Calcutta’s Jews will die out within ten years

Ian Zachariah is one of the last remaining members of Calcutta’s Jewish community. (AP photograph)

Once a community of 5,000 founded by Jews from Aleppo and Baghdad, the 40 Jews of Calcutta will die out in 10 years’ time, according to Robert Hirschfield in The Forward. Although antisemitism was never a problem, a key factor explaining the exodus of Jews from Calcutta was insecurity resulting from Hindu-Muslim strife in 1947.

Nahoum & Son’s Bakery, in the labyrinthine New Market in central Calcutta, is the embarkation point for making contact with the city’s Jewish community. David Nahoum, its undisputed leader, said to be about 90 and in ill health, no longer sells plum cakes, greets visitors or gives interviews to reporters. The first two responsibilities have been outsourced to Mr. Hulda, Nahoum’s friend, business associate and a Hindu.

The Jewish community of Calcutta numbers fewer than 40. The average age hovers around 75. The three youngest members of the community, two brothers and a sister, are in their 30s, with the youngest, 35-year-old Mordechai Israel, in the process of making aliyah.

“We are a dying community. We know that,” said Ian Zachariah, a burly 66-year-old ex-ad man who worked in the Calcutta office of J. Walter Thompson. “We have another 10 years. Maybe a little more.”

The community began optimistically, wrapped in the mystery of the East. It started with Shalom Cohen’s arrival from Aleppo, Syria.

“He came over in 1784,” said Flower Silliman, who at 80 acts as the community’s unofficial historian. “He was the court jeweler of the Nawab of Oudh.”

Others followed from Aleppo and Jews from Iraq joined them. (This is a Baghdadi-Jewish community, the name given to Indian Jews who came from the Middle East.)

A light flickers in Silliman’s eyes when she speaks of the first settlers: “They were very adventurous. They were traders [her maternal grandfather was a trader] who traveled all over the East, cooking their own food on deck, because they ate kosher food and had to prepare it themselves.”

Silliman made an extraordinary journey of her own several years ago. She moved back to her native Calcutta after 30 years of residing abroad. (“It is home,” she said simply.)

Ever since the late 1940s, with India’s independence and the creation of the State of Israel, the migration of Jews from Calcutta, with the exception of Silliman and maybe a few others, has been irreversible. It’s hard to imagine the bustling community of 5,000 that existed in the city before World War II.

The terrible Hindu-Muslim carnage in Calcutta following the 1947 partition fueled Jewish insecurity. Many were also unsure what their place would be in the new, Hindu-dominated India.

But “antisemitism has never been a problem in India and we are grateful for that,” said Aline Cohen, 64, who took over performing the tahara (the Jewish ritual of purification in which a body is cleaned before burial) from women who had grown too old to minister to the dead.

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  • I am from Kolkata and its sad to hear of how an invaluable facet of our rich culture will be wiped out forever within a while. Still, their contributions will remain.

  • Jews from different part of the world should settle in kolkata. You are welcome. Muslim terrorists are grabbing our lands forcefully and settling on our lands. We don't need islamic terrorists to destroy our country.. We need true, honest jews souls to contribute to the development of this country and its society.. We remember our great army leader General Jacov without whom we would never have won the war against pakistan.

  • I can assure all the jews of the world they are safe in India and will remain so till Hindus are here, so lets join hand with Hindus and lets make in India great we love JEWS!! In fact I am planning to marry a JEW if its possible!!

  • Hi bataween,

    Out of the 200 hundred killed in Mumbai only a handful belonged to the Jewish faith – the majority were Hindus, Christians etc. If fact the attack was in the most part not specific to any faith.
    I believe what City of Joy etc were conveying was this. In other words a "equal opportunity" situation though in this case to get shot if you will.
    I guess you could make a case to be fearful or not but the fear if there be any need not arise solely out of your belonging to any particular community….
    Let us not confuse general insecurity (debatable as relatively speaking all places have faced attacks) with any particular need for a specific community to be more fearful in India.

  • Hi solving perturbation
    No doubt the city of Bombay thought there was peaceful coexistence until 200 people died in 2009, and so did the city of Madrid until hundreds died in March 2007, and so did the city of London until 52 people died on 7/7.

  • Me agree with City Of Joy.India is a secular country here people of all religions are coexisting peacefully.And unfortunately people like Chrtsian Zionist does not have any idea about India.So i am requesting Zionist to visit India and see how great is this country.

  • The only states I would never go to as a Jew in south/southeast Asia are the Muslim states of Malaysia and Indonesia. As for the rest (India, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, etc.) I would feel perfectly at ease.

  • Christian Zionist, what do you imply? In all the south Asian cities people are up in arms against the Jews? You do not have the slightest idea about south Asia. And please don't think the attackers in Mumbai were from the city itself; they came from across the border. Still if you are not convinced ask Shalom Israel or Ian Zachariah why they stayed back in Calcutta instead of migrating to Israel in 1948 like most of the other Jews of the city.

  • City of Joy, you are naive; what happened in Mumbai could well be repeated in any south Asian city.

  • Sorry Juniper, but no one in Calcutta hates the Jews; and please don't compare India to the UK, India is a secular country in the true sense of the term. But it's unfortunate that the Jews in Kolkata has been reduced to about 30 families. The five synagogues stand testimony to this once bustling community of the city.

  • Please forgive me, but I am so afraid when people give out the addresses of Jews in India, especially after what happened in Mumbai at the Chabad centre. There are so many people filled with hate, here in UK as elsewhere.


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