The once prosperous Jewish community in Kolkata has left a visible impact on the city. There are three exquisite synagogues (two of which are designated as Grade 1 Heritage monuments by the Archaeological Survey of India), two schools, a cemetery and several properties connected to the synagogues.
A large property in Barrackpore, which is held in trust for the Jewish Boys School, is of great value, vested with the Official Trustee of Bengal, to be used for educational purposes.
Many know the Gubbay and Ezra Houses in the Kolkata Zoo, and the Ezra Building in the Calcutta Medical College. There is Ezra Street in Burra Bazaar named after the merchant prince of the city, Sir David Ezra. In Tikiapara in Howrah there is Bellilios Road and Bellilios Park. Businessman Emanuel Raphael Belilios left Calcutta for Hong Kong around the early 1860s to become one of the merchant princes there.
Some of the most iconic buildings in Kolkata, such as Esplanade Mansions overlooking Government House, Chowringhee Mansions, Bamboo Villa, Sri Aurobindo Bhavan and the Norton Building, were built by the Jewish community and are a marker of their presence that had an outsized footprint on Kolkata in the 18th and 19th century.
While the buildings still stand, the memory of many Jews who were trailblazers is little known. They include pioneers in commercial photography, Hindi film actresses, the first Miss India and world-class magicians.
There was Regina Guha, who was the first in India to make a case for women to be pleaders in the court – her bid was turned down. Others ranged from sheriffs, teachers, senior police officers, philanthropists, music aficionados and conductors to newspaper editors and a lieutenant general in the Indian army. This, in a community that never numbered more than 4,500 people.
Today, there are barely 30 Jews in Kolkata, many of them ageing citizens. The few members left should have the financial support they need from community trust funds to live with dignity and good medical care. As our numbers rapidly dwindle, I work and dream about what the Calcutta Jewish legacy can be to the city, state, the nation and the world.
The Jewish Girls’ School was started in the 1860s and was first located in a private home and then a building opposite the Bethel synagogue on Pollock Street that was recently sold by the Jewish community to become another glass and chrome mall. In the 1950s, the Jewish Girls’ school moved to Park Street, behind the post office, when the Jewish community was moving from the commercial, grey part of town to White town around Park Street, the New Market and further south.
Though the school has not had Jewish girls for more than 40 years, it provides quality English medium education to students. Today almost 90% of the students at the Jewish Girls School are Muslim. As a board member, I am proud of their achievements. In time, I want the students of the school to soar higher.
I wish the same for the Jewish Boys’ School, the Elias Meyer Free School and Talmud Torah on BB Ganguly Street. As an educator for most of my life, I hope that the large property in Barrackpore for educational purposes will be put to this use.
I want our three synagogues to be immaculately looked after, be a site where people not only come in prayer, but to learn about Jewish heritage and the role that other micro-minority communities have played in building this cosmopolitan, sacred and grand city – a city where members from every community can live together in harmony, accepting and honouring each other’s traditions. The synagogues can be a beautiful space for inter-faith dialogues and spiritual rejuvenation.
There are commercial buildings and a warren of shops attached to the synagogues that were built to be rented out and for that money to support the maintenance of the synagogues in perpetuity. The buildings are in a bad state of repair in the crowded Burra Bazaar. If only they could be pulled down to create open space for a small park in this busy area and help to create important green spaces in the heart of a city. This is just my dream, but I can envision it in my mind’s eye and a dream is the first step in the process of making it real.
For the sprawling cemetery in Narkeldanga, I want the graves of our ancestors to be venerated and for their progeny to visit and place their stones atop the graves to let all know that they have been visited and not ignored. I want to lie in peace among the beautiful green field of flowering trees and shade among my people. I want the rest of the area where there are no graves to be filled with trees to help keep our city breathing and the air clean.
I want to keep the memory of the Jewish community alive. India is home to many Jewish communities – the older ones being the Bene Israeli community of Mumbai (there is also a Baghdadi community there), the Cochin Jews and now the Jews of Manipur, numbering almost 5,000, and about the same number in Israel, who have been recognised as jews by the Chief Rabbi of Israel.
There are synagogues in Kochi, Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Delhi and Manipur. There are large and small Jewish graveyards in all these places and in many small towns, including places like Darjeeling, Surat and Bhagalpur where Jews lived.
The Indian Jews have a very important story to tell the world – when Jews are integrated into society and face no form of discrimination, both the community and the nation thrive. Diverse cultures have made India a country like no other – the true manifestation of unity in diversity.
Today, when my small community is torn with strife, when our properties become the source of conflict and unscrupulous actions, and our magnificent synagogues a flashpoint for struggle, I can only work hard to realise my dreams for them and for their great heritage to be known and its legacy be as grand as its past.
Jael Silliman is an author, scholar, and women’s right activist.