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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Streetwise Kolkata – Ezra Street: A reminder of the city’s rich Jewish past, and much more

Documentary evidence suggests that sometime in the 19th century it was named after one of its most storied residents, David Joseph Ezra, a prominent member of the city’s Baghdadi Jewish community.

Written by Neha Banka | Kolkata |
Updated: July 31, 2021 1:36:25 pm
streetwise kolkata, kolkata, streets of kolkata, ezra street, jews in kolkata, jews history in kolkata, kolkata history, kolkata news, calcutta news, Indian ExpressEven prior to the Parsi and Jewish communities that made Ezra Street their home and destination for worship, the street was called ‘Doomtullah’. (Express Photo by Shashi Ghosh)

The makeshift shops and hawkers make central Kolkata’s Ezra Street seem shorter than it is. Storefronts and awnings cover the exteriors of the last remaining colonial structures in this part of the city well, making it difficult for explorers to cull the history of what is one of the oldest and culturally diverse neighbourhoods in Kolkata.

There are no clear records on how this street came to be named, but documentary evidence suggests that sometime in the 19th century it was named after one of its most storied residents, David Joseph Ezra, a prominent member of the city’s Baghdadi Jewish community. Ezra’s family was the wealthiest in Calcutta’s Jewish community.

But there is a dispute among historians regarding which Ezra the 350-meter-long street was named after. In his book Contours of Relationship: India and the Middle East, author Kingshuk Chatterjee writes that it was named after David Joseph Ezra, but historian P. Thankappan Nair mentions in his book A History of Calcutta’s Streets, that it was named after his son Elias David Ezra.

streetwise kolkata, kolkata, streets of kolkata, ezra street, jews in kolkata, jews history in kolkata, kolkata history, kolkata news, calcutta news, Indian Express David Joseph Ezra (Wikimedia Commons)

What there is no dispute about, however, is that fortune had favoured David Joseph Ezra, originally a trader in indigo and silk, an exporter of opium and a handler of Arab trade ships docking in Calcutta with produce from the Middle East and Africa. Chatterjee writes that Ezra invested his profits in prime real estate in the city, buying plots of land in the neighbourhoods of Chowringhee, Park Street, Esplanade and what later came to be known as Ezra Street. Ezra built large colonial mansions in these neighbourhoods, many of which are still standing and important to the city’s architectural heritage.

Ezra’s philanthropy, business acumen and influence also resulted in his appointment as the Commissioner of Calcutta Municipality in 1876 and as the Sheriff of Calcutta in 1879. Within the Jewish community, he also held several leadership roles till his death. In 1887, Ezra’s wife Mozelle, also started the Ezra Hospital in College Street. This establishment is now a part of the Calcutta Medical College.

Elias David Ezra’s contributions to the city of Calcutta were really a continuation of a legacy that had been started by his father. On one end of Ezra Street stands the 137-year-old Maghen David Synagogue, built in 1884 by Ezra in memory of his father.

streetwise kolkata, kolkata, streets of kolkata, ezra street, jews in kolkata, jews history in kolkata, kolkata history, kolkata news, calcutta news, Indian Express Elias David Ezra (Wikimedia Commons)

The synagogue, built in the Italian Renaissance style, with intricate plaster work, chequered marble flooring, a wooden bimah, stained glass windows and heavy chandeliers, is well-maintained and remains a functioning place of worship for the community in the city and Jewish visitors who wish to pray. He also had offices on this street, holding ownership of buildings at 59-62 Ezra Street, writes Nair.

The street’s name often results in the overlooking of the other communities that are an integral part of its history. The building at 26, Ezra Street is also home to the city’s first Parsi fire temple, a Grade I heritage building, that now lies decrepit, defunct and aggressively eyed by property developers, particularly since 2018, following the death of the last known trustee, Cursetjee Manackjee Rustomjee.

Even prior to the Parsi and Jewish communities that made Ezra Street their home and destination for worship, the street was called ‘Doomtullah’ and finds mention in Mark Wood’s map of Calcutta published in 1784. Nair writes that the street was named after the Doms, considered untouchables in the caste system.

Interiors of the Maghen David Synagogue (Wikimedia Commons/Deepanjan Ghosh)

Before the three villages of Sutanuti, Kalikata and Gobindapur were joined to form the city of Calcutta by Job Charnock in 1690, Doomtullah lay on the outermost fringes of Sutanuti. The Doms, because of their positioning in the caste system, were forced to live in these outskirts.

As the city of Calcutta grew and transformed over the years and the British, foreigners and other communities began occupying neighbourhoods in the city, the Doms slowly found themselves displaced from neighbourhoods where they had historically resided. By the 19th century, this neighbourhood became an important part of the Jewish community, largely because of the philanthropy of the Ezras.

Before the street’s name changed, the building at 25, Doomtullah housed the Bengally Theatre, founded by Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev, a Russian linguist who founded the first European-style proscenium drama theatre in South Asia at this address in 1795. In his book ‘Literature and Literary Life in Old Calcutta, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I’, Swapan Majumdar writes that Lebedev was far ahead of his time, especially with his work in developing Bengali theatre.

streetwise kolkata, kolkata, streets of kolkata, ezra street, jews in kolkata, jews history in kolkata, kolkata history, kolkata news, calcutta news, Indian Express Now a protected heritage building, the old synagogue on this street is the only remaining piece of visible tangible history that provides an insight into the Jewish community’s association with this neighbourhood. (Express Photo by Shashi Ghosh)

His sympathy for Indians and his appreciation for local culture earned him the ire of the British who engaged in targeted harassment before expelling him from India in 1797. Today, this building has been entirely taken over by tenants and hawkers and there is no indication of the significance of the address’s history.

Read here other stories of the streets of Kolkata

Members of the community told indianexpress.com that the visage of Ezra Street has changed to an almost unrecognisable degree over the decades. Now a protected heritage building, the old synagogue on this street is the only remaining piece of visible tangible history that provides an insight into the deep history of the Jewish community’s association with this neighbourhood and the city of Calcutta.

 

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