A Community of Memory: Recalling Jewish Calcutta
Imagine coming home to the place you grew up, only to find it completely changed. This was the experience of Jael Silliman, who came to Skidmore this past Wednesday to speak about growing up in the Jewish community of Calcutta, India. Once a thriving community of 2,000, Silliman remembers there being a community of 500-700 Jews in her childhood. With fewer than 30 Jews left in Calcutta now, Silliman, an author, scholar, and women’s rights advocate, decided that she needed to document her community’s past before it completely faded away. The result was Recalling Jewish Calcutta -– a collaborative online media archive devoted to preserving the memory of this Jewish community.
Known as the Baghdadi Jews, many Jews first came to Calcutta during the start of the British Raj in the 1850s; although community founder Shalome Cohen, a trader and merchant from Aleppo, Syria, reportedly came to Calcutta in 1798. During the 1850s and into the 1910s, Calcutta was the capital of British India, and most Jews came seeking economic success. They were called Baghdadi because they came from the area around modern Baghdad and across the Middle East. At the community’s height, Jewish businesses were quite prominent in Calcutta.
Jews in Calcutta had a multifaceted image in Indian society. Although most early Baghdadi Jews spoke Arabic and dressed in traditional Middle Eastern clothing, as Baghdad began to decline many of the wealthier Jewish families adopted a Western lifestyle — dressing in Western clothes, speaking English, and educating their children at British schools. However, outside of the higher class and business world, the Jews of Calcutta were very integrated into Indian society, and often casually wore Indian clothing, spoke Indian languages, and had many close Indian friends. This dual image allowed them to be accepted by the Indian society while retaining an identity of their own.
Jews played many important roles in the Indian society. Most Calcutta Jews were merchants who traded jute, indigo, opium, or tobacco. Many Jewish men were also magistrates, sheriffs, and legislatures, and women were teachers, doctors, and businesswomen. For instance, J.F.R. Jacob, who retired as Indian Army Lieutenant General in 1978, was Jewish. Esther Victoria Abraham (screen name Pramila), a Jewish woman in the community, was the first Miss India, a Bollywood actress, and later the country's first female film producer. Regina Guha was a Jewish woman who submitted the first case in India for women to become lawyers in 1915. Although her case was initially denied, Rachel Ashkenazi, the first female lawyer to practice law in the High Court of Calcutta, was also Jewish.
Many prominent buildings built by Jews still exist in Calcutta. There are currently three synagogues; one of which is the Magen David, the largest synagogue in Asia. Although none of these synagogues still function as places of worship, they are maintained as landmarks by caretakers. There are two Jewish schools, a girls' and a boys' school, which both continue to operate despite having no Jewish students. There are also numerous buildings that were built by Jews: homes, offices, mansions, and other real estate once owned by Jewish homeowners and landlords.
So why did the thriving community eventually vanish from Calcutta? Silliman explained that there were a variety of reasons. The first was India becoming independent from Britain in 1947, and the trend towards both a nationalistic and socialist India. Many Jews were concerned about their cultural place in this new Indian society, and also about how a more socialist economy would affect their businesses. Many Calcutta Jews were also deeply involved in the Zionist movement, and so many emigrated to Israel. During the Holocaust and World War II, many European Jews seeking refuge came to Calcutta. Some married Jewish women and took them back to Europe after the war was over. As the community shrunk, even more people left in search of a bigger Jewish community.
As the Calcutta Jewish community fades away, it increasingly lives only in the memories of the people who once inhabited it. Silliman’s archive allows us to explore the history and culture of this rich community, one that is rarely discussed or acknowledged, through the eyes of the people who lived there.
Access the archive here: http://www.jewishcalcutta.in/
*** Above is a picture of the modern interior of the Magen David synagogue in Calcutta, which Silliman refers to as the largest synagogue in Asia.