The small community of Kolkata dates from 1798. It was a natural continuation of the far older communities of Aleppo and Baghdad. Its founders were attracted to India by economic opportunities waiting to be grasped by British rule. Baghdadi Jews also settled in Bombay where they were greatly outnumbered by the by the Bene Israel living there, and where the Sassoon family added lustre to their history.
The early immigrants to Kolkata brought with them the religion, language, way of life and dress of their native cities. They had mostly reached India in the years before Aleppo and Baghdad came under influence of the Alliance schools which taught European languages and secular subjects as well as Jewish religion and history. The pioneers spoke Arabic and knew very little or no English. More significant, they were pious, and the effect of that genuine piety could still be observed in their descendants who came to England in the 1950's. They had remained far more religiously observant than the immigrants who also arrived in England from Baghdad at roughly the same time.
Shalom Cohen was the acknowledged leader of the Jewish community of Kolkata in the early years. The synagogue was in his house and he acted as its Hazzan, the one who chants from the Torah. In a quarrel with a former business partner, Shalom accumulated much debt which ruined his life in 1812 and forced him to move to avoid his creditors. He was not discouraged from his misfortune, however. He was appointed Court Jeweller by the Moslem Nawab of Oudh. He was presented with the Robe of Honor and even given the unique distinction to ride with Nawab on an elephant. Later Shalom fell out of favor with Nawab and was forced to leave Lucknow. He left with thirty soldiers, twenty-five hokras, seven carriages, seven palanquins, sixty household servants, ten personal servants, and twenty three porters. He was rich indeed.
After the death of the Nawab, Shalom later returned to Lucknow to serve his son and successor. In the meantime he served the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In Amritsar it is said that he once asked to value a 191 carat Koh-i-Noor diamond, later presented it to Queen Victoria of England. Shalom earned the Maharaja's praise when he declared that, as such a jewel could only be acquired as a gift or by the shedding of much blood, it was priceless! Shalom Cohen died in Kolkata in 1836. He was buried in a cemetary that he had himself presented anonymously to the Jewish community, which by then numbered three hundred. Shalom's eldest daughter married Moses Duck a successful businessman who was a native of Aleppo. He became the performer of the rite of circumcision in the Jewish community after his own son was harmed by one who did not perform the ritual properly. He was also the head of Kolkata's synagogue. He had the full responsibilty of a Rabbi including reading the services, performing marriages, circumcisions, writing the Ketubot (marriage contracts) and other legal doucments,and arbitrated in disputes. Only in matters of divorce did he refuse to become involved. The Magen David Synaogue of Kolkota was built in 1884.
The merchants of Kolkata flourished under British rule, as did those of Bombay. Many made great fortunes by trading opium and indigo. Opium, it must be realized was considered a respectable commodity in those days. Indian farmers were compelled to sell all their produce to the British Indian Government, which was then resold by public auction for export. Later on, the Jewish merchants shifted to the textile trade. Many became very wealthy by shrewd investments in property (real estate) in booming Kolkata.
The Jewish community of Kolkata formed 5 synagogues with a total Jewish population of about 6,000 Jews. Currently that population has declined to about 30 Jews who most of them are past eighty years of age. This community is currently at risk of extinction in India. Here is the current report from our team in India:
Kolkata's Jews are mostly Baghdadi Jews who came to Kolkata to trade. At one point as strong as 6000, the community has dwindled to about 60 after the formation of
there are only about 30 Jews left in Kolkata. The first recorded Jewish
immigrant to Kolkata was Shalom Cohen in 1798 from Israel Aleppo
in present day .
The most influential Jewish family in Kolkata was perhaps the father-son real
estate magnates David Joseph Ezra and Elia David Ezra. They were behind such
buildings as the Syria Chowringhee Mansions, and the
synagogue Neveh Shalom. Esplanade
Street in Kolkata is named after them. The
community has five independent synagogues in Kolkata, including one in Chinatown, some of which are still active today. The
Jewish confectioner Nahoum's in the New Market holds a special place in Kolkata
confectionery. Founded in 1902, Nahoum's moved to its present location in the
New Market in 1916. It is run today by the original owner's grandson, David
Nahoum. A Jewish wedding in Kolkata after a gap of 50 years in the 1990s
received a lot of media attention. After the establishment of
Israel, many Kolkatan Jews left to live in Israel and the size of the Jewish
community had a severe decrease.
We are striving to save this community with rich history and protect their assests from confiscation. We are hoping to conduct further interviews with community members and continue this series. Stay tuned with more to come.
Zemira Eli Natan
International Unity for Equality