Mazel tov again

shreevatsa nevatia | Updated on October 31, 2014

A day at the zoo in the 1930s.

One of the 40 posters designed by Jael Silliman.

A wedding photo of Philomena Gubbay and Bernard Jacob, the last conductor of the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra.

Arati Devi or Rachel Sofaer, a prominent actor in silent films.

‘Recalling Jewish Calcutta’ uses photos, videos, recipes and documents to tell the story of a community whose strength has dwindled from 4,000 in the 1940s to two dozen today

In the video gallery of a recently digitised archive, ‘Recalling Jewish Calcutta’, Aaron Harazi recounts his days as a student, clerk and businessman. Though 97, he is articulate and animated. While some of Harazi’s recollections are deliciously candid, others demonstrate the extent to which Jews in Calcutta have always been affected by global events. Harazi, for instance, speaks of a girl he had once chased. He mentions his father’s desire to move to Palestine in the 1920s, and then describes learning the secrets of industry in Birmingham. Having recorded his memories for posterity, the spirited Harazi sadly passed away a few weeks ago. His death, though, has given his recollections and the digital archive a greater sense of import. “This archive came just in the nick of time,” feels Flower Silliman, an octogenarian who grew up in the city. “Jews in Calcutta are dying out. A decade later, there’d be no one left to interview.”

Meticulously compiled by Silliman’s daughter Jael, ‘Recalling Jewish Calcutta’ uses photographs, videos, recipes and documents to tell the story of a community whose strength in the 1940s was estimated to be 4,000. After a persistent exodus mainly to Israel, the US and Europe, its present size hovers around the precarious two-dozen mark. “We say 24, but in fact there are less than 10 active Jews,” says Jael. Underlining the threat that advancing years pose, she adds, “I am one of the youngest members in the community and I am 59.”

With its numbers fast shrinking, Kolkata’s Jewish community might well find that this digital archive is the only buffer it has against prospective oblivion. Moreover, for Kolkata, it is the only repository that highlights the seminal contributions that Jews have made to its social fabric while living here for the last two centuries. As for Jael, “This effort has helped me embrace my identity as a Calcutta Jew, and it has also helped me give something back to this city.”

Buildings and establishments such as the Ezra Mansion and Nahoum & Sons Confectionery still survive as Jewish landmarks in Kolkata, but the most identifiable signposts of the community are undoubtedly its three synagogues — Beth-El, Neve Shalome and Magen David. It was while guiding visitors and tourists through these places of worship that Jael thought of designing 40 posters, which would, in essence, detail aspects of Jewish life and their contribution to the city. “I thought of what would happen when I am not here. People would go to the synagogues, but they wouldn’t know who we are,” says Jael, a Nehru Fulbright fellow, who divides her time between New York and Kolkata. The idea soon developed, and with the assistance and support of the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University. A wholly digitised archive was built over two years for the benefit of a larger audience.

After having convinced her uncles and aunts to send all the pictures and documents they could find, Jael soon saw the word spread. Her inbox was flooded with material from across the globe. “These were old people, mostly in their 70s to 90s, scanning photographs, writing articles, sending them in. As a result, the archive is fairly substantial now,” says Jael. Ready access to scanners, she adds, significantly helped her cause. “If I had tried doing this project a few years ago, nobody would have sent me their original photographs.” While some sepia-toned pictures in the archive show an early generation of Jews in Arabic robes, other black-and-white ones demonstrate how they later acquired typically European tastes. But even more than these pictures perhaps, it’s the personal histories which prove that the Jews of Calcutta had always kept up with the times.

Joseph Elias Ezra, for instance, became Calcutta’s first Jewish Sheriff in 1888. Still remembered for his historic valour during the 1971 Indo-Pak War, JFR Jacob retired in 1978 as a lieutenant general of the Indian Army. Emmanuel Elias, a La Martiniere of Calcutta alumnus, was a drummer in the 1980s’ British band Tears for Fears. But these are admittedly a fraction of the achievements made by the city’s Jewish community. The heroes of its story are arguably its women. Rachel Ashkenazi, to cite an early example, became the first practising Jewish lawyer to plead for Muslim women in purdah. Tabitha Solomon was one of the country’s pioneering woman dentists. Esther Victoria Abraham, better known as Pramila, became the first Miss India in 1947. Even the legendary Gauhar Jaan was born to Jewish Armenian parents and first named Angelina Yeoward.

Jo Cohen sits on the boards of Kolkata’s two Jewish girls’ and boys’ schools. She attributes a portion of her community’s successes to the city itself. “We have never faced anti-Semitism here. When it comes to opportunities, business or our friendships, we are like anybody else. That kind of a Jew is a rarity.” Flower Silliman says that after browsing through her daughter’s archive, a Bengali friend called to ask, “Why did you all ever leave?” She laughs softly. “I had to tell her that this is the only city that seems to want us back. Everyone else is busy shooing us away.” When asked if she regrets seeing her once-vibrant community battle for its survival, the 84-year-old is quick to quote Omar Khayyam, “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on. I don’t have regrets. From 4,000, you’ll have 40,000 now. For a new generation across the globe, this archive preserves their history.”

(Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based writer)

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Published on October 31, 2014
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