From the early 19th century the Jews settled in the capital of British India in successive waves of migration. Kolkata, or Calcutta as it was known then, saw many types – the ‘native’ or Cochin (speaking Malayali) Jews; the Bene Israelites (speaking Marathi); the Ashkenazi or the European Jews; and the Baghdadi Jews (speaking Judeo Arabic) from the Persian Gulf region.
The Jews traded mainly in gems – like diamonds – and indigo. The first Jew to settle in Calcutta was reportedly Shalom ben Aharon Obaidiah ha Cohen at Potato Lane, Murghihatta, in 1789.
By 1850 there were 1,500 Jewish families here. The first Hebrew printing press was established here in 1841. Till 1891, the Jews were concentrated in Burrabazar and Kolutola but later spread all over the city.
The Jews gradually adopted English as their official language and Hebrew was reserved for prayers. From the late 19th century they also adopted western clothes and took English names and surnames.
Moses Dwek Cohen was the founder of the Jewish Community of Kolkata and became its Rabbi as the President of the Community in 1825. It was under his inspiration that the Maghen David Synagogue was established and the first Jewish school was started in 1881.
The Ezras were another prominent Jewish family and David Ezra became the Sheriff of Calcutta. They owned some of the most prestigious buildings of the city like the Chowringhee Mansions, Ezra Mansions, Salvation Army house etc. A street was also named after the family.
The Gubbays, the Ha Cohens and the Elias families established important trading houses. The Nahoum family still owns the most popular bakery of the city — Nahoums and Sons- in New Market. They started residing in the city from 1868. Starting as a small bakery on Metcalfe Street it was established as a shop in New (Hogg) Market in early 20th century and has continued to rule the hearts of all Kolkatans.
Yvonne D’Silva’s father Robert Goldberg was an Ashkanzi better known as a French Jew and mother a Catholic. “There was a time when I had many Jewish friends from Weiz, Hallens and Ezra families in Kolkata. They studied with me in Pratt Memorial School and later migrated to Australia,” she said.
Her Jewish grandfather came to Calcutta in the early 20th century with his wife to sell diamond jewellery to the maharajas. They settled down in Park Street. Yvonne Goldberg was not brought up as a Jew, since to be Jewish one has to inherit norms from the mother’s side.
Yvonne or Goldie as she was known in her childhood recalls the Jewish festivals that were celebrated here. The most important was the Feast of the Passover around Easter.
Before the Passover there was a fasting for two Seder nights. Also during the Spring Cleaning no bread is allowed in to the house for a week.
Another important festival was the Day of Atonement which ushers in the New Year and this too meant fasting.
On the Day of Atonement the Jews fast from sunrise to sunset to usher in the New Year. They then visit the Synagogue to pray and then enjoy the Yom Kippur Feast.
Another important ritual of the Jewish faith is the Sabbath. On Friday the women clean their house and themselves and also light candles. Then the family and close friends sit together at the dinner table for the Kadush which consists of unleavened bread and wine.
The women say a prayer, dip a piece of the bread in the salt and distribute it. They then say a prayer of the wine, sip it and pass it around. Men then wash their hands and greet each other with Sabbath Shalom which means peace. After this no Jew will do any work for the day.
Cooking on the following day has to be simple and uncomplicated. The cuisine of the Eastern and the Western Jews differ. This brought together a variety of culinary specialties to the community in Kolkata.
The Baghdadai Jews make Hamim Chicken which is stuffed with rice and herbs and cooked over a low flame. The fire is started before Sabbath and the chicken is roasted the next day by which time the rice becomes like a pastry. This delicious meal is eaten throughout Saturday till the sun sets. After bath and prayers the Sabbath is broken.
The Ashkanezi Jews make a dish with steamed fish balls and eat it with horseradish sauce called the kreme and unleavened bread called maza.
Another delicacy of the Baghdadi Jews is the alu makah, where the potatoes are peeled, partly boiled with salt and turmeric and cooked for four hours over a low flame. The potatoes are then fried crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. This is served with halba – a sauce with methi and pudina and served up with roast chicken. Yvonne recalls, “These dishes were so good and even today I yearn for them.”
With very few Jews remaining in Kolkata today, it is Jewish institutions, buildings and shops set up by the leading men of the community, that keep yesteryear memories alive.
The Jewish Girls School for example was set up to educate the Jewish girls who were at the risk of conversion in Christian schools. This is a testimony to the strong will of the Jews who were determined to spread education but preserve their rich and ancient culture at the same time.
Today this school provides highly valued English medium instruction to Muslim girls of the area. The Jewish traditions are still followed in the school though there are no students or teachers who are Jewish.
Jews remain a symbol of the cross community tolerance which has been so unique in Kolkata.