Of matzoh and mothballs: The disappearing Jews of Kolkata

The Jewish Girls School in Kolkata does not have a single Jewish girl any more. Almost all the students are Muslim these days. But they still get a holiday on Passover. Flower Silliman, one of the last Jews of Kolkata, now in her eighties, says she goes to the school with a copy of the Charlton Heston film, The Ten Commandments.

“They don’t have the faintest idea what Passover is,” she says. “I show them the film and tell them the story of Passover via Charlton Heston.”

Once there were 5,000 Jews in Kolkata. Now there are barely twenty-something. This year the number dropped further.

David Nahoum, 85, arguably the most famous Jew in Kolkata, died this March.

Nahoum was a Kolkata institution because from the 1960s he was the city’s “fruit cake man.” He presided behind the till of Nahoum & Sons, Pvt. Ltd. Dainty Confectionery. Tucked in the heart of Kolkata’s maze-like New Market, this dimly-lit shop was almost a hundred years old and looked it. The  wooden cash till was old-fashioned, the paper boxes were very plain, the lighting unflattering. Though most of us who went there for its almond macaroons and cheese straws didn’t realise it, it was our last kosher bakery.

Flower Silliman. Photo by Sandip Roy.

Flower Silliman. Photo by Sandip Roy.

It never struck us as ironic that a Jewish bakery was famous for its Christmas cakes and Easter eggs. The Jews of Kolkata, mostly from Baghdad, were just part of what was called the “gray community” in the British days – neither fully Indian, nor Angrez. They lived alongside the Armenians, Parsees, Portuguese, Anglo-Indians. The British favoured them because they were small and posed no threat.  And they thrived under British rule.

There were at least three large synagogues, two schools, a burial board, a ward in a hospital with a kosher kitchen, a Jewish sports club and much more.

Now there are just buildings with names like Ezra Mansions. And memories of matzoh bread, as thin as a papadum.

“It was very fragile. So we had to put it in a basket to keep it whole,” reminisces Flower. “I remember my father buying matzoh and putting it in an enormous basket. And this was taken by handcart or bullock cart because it was too large to fit into any car. This huge object had no space in the house. So we put it up with an S-hook on the ceiling with a pulley.” She remembers the smell of baking matzoh wafting into her school from the synagogue opposite.

Two of the synagogues are still there. But they are shuttered because you cannot find the requisite ten men to hold a service. The clock on the tower of the brick red Maghen David synagogue is frozen at 3:30. Its gates are blocked by vendors selling plastic combs and bangles. When Flower Silliman scolds them, they shrug.  This is their street now.

“It’s a community with an outside,” says Flower’s daughter Jael, author of the book Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames. “The buildings are still there. But there is nothing inside, no people.”

Inside the synagogue, the books are wrapped in prayer shawls, fragile and falling apart. Sparrows chirp among the columns. “At least some of God’s creatures still come here,” laughs Flower.

She remembers the American troops coming here for Yom Kippur after World War II. The chandeliers were lit up. Extra chairs were brought in for the 4000 people who packed the room. Now the synagogues are left to the care of the mostly Muslim caretakers. The candle for Sabbath comes, already lit, in a closed box from the Nahoum home says Gufran, the caretaker at the Maghen David synagogue. Gufran’s father also worked at the synagogue before him for 25 years.

As Kolkata’s Jews disappear, the keepers of their legacy are these Muslim men who dust the benches and bring out carefully folded yarmulkes for visitors.  Flower says all her family cooks have been Muslim, some more Jewish than their bosses. She remembers if she asked her cook to hurry up with the chicken, he would say, “If you don’t salt it properly, I am going to have to report it to your mother.” Now you cannot get kosher chickens because there is no one to slaughter them. Nahoum’s is famous for its chicken pantras but a strictly kosher Jew like David Nahoum himself stopped eating chicken years ago.

At one level it sounds like an idyllic story of religious harmony. The Muslim caretakers of the synagogues. The Hindus managing the bakery. The Armenian neighbours and Parsee friends. But the Jews also never really melded into India. Their outsider status saved them during the Partition because they belonged to no side.

Flower remembers driving down the streets of Calcutta in a jeep with her brother and coming across a mob attacking a pregnant woman during those bloody riots. “They were about to cut her stomach open. And as we went there, they said, you stay out of this. This is not your problem. It’s Hindus and Muslims – you are neither.” Flower says, with a shudder, that they left. The mob waited for them to go before resuming their grisly task.

“We were immune yet we were not empowered to do anything.”

After Partition, that outsider status meant the  community started leaving India, afraid their Anglicized ways would not fit into the newly independent country. “At least we didn’t vanish because of anti-Semitism,” says Flower. “India can be proud and say that the Jews left because they wanted to leave and nobody told them to go.”

In her book, Jael writes about her grandmother Mary who left for Israel. Ironically, the devout Jewish woman felt most out of place there. She was a Sephardic Jew in a bustling modern country where Azenkhazi Jews looked down upon people like her.

Now there is just the nostalgia. At Nahoum’s long time manager Jagadish Halder says the bakery still sends out a book of goodies to all the Jewish families in the city for every festival – data babas, almond rings, cheese samosas. He is proud that people still come from all over for the cakes. “They remember that 50 years ago their mother got married and Nahoum prepared the wedding cake,” he says.

Another brother has taken charge of Nahoum’s for now. But he is in his seventies as well and a bachelor like David. "There is a lot of nostalgia and a sense of loss, people love to talk about Calcutta," says Jael. "But they don’t want to go back because they say how terrible Calcutta has become - so dirty, so crowded. But the real reason they don’t want to go back is there is no one to go back to."

Flower remembers standing in her kitchen one Passover with a box of matzoh from Bombay. Her children were in America then, celebrating with the seder with Jewish friends.

“I was alone. I stood there looking at the box and wondering how do I start,” she rues.

For years now, she has had a Passover ritual in Calcutta. “Me and Mr. Nahoum and one other gentleman even older than us will sit down together and read through the Haggadah and I don’t know if you can call that a seder. But we will do it for old times sake.”

This year even Mr. Nahoum is gone and there will be one less Jew at the Passover seder in Kolkata.


Updated Date: Mar 31, 2013 12:08 PM

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