The food of the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta

Marag b’djeej: Baghdadi Jewish chicken casserole

Their food is like Iraqi-Jewish food – but spicier. With the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta numbering a mere 35 souls, their recipes are all that remains of a once-flourishing community. Chef Dennis Wasko continues his cookery series for the Jerusalem Post:

The first Jews arrived in Calcutta sometime in the late 18th century. This group was comprised of Baghdadi Jews who came from Iraq, as well as Syrian and Persian Jews. All of these Jewish settlers were fleeing from Islamic persecution in their native lands. The Jewish refugees who were forced out of their homes found welcoming safety in Calcutta. By 1800, the Jews had established a vibrant community and thrived as diamond merchants, real estate brokers, exporters, spice traders, and bakers. The first generations of Jews in Calcutta spoke Judeo-Arabic, but by the 1890’s, English was the language of choice.

The Jewish communities of India achieved their maximum population and wealth under British rule, and the small community of Calcutta continued to prosper and trade amongst all the major cities of the Far East and the rest of the world. The native Indian population was very tolerant and the Jewish community was allowed to live in peace and security. The community reached its peak population of about 5,000 during World War II when its numbers were swelled by Jewish refugees fleeing the Japanese in Burma. The community formed a solid minority, and their wedding parties and religious feasts were legendary in the raucous, bustling city. The community rarely faced discrimination as they were too small to bother with. The Hindu and Muslim communities were too busy fighting each other, and Indian Caste conflict also deflected attention from the Jews.

The golden age ended in 1947 with the birth of Indian independence. The native Indian population associated the Jews with the British and Anti-Semitic attacks* began. The founding of the State of Israel in 1948 also had a negative impact on the Jews of Calcutta. Anti-Jewish and Anti-Israel sentiments ran high and many Jews left Calcutta and immigrated to Israel, England, and the United States.

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* As pointed out in the comments below, Jews were not specifically targeted for attack, but could find themselves caught up in inter-communal or anti-British rioting. It was this fear of being squeezed between two hostile communities that most contributed to the Jewish exodus – ed


  • You are right to point out that the Jews in India did not experience antisemitism. However, they did fear becoming caught in the violence between Hindus and Muslims.
    There was discrimination in Israel in the 1950s, but the Indian Jews were not the only ones to suffer. Holocaust survivors complained of being called 'sabon'.

    Such discrimination has diminished over time.

    This blog contains a post on General Jacobs.

  • My husband and my in-laws are part of the Baghdadi-Jewish community from Calcutta and they have told me time and time again that there was never a time that they suffered from any form of discrimination or persecution while in India. Where there was discrimination was in Israel when many of the family made aliyah after Indian partition. They were badly mistreated by the European Jews who looked down on them, even though they were cultured and well educated as well as multilingual. They were treated with disdain and not given the same opportunities as those from Europe.

    India has just recognized General Jacobs (a relative of our family) who successfully defeated the Pakistani army and who was rewarded by the Indian government with postings of Governor of Punjab and then Goa.

    Rabbi Musleah (New York) was part of the Calcutta community and has written a wonderful book called "On the Banks of the Ganga – A Jewish Sojourn in India", it would be a useful read for anyone who wants to know what it was like to live in India, but does not have anyone to interview.

  • You are correct that the Jews did not suffer antisemitic riots as such, but a major factor in their exodus was fear of being caught up in the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims and against the British, with whom the Jews identified strongly. Mavis Hyman describes in her book 'The Jews of the Raj' an incident in which a mob attacked a car, a symbol of European colonialism, being driven by a Jewish driver in 1930. In another incident in the 1930s, Seemah Cohen Morris was in a car with friends. One was wearing a 'solar topee', headgear introduced by the British. A mob threatened to destroy the car if the wearer did not get rid of his 'solar topee'.
    Hyman tells of other incidents where Jews had to take measures to protect their Hindu or Muslim staff from each other.
    The independence slogan'India for the Indians'alienated Jews who were not Indian nationalists.
    I think it would be fair to say that the Jews felt insecure, and that there was a fear that the intercommunal rioting could potentially be directed against Jews as scapegoats. But this never actually happened.

  • "The native Indian population associated the Jews with the British and Anti-Semitic attacks began."

    Mmm… no. The first documented attack of anti-Semitic violence in India occurred in November 2008, during the Mumbai terrorism attack. Prior to that, Jews lived in India, next to Hindus and Muslims, in peace. Those that moved Israel did so because they wanted to live in a Jewish nation – there was no hostility from non-Jews in India. Bombay had a Jewish mayor in the 1950s, before NY had one.- KXB


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