Catch a Falling Star

The forgotten synagogues of Kolkata may soon find a place on the Jewish tourism map

Written by Premankur Biswas | Published: January 5, 2014 5:02 am

History has its own way of making amends. About 200 years ago,Baghdadi Jews fled the Ottoman Empire and Iran to escape being focibly converted to Islam and found refuse in Mumbai and Kolkata. Today,a Muslim family guards the flames of Shabbat from the surging crowds at Kolkata’s three exquisite synagogues — Magen David,Beth Le and Shalome. “Hum purkho se is jagah ki hifazat kar rahein hain (we have been guarding this place for generations),” says Anwar Khan,as he opens the wrought iron gates of the Magen David synagogue,situated at the crossing of Canning Street and Brabourne Road in central Kolkata,to usher us in.

On the other side are stalls selling trinkets and cosmetic jewellery. “If they had their way,they would take over the synagogue too,” says Khan. “But one can’t really blame them. They have to make a living,” he adds as an afterthought.

Afterthoughts abound under the steeple of the Magen David synagogue. Even as PK Mishra,regional director,Archeological Survey of India (ASI),east,tells us about his plans to develop the three neglected synagogues as tourist attractions,he adds a bit about the encroachers and hawkers. “They have to be rehabilitated. We need to see how,” he says.

The Jewish diaspora reached India as early as the first century. The three Indian Jewish diaspora communities have their own distinct history. The Cochin Jews arrived in 72 AD after the Roman destruction of the second temple,the Bene Israel Jews of greater Bombay arrived 1,600 years ago to escape persecution and the Baghdadi Jews came in the late 18th century. The Jews of Kolkata have had a largely peaceful and prosperous existence in the city; they established the real estate trade and their names are associated with some well-known buildings of Kolkata,including Esplanade Mansion,Ezra Mansion and Chowringhee Mansion. A fact that is not reflected in their dwindling numbers (from a healthy 5,000 during World War II,they are down to the last 30). “Young people want to pursue their future elsewhere,” says Ian Zachariah,an adman and a member of several managing committees of Jewish schools and synagogues.

The red edifice of the Magen David synagogue,which stands tall amidst the grey and brown monstrosities of Kolkata’s commercial district,embodies the communities’ contribution to the city. “We don’t want to disappear from a city we love so dearly. People may leave their home for whatever reason,but that doesn’t mean they want to vanish without a trace. There is still a proud association with a city that has given us so much,” says Zachariah.

In February this year,Mishra and the Jewish community of Kolkata will put together a plan to put Kolkata on the Jewish tourism map. “I always wanted to do something about these beautiful synagogues. It’s a pity that most Kolkatans don’t know about their existence,” says Mishra. He has thought of a festival-cum-fair to exhibit the unique facets of Jewish life and culture,and is in talks with the government to beautify the area around the synagogues. He is also hopeful that Kolkata Metro authorities might develop a new station near the area. The idea is also to make these places culturally and historically relevant. “We need to add cultural text tags at these synagogues,otherwise tourists will lose interest,” he says.

You know what he means the moment you walk through Magen David synagogue’s stately arched entrance containing the hexagonal “Star of David” and Hebrew inscription. The two side walls contain memorial plaques dedicated to the well-known Jews of Calcutta,but we have little idea about their relevance. A self-contained hush descends once you enter the synagogue. It’s almost as if the chequered marble floor and the gleaming chandelier were engaged in a conversation which you have interrupted. You don’t know if the marble is Italian or if the dripping crystals of the chandelier Belgian. The altar has an Apse (half dome) studded with stars,representing heaven. There are Hebrew inscriptions along with several other items of Jewish iconography on a plaque right in the middle of the hall. But these are things you will figure out only after several Google searches.

It’s the same story at the Beth El synagogue,which was built in 1856 and is located in nearby Pollack Street. A flight of marble stairs leads to the main entrances of the synagogue,adorned with an arched stained glass and crowned with a clock . The pale yellow façade of the Beth El synagogue is often mistaken for a church. Here,too,the hexagonal “Star of David” and six pointed candle stands of Menorah are things that only the initiated will be able to recognise.

Aline Cohen,who has worked tirelessly to conserve Jewish monuments in the city,says,“The synagogues practically don’t exist on the city’s tourist map. There is also a Jewish cemetery and a girls school,” she says. The Magen David synagogue along with the Beth El synagogue were declared national monuments and brought under ASI in 2003. Shalome synagogue,which stands next to the Magen David synagogue,is not,although it’s of equal importance to Jews of the city. However,for most tourists,they remain out of bounds because visiting them involves a cumbersome permission-taking procedure from the Nahoums Bakery,a famous Jewish establishment in the city. “I can’t describe how excited visitors are when they hear about these synagogues,but those with tight schedules are unable to visit them,” says Iftekar Ahsan of Calcutta Walks,a city-based organisation,which offers walking tours of old Calcutta. “We need to do something about this,” admits Mishra.

If all goes according to plan,soon Anwar Khan and his family will have more visitors to tend to. “It will be great to have more visitors. At times,I feel guilty about not being able to share the beauty of this world with others,” he says.

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