The Baghdadi Jews of Kolkota


Not much is known about the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkota, one of the reasons being their exodus from India after Independence. Manjira Majumdar brings to light a book written about this community and its fascinating food, lifestyle and culture.

Text and photos: Text: Manjira Majumdar

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Despite a number of communities that came from outside into India, not much is known about their food, for the simple reason that they were not popular outside private homes. Whatever little was available outside the community had to be specially catered for. However, re-introduced in cafes and restaurants, cuisine does have a way to revive memories and provide glimpses into culture, along with a sense of shared history. It fosters new hope.

“Calcutta Stories” is an unassuming eatery located in a primarily residential area of south Kolkata. Its introduction of a Jewish platter of aloo makala and shoofta, triggered an interest in the Jewish community, whose once rich presence the citizens often tended to overlook, as unplanned construction and chaos eclipsed famous relics of the community dotting the city. The three outstanding synagogues under various stages of renovation merely added to the string of other tourist attractions like the Greek Orthodox Church, Armenian Church and, several Christian churches, big and small. Only Nahoum & Sons Confectionary inside New Market continued to thrive, selling plum cakes, panthras, various kinds of breads and other goodies.

India, a magnet
So food does showcase a community, for it is about people. Over time, other Indian metros as well as cities in various parts of the world have witnessed varying degrees of multiculturalism, but Calcutta (now Kolkata), the leading city of the British Empire, attracted unique immigrants, and one of these was the Baghdadi Jewish community which flourished here 200 years ago, under the British. Soon after the country gained Independence, they left in droves. Their numbers may just have been 6,000 at one time, but the impact they made in terms of their wealth and contribution to the city, was immense. Today, not just grand synagogues, but stately mansions built by successful businessmen of this city bear silent testimony to the character they lent to the city. “But once the exodus started,” says Jael Silliman, writer, academician and now a passionate archivist of her community, “it was difficult to turn the tide.”

The Esplanade Mansions is one of the landmarks of Calcutta

The Esplanade Mansions is one of the landmarks of Calcutta

The number of communities who came from outside to settle down in various parts of India simply cannot be counted on our fingers. They are numerous. They came in droves as conquerors only to settle down and adopt the land as their own. They also came as merchants and traders, as religious apostles, and those fleeing persecution in their own homelands.

The mixing and assimilation over centuries resulted in wonderful hybridisations or rather fusion in sartorial styles, cuisines, architecture, music and even language. This was a slow cooking process perfected over time and centuries. But what is fascinating is to separate the different strands of history; while some communities stayed on, they fiercely retained their tongue, culture and cuisine, often making do with ingredients that could be substituted in place of the original, creating newer ideas. And just as they had come, these communities vanished due to various historical reasons. They chose to re-migrate, now to greener pastures, on the move nonetheless.

If one looks back, the Indian metros, especially Calcutta and Bombay (now Mumbai) were essentially microcosm of the universe. These two cities held more number of communities both from the east and west and mostly inhabited areas that were urbane, so much so that the word cosmopolitan could well have been coined from here.

The Jewish community with ties in UK, and other commonwealth countries, as well as USA, provided the clannish support as is wont with migrants, and many went there to re-establish their fortunes once again and succeeded due to their innate intelligence and creativity. The “exodus” started in the 40’s and continued till the late 60’s, as the community was apprehensive that an independent India may not be that open-minded towards their business interests. Israel too was a new country that needed people, and the Jews considered it their own country at long last.

A personal account
If we go with personal histories to construct a community, Jael’s life serves as a wonderful example. Her mother and brother left for Israel while her father stayed back. Jael’s mother, Flower, a very striking looking woman, started an Indian restaurant in Tel Aviv called ‘Maharaja’ which dished up tandoori chicken. “But to adhere to kosher laws of food preparation, I could not marinate the chicken in curd, so I used lime,” she says.

The Jewish Girls School once educated both the rich and poor Jewish girls  (Photo: Ashok Sinha)

The Jewish Girls School once educated both the rich and poor Jewish girls
(Photo: Ashok Sinha)

Jael went to USA to study and work, but is now back in the city of her birth, adding to the digital archive she has painstakingly built with support from Jadavpur University and other partners. Her reverse migration somehow, is a bridge between the past and present. Her mother too has joined her, which raises hopes that roots can be re-kindled, even if the past glory of the erstwhile grand, often charmed lives, is irretrievable.

Jews are an ancient people. There are various Jewish communities who crisscrossed over countries and continents and travelled far and wide as traders and businessmen. In India, the major Jewish communities were the Malabari Jews (an entire chapter emerges here); the Pardesi Jews, who came to Cochin from Spain in the 16th century and those considered the lost tribes Bene Israel of the Konkan coast, and Bene Menashe of Manipur and Mizoram.

The Jews in Calcutta primarily came from Iraq, Iran and Syria. Known collectively as Baghdadi Jews; some went to Bombay. In Calcutta they built one of the most beautiful synagogues – Maghen David, in addition to Neveh Shalome and Beth-El synagogues, which have witnessed various additions made by rich businessmen when they were here, but were often images of neglect in the past as the number of Jewish people rapidly dwindled. As the religion demands a quorum, that is, 10 people minimum for a congregation, one can understand the difficulties in a city in which just a handful of Jews are left.

The Maghen David is one of the most ornate synagogues in Asia. Built in 1884 by David Ezra in memory of his father Elias David Ezra, its typical red brick finish stands out with its high steeple. It is built in the Italian Renaissance style with checkered marble finish, stained glass windows, and ornate floral pillars giving it a European look.

Today, historically, facts on the community can be accessed virtually but piecing together the various academic and fictional works by Jael, throws up highlights of a community, which in spite of a very trendy anglicised lifestyle, fiercely clung to their rituals and traditions. “For instance, Jewish Girls School (which once stood on Pollock Street in bustling Burra Bazaar area before being shifted to its present location on Free School Street) educated both the rich and poor Jewish girls, but today has more Muslim students and certainly, not a single Jew,” informs Jael. Most Jewish girls from well-to-families studied in the nearby Loreto House, and unlike Anglo-Indians, went to college.

Adds Flower who studied at Irwin College, Delhi, “It was a given that the community did not want its girls to study in Presidency College because then they would marry outside the community.” In fact, that’s what exactly happened to girls who did! With so many Jewish women in the city, inter-community marriages did take place, but they were very few in numbers. English slowly replaced Arabic as their tongue, the Hebrew words restricted to various rituals. Under the British rule English was the lingua franca and the men learnt to speak Hindi and Bengali too. The children had to study Hebrew to be initiated into the study of the torah, the first of the five books of the Old Testament. Then there was the Elias Meyer Free School and Ezra hospital to serve other communities as well.

If the men from the Jewish community added to their wealth and real estates, they were also known for great philanthropy. Some of the stellar names to dot the cityscape to date are Elias David Ezra behind the opulent Esplanade, Chowringhee and Ezra Mansions; Elias Meyer, B.N Elias who owned National Tobacco Company, Ezekiel Judah, Elias Shalome Gubbay who donated parts of the Gubbay House to the Alipur Zoo still so popular among citizens and visitors alike. Soloman Mansion was another such stately building, and it comes as no surprise that Calcutta as it was known earlier, came to be known as the “City of Palaces.”

Elias Shalome Gubbay  donated parts of the Gubbay House to the Alipur Zoo (above) (Photo: Elliott Abraham)

Elias Shalome Gubbay donated parts of the Gubbay House to the Alipur Zoo (above) (Photo: Elliott Abraham)

A community which flourishes in the city has its share of all classes. The priests followed the traders and Shalome Obadiah Ha-Cohen who is said to have founded the community. The priest is known as Cohen in Hebrew who ensured strict following of the Jewish way of life.

Jael’s own books are very informative. Among one of her books, an academic treatise takes a look at the personal histories of her grandmother, mother and herself in Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames – Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope. Regarding it, noted scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak comments, “It is about a revisionist identity.” Her gender identity notwithstanding, Silliman’s other two fictional accounts A man who wore many hats and the recent A teak Almirah give a closer, warmer look at her life in her city, community and her family. Jael definitely wears her many hats from Harvard, Columbia and academic tenures with Iowa, so very lightly.

While the Jews maintained a lavish lifestyle by throwing parties and attending them, the strict adherence to Sabbath from Friday to Saturday is worth noting. Large amounts of food were cooked and served to guests over Friday and Saturday, till the three stars signified the end of Sabbath. Other rituals such as the coming of age for boys known as Bar Mitzvah were conducted with due respect and pomp. Traditional delicacies like cheese samboosa and baklava were served at these occasions.

In a city that never was known for being anti-Semitic, instead, quite the opposite in welcoming all faiths, it is sad that in times rising of close mindedness, such pluralism is dying out. Luckily, we have an exhaustive, digitally created archive on the Calcutta Baghdadi Jews, but that may be the only “tangible” remains of a vibrant community, when the names etched on stones also get erased due to the elements.

To conclude, Jewish cuisine has not set the Hooghly on fire, but when you bite into that aloo makala that is a whole potato crisply fried on the outside and soft in the inside, there is renewed curiosity of a new generation to look at this unique community that once lived here – their various artefacts and simply, their lives; a crusty surface hiding a soft, warm heart.


Manjira Majumdar

Having worked as a full-time journalist, Manjira Majumdar today is an independent journalist combining writing with part-time college teaching and media advocacy. She is also the author of 3 children’s books: Ten of Us, The Story of Anjana and Ghost Stories from Bengal & Beyond.