagrammers #calcuttadiaries #ig_calcutta #iger #calcuttaiger #sokolkata #shotononeplus5 #instacanvassy #mypixeldiary #westbengal_ig #bengal_undiscovered #thevisualambassadors #thecreatorclass #_heater #cal_calling #thevisualscollective #thevisualcreator

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The Magen David Synagogue was the third one to be built in the city to accommodate the expanding Jewish community, mostly Baghdadi Jews. Like its immediate predecessor, the Beth El synagogue, Magen David too drew inspiration from the European architecture around them while keeping the Jewish requirements intact. Pillars and arches highlight the architectural extravaganza.

 
 
 
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In both the synagogues, you see a large central hall with a high ceiling from which hang old fashioned ceiling fans, chandeliers and decorative lamps, Hebrew letterings and symbols. Stained glass windows allow the light to come in, throwing a series of patterns on the chequered floor. In the centre is the raised platform (bimah or tevah) where men reading the religious book Torah sat. In keeping with the Baghdadi Jewish tradition, men sat on the ground floor while women sat in the gallery upstairs with decorated wrought iron railings.

 
 
 
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At the far end is the sanctuary, with the symbol of a star-studded sky beneath which are the arched recesses, where the Torah scrolls are kept in decorated boxes. In front hangs the Parochet or the curtain, separating this holiest of the holy spot from the rest of the synagogue.

In the Magen David, there is a wooden block in the centre of the painted firmament that contains drawings of the 10 Commandments by the flanked by the Menorah (the ancient Hebrew lampstand) and surrounded by many symbols. The Neveh Shalome synagogue we see today was rebuilt in honour of the oldest one, which was demolished to make way for the more architecturally rich and much bigger Magen David.

 
 
 
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One of the most interesting features of the synagogues is that the caretakers are all Muslims, who have been looking after these houses of worships for generations.

No mention of the Jewish community in Kolkata is complete without the mention of Nahoum (Nahoum and Sons), the confectionary store located inside Hogg Market (popularly referred to as the New Market) near Esplanade. Nahoum Israel Mordecai started a bakery in 1902 from where goods used to be delivered directly to the customers’ homes. The shop in New Market was opened about a decade later. It was the rich fruit cake sold here that became popular as the ‘Christmas cake’, and people irrespective of faith would queue up for it during Christmas. Before the coming of the glitzy malls, Durga Puja shopping meant a compulsory visit to New Market, and a visit to Nahoum’s.

 
 
 
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Nahoum's, this bakery started in 1902 and is the only Jew bakery in India. We can see marzipan and chocolate fudge over this plate. They offer exclusive sweets. And guess what, their menu has never changed!🍮🍬 Some constants in life. P.S. This was gifted to me by my sister. @toshikasoni. (Best ever) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . #love #instagramers #socialsteeze #tweegram #photooftheday #amazing #smile #instalike #igers #picoftheday #food #instadaily #instafollow #followme #girl #instagood #bestoftheday #instacool #carryme #sweets #sunset #style #fun #food #pretty #sweets #nature #lol #instagood #chessbored #kolkata #nahoums

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Thankfully, the Jewish cemetery in Narkeldanga, on the eastern periphery of the city, has also been restored, which is a must visit for many Kolkata Jews whose families have migrated to distant lands. The paths have been paved and lined with trees, the graves painted white and the marble stones polished. The graves have also been numbered for convenience.

The Information:

>To know more, refer to Memories of Jewish Calcutta, an online compendium put together by scholar and author Jael Silliman, herself one of the handful of Jews who still Kolkata home.  

>After restoration, the synagogues are usually open to visitors, on all days, from 10am to 5pm; photography is not discouraged (except on Saturdays). But do check for permission. Men have to don the traditional cap, kippah.

>Although many Kolkata street names have been changed, the old names are also in use. Brabourne Road has been renamed as Biplabi Trailokya Maharaja Sarani and Canning Street as Biplabi Rash Behari Bose Sarani.  

>Contact companies such as Calcutta Walks and Heritage Walk Calcutta for a guided walking tour in the area.


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