Just about everywhere globetrotter Moshe Klein went in Kolkata, India, he heard echoes of the vibrant Jewish community that once existed, far-off echoes of Yiddishkeit that will likely never be revived
It goes without saying that globetrotter Moshe Klein had India, the most populated country in the world, on his list of countries to be visited in his quest to find pockets of Jewish history in far flung places. Truthfully, Klein wasn’t planning on spending much time in India, and while he was aware that there have been Jewish communities in Cochin, Mizoram, Manipur, Hyderabad, and Delhi, he had only envisioned visiting Mumbai’s Baghdadi and Bene Israel Jews. But as he was winding up a trip in Bhutan, he discovered that Drukair, Bhutan’s official airline, offered direct flights to only two cities on his planned date of departure — Kathmandu, Nepal, and Kolkata, India. Having already spent time in Nepal, Kolkata was Klein’s obvious choice.
Yet instead of just using the city formerly known as Calcutta as a stopover point on his way to Mumbai, Klein hired a guide, intent on discovering whatever vestiges of Judaism he could track down during his brief visit.
“I had no prior knowledge of Kolkata, and I was open to everything,” notes Klein. “If I was there, I was going to find out whatever was Jewish there.”
The flight from Bhutan to Kolkata’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport (formerly known as Dum Dum Airport) took just 90 minutes, but the difference between the two countries was so pronounced that it was as if Klein and his wife Esther had traveled to an alternate universe. Making their way into Kolkata, Klein was immediately struck by the city’s inherent culture of contradictions, where clean, tree-lined streets with attractive homes are just a stone’s throw from slums that defy description.
“Once you start going into the city, you can see it immediately,” says Klein.
Klein was fascinated to see modern cars, horses and buggies, and yellow taxis with a distinct vintage vibe all sharing the roads. India’s Ambassador taxis have long been part of the local landscape, but with production of the Hindustan Motors’ classic ending in 2014, the cars are slowly being phased out. It’s not just that replacement parts are no longer available for the sturdy taxis, whose design remained virtually unchanged for more than six decades; commercial vehicles more than 15 years old were recently banned in Kolkata for environmental reasons, a reality that will have even the latest models off the roads by 2030.
The slow demise of Kolkata’s iconic taxis was a prelude to much of what Klein encountered during his time in what is known as the City of Joy. Much like the Hindustan Ambassadors are slowly making their final trips from Kolkata’s roadways into the annals of history, the city’s Jewish community is yet another relic of a time that is long gone and will likely never reappear.
You Don’t Have to Be Jewish…
The most memorable moment of Klein’s stay in Kolkata was when a young ponytailed girl waved shyly at him as he walked out of the city’s famed Jewish bakery. He waved back at her, and she responded by saying, “Shalom.”
To say that Klein was flabbergasted would be a major understatement. He went over to the girl, who wore what was clearly a school uniform — a modest skirt and a striped blouse adorned with a pin bearing the words “Jewish Girls’ School,” the school’s initials inscribed in the center of a Magen David.
“I thought she might speak Hebrew, but she didn’t,” recalls Klein. “I asked her if she was Jewish and she told me that she wasn’t, but she goes to the Jewish school. All I could think was, in Kolkata? A Jewish school? I get that there is a bakery, because people like food, but a Jewish school?”
Neither the girl nor her mother, who was attired in typical Arabic dress, spoke much English, but they walked Klein to a building bearing a large sign that read, “Jewish Girls’ School (Under Emunah Calcutta Jewish Trust).” The school had a mezuzah on the door, and its walls displayed pictures of Jewish women whose largesse was instrumental to the school’s founding, including members of the Sassoon and Kadoorie families. Klein had an opportunity to speak with the head principal, Mrs. Cohen, the only Jewish person in the entire school.
“She explained that the school was started for Jewish girls at a time when many Jewish families were doing business in Calcutta, but as more and more Jewish families left India, they started taking in non-Jewish girls,” says Klein. “The last Jewish student left in 1984.”
Staying somewhat true to its roots, the school still has Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and Purim as days off on its calendar. Parents who Klein met said they send their daughters to the Jewish school, which has over 1,000 students, because of its high-quality education. When Klein asked Mrs. Cohen where Jewish boys went to school when the community was thriving, he was surprised yet again: Kolkata is also home to the Elias Meyer Free School and Talmud Torah.
“We went over there and saw the shul,” relates Klein. “It was fascinating to see there were still seforim there, which seemed very old and very unused.”
Like the girls’ school, the Talmud Torah has no Jewish students, although some of its teachers are members of the Tribe. One teacher greeted Klein with a hearty “Shalom aleichem” and introduced him to the dean.
“He was an elderly Yid who doesn’t hear well, but he still runs the school,” says Klein. “I asked him what his position was, and he said to me, ‘Ich bin di menahel.’ It was almost funny to hear him tell me that he is the menahel of Muslim students.”
The school’s current dean is actually a graduate of the Talmud Torah, where he learned Chumash and Gemara, and where students at the time communicated in Arabic, Ladino, and Yiddish. As the Jewish population dwindled over the years, the Talmud Torah, like the girls’ school, began taking in students of other religions. Both schools have reputations for excellence, making them a popular choice for locals of various religions.
Klein asked one of the boys he met if he knew what the words Talmud Torah, embroidered into the logo on his school blazer, meant. The youth just shrugged, telling Klein that it was the name of his school.
“I asked him again if he knew what the words actually meant, and he didn’t know,” says Klein. “He also didn’t know anything about the Star of David on his shirt, although some of the other kids knew it was a Jewish symbol.”
Have Your Cake
Despite the fact that there is little Yiddishkeit remaining in Kolkata, there is one element of local Jewish life that remains as prominent as ever — Nahoum’s and Sons Confectioners. Customers routinely line up outside the bakery, located in Kolkata’s New Market area, eager to snap up the freshly baked goods that have delighted locals — both Jew and gentile — for over 100 years.
Given the bakery’s popularity, the story of Nahoum and Sons has been told many times. Nahoum Israel Mordecai, a talented baker, left the Middle East for India in 1902, going door to door with his bakery treats. Mordecai’s confections were so well received that he opened a brick-and-mortar shop in 1916 with offerings that spanned cultures — traditional challahs, rugelach, babkas, brownies, and cream puffs alongside baklava, ka’ak, and other Middle Eastern specialties.
Nahoum’s isn’t kosher anymore, but its ambiance is clearly Jewish, with several Bircas Habayis plaques and pictures of rabbanim gracing the walls and a mezuzah prominently affixed on the doorpost. The bakery remains true to its roots in many ways, using Mordecai’s prized recipes and retaining its original furniture, only recently making the leap to accepting credit cards.
“It was fascinating,” says Klein. “You walk through a shuk where there are a lot of Indian restaurants, and all of a sudden you come across a place called Nahoum’s that has Arabian style and European gebeksen. It’s jarring.”
The bakery has been passed down through the family from Nahoum to his children and grandchildren. According to Klein, his great-grandsons retain ownership of the bakery and come to visit several times a year.
While Nahoum’s may be Kolkata’s last functioning Jewish company, it does brisk business creating confections for the major non-Jewish holidays. The bakery’s fruitcake is hugely popular in December, with the Archbishop of Canterbury reportedly proclaiming nearly 60 years ago that it was the best he had ever tasted. More recently, an Instagram user posted a video of people waiting outside Nahoum’s this past December, describing how she spent two hours in line to get her holiday fruitcake.
The Mumbai Massacre that took the lives of Chabad shluchim Rabbi Gavriel and Rivky Holtzberg and their Chabad House guests Hy’d in 2008 highlighted a modern Jewish presence in India, primarily in the form of Israeli tourists and international businessmen. While most people today think of India as the place from where all tech support calls are answered, or as a poor, humid, overcrowded peninsula on the world map, India’s Jewish history dates back many hundreds of years, though whether it stretches as far back as the time of Shlomo Hamelech or the era of the Second Beis Hamikdash remains up for debate.
It is clear, however, that Calcutta’s Jewish presence dates back to the late 18th century with the arrival of Syrian-born Shalom Obadiah Cohen, who first made his way from Aleppo to India in 1792. He settled in Calcutta six years later. Over the next hundred years the community grew, and as Baghdadi Jews fled persecution and settled in Calcutta, the Jewish population grew, second only to that of Bombay (currently known as Mumbai). Separated by a distance of nearly 1,200 miles, both communities became thriving centers of commerce under British rule.
The influx of Jews to Calcutta meant a proliferation of shuls, with the Neveh Shalom Synagogue built in 1831. The original building was demolished 53 years later to make way for the larger and more ornate Magen David Synagogue, only to be rebuilt once again in 1910. Both shuls are still in existence. The Beth El Synagogue, built in 1856, bears the distinction of being the longest operating shul in Kolkata, while the Magen Aboth and Shaare Rasoon synagogues, constructed in 1897 and 1933 respectively, are both long gone. While Calcutta had some local rabbis, the city had no poskim of its own, and halachic questions of significance were sent to Baghdad to Rav Abdallah Somekh, who was both the rav and brother-in-law of the Ben Ish Chai.
Various sources put India’s Jewish population at anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 by the 1940s, with communities established in multiple cities. But it wasn’t long before those numbers took a significant downward turn. In Calcutta, numerous factors chipped away at the Jewish population in the late to mid-1940s, including India’s newfound status as an independent country, the Bengal famine, riots between religious groups, and new government trade regulations. Unsure of their future prospects, Calcutta’s wealthiest families emigrated, taking their fortunes and many of the community’s jobs with them. The city’s Jewish presence of upwards of 4,000 residents plummeted, falling below 1,000 by the late 1960s as the downward trend continued. By the time Klein visited, only 17 mostly elderly Jews remained.
Blooms in the Slums
It’s a bit ironic to realize that one of Kolkata’s most beautiful sights is smack in the middle of the city’s dismal slums. Located on the banks of the Hooghly River, the Mullick Ghat flower market is well over a century old, and one of the largest in all of Asia. The wholesale market opens at sunrise, which can be before five a.m. in the springtime, and serious buyers know to come early for the freshest picks, which are sold by weight, often in massive bags. While the flower market stays open all day, choices are limited as the hours go by, and the already muddy floors become littered with greenery, wilted blooms, and, of course, trash.
Walking through the market is an experience in and of itself and one that is a favorite among tourists. Klein found the best view to be from the Howrah Bridge, which spans the Hooghly River.
“When you look down, all you can see is flowers,” says Klein.
The flower market is one of the largest sources of employment for residents of Kolkata’s slums, most of whom will likely never be able to find another job, leaving them trapped in a cycle of poverty. Klein found Kolkata to be a city of extremes, where the rich are incredibly affluent, and the poverty extends far beyond anything he has ever seen: Kolkata has more than 3,000 varying slums, home to at least a third of the population.
“The slums are basically a village where people live on the streets,” says Klein. “The lucky ones have tents made out of trash that they find on the street.”
Normal personal hygiene standards don’t apply in the slums, where bathing in sewage isn’t uncommon, toilets are limited in number, water is contaminated and, in many cases, people who find food on the ground are grateful for a source of nourishment. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation has a special department dedicated to improving infrastructure within the slums, known locally as bustees. Despite those efforts, the realities of the slums remain; Klein watched as a teenage boy scooped water out of a puddle on a busy street and used it to wash his hair.
“No matter what you give people in the slums, they will never have the opportunities that others have because of their circumstances — they’re essentially trapped in that lifestyle with no way out,” Klein notes. “That’s when we look from the outside in. But you know, they have their own community, and it was surprising to realize that a lot of them are happier than some people I know.”
By the Book
One of Kolkata’s most famed stretches of road is College Street. Home to multiple universities and academic institutions, College Street is also the site of India’s largest book market and the largest secondhand book market in the world. In typical Eastern shuk style, College Street’s bookstores are open to negotiations on books that can range from rare first editions to popular fiction and everything in between.
But the sight of the many thousands of books that Klein saw as he walked down College Street wasn’t the most remarkable part of his visit to the iconic stretch of roadway.
“You see kids who go there to gain knowledge,” says Klein. “Not all kids go to school in Kolkata, and you see children who wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity for education sitting on the curb reading. These are kids who live in the slums, and this is the only education they get.”
Just off College Street is another of Kolkata’s famous sites — Indian Coffee House. Part of a decades-old chain of 400 eateries, Indian Coffee House has earned a reputation as a historic gathering spot for students, poets, writers, artists, and intellectuals. Deep conversation flows even faster than the coffee, and ideas on just about every topic under the sun are exchanged, discussed, and dissected.
“It’s very cultural and very serious,” explains Klein. “Many influential poems were written in that café and the waiters are dressed up like when those poems were written 100 years ago. Customers are drawn there because they want to learn more, and this is the place where they can do it.”
Whiffs of the Past
None of Klein’s missions to learn about sunsetting Jewish communities would be complete without visiting crucial elements of its infrastructure — the shul and the cemetery. While Kolkata has three standing shuls, they are visited only by tourists who make arrangements with guides who know whom to contact about unlocking the historic buildings. Contemporary Kolkata is so far removed from any vestiges of Yiddishkeit that even Chabad has yet to set up shop there, with the nearest Chabad house open only seasonally in Varansi, a 17-hour drive away.
Klein took advantage of the opportunity to put on tallis and tefillin during his visit to the Magen David shul, a magnificent structure which has been under the care of the same Muslim family for four generations. The shul’s Muslim caretaker approached Klein while he was davening Shacharis, gesturing at him with a small metal object. Assuming the item was a pushkah, Klein motioned for his guide to wait, but several minutes later the caretaker interrupted him again. It was clear that he specifically wanted Klein’s attention while he was davening, and he handed him a small silver item.
“I stopped and I took the small silver piece, but it wasn’t a tzedakah box, it was actually a tabak pushkah [a snuff box],” remembers Klein. “He told me that this was the custom, that while they davened they passed it around.”
Not surprisingly given the age of the silver case, its contents no longer retained their distinctive aroma. Still, Klein gave it an appreciative sniff, knowing that it was expected of him.
“I saw how important it was to the Muslim shamash,” says Klein. “I guess it was very emotional for him that someone came to daven, so he wanted me to do it all the way.”
Magen David is maintained by a Jewish trust, which also runs the schools and Kolkata’s other shuls. Klein was impressed by the simple beauty of the Neveh Shalom synagogue and the grandeur of the Beth El synagogue, whose white brick exterior still sports a mosaic depicting the 12 Shevatim, topped by the Aseres Hadibros. Beth El also housed Kolkata’s only mikveh, with a sign propped on a nearby window reading, “This mikveh, used for ritual baths, was designed and constructed under the directions of Rabbi Silman Sassoon in 1953. He also bore the entire cost of its construction.”
There are approximately 2,000 graves in Kolkata’s Jewish cemetery, and Klein was able to visit the kevarim of community founder Shalom Obadiah Cohen and master baker Nahoum Israel Mordecai. A larger matzeivah marks the burial place of Elias Moses Duek Cohen, who served at the helm of both the Magen David and Neveh Shalom shuls. Like other tombstones that were erected in the community’s later years, Duek Cohen’s matzeivah has both English and Hebrew text, describing him as “a scion of ancient Spanish nobility” and noting that he conferred Bircas Kohanim on the visiting Prince Albert Victor of Britain, Duke of Clarence and Avondale.
A genizah located in the cemetery, dedicated in memory of Joseph Rahamim Judah Leveroy after his 1911 passing, held special appeal for Klein, who hoped it might contain some items of historical significance. Klein managed to climb into the genizah’s opening, located some five feet off the ground, but his efforts were met with disappointment. The top portion of the genizah held nothing of value, while the items in the bottom section had rotted away because of the humid weather.
“If there had been anything interesting in there, it was long gone,” observes Klein.
Modern-day burials still take place in Kolkata, with Mrs. Cohen of the Jewish Girls’ school functioning as the head of the local chevra kaddisha for women. When the niftar is male, volunteers are brought in from Mumbai or Delhi, both of which are more than two hours away by plane.
Recent years saw valiant efforts to reverse Kolkata’s decline; several years ago, Jerusalem kabbalist and scholar Rabbi Yonatan Goldschmidt of Jerusalem was brought in to oversee the Jewish communities of Cochin and Kolkata. But the advent of Covid made it impossible for Rabbi Goldschmidt to have any kind of meaningful impact, and he relocated to the Philippines, his departure yet another blow to a community that barely exists. It is a reality that Klein sees over and over in his travels, as he visits far-flung Jewish communities before they peter out.
“You go to these places and it’s pretty much over and isn’t going to be revived, although people try to keep them going until their last breath,” observes Klein. “That is why I’m trying to document them in the time we have — before they’re completely gone.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 998)
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