Synagogues of Calcutta

Every city in the world has its own signature style and heritage. Calcutta is a fascinating name on that list because of its chameleon-like appearance. Explore the alleyways of North Calcutta; you will see the face of an ancient lady still clutching on to the glory of her bygone days. Go to Park Street; you will get to wine and dine with an elite person full of snob aristocracy despite the outbreak of Communist tomfoolery that once tried to stifle her extravaganza. South Calcutta – that very beautifully made-up lady with an air of indifference; she will break your heart I'm telling you. Sealdah – middle class working woman who has no time for your bullshit. Then comes this one place which is neither north nor south, but falls right in between. The heart of Calcutta. Dalhousie. Long before the birth of corporate culture or New Town (an ugly hybrid piece of crap) when there were only government offices and smalltime private enterprises, Dalhousie used to be the office hub of Calcutta. It still is, but not exactly like before. People of our generation will not exactly feel one with the crowd that still bustles around Writer’s Building and Laal Dighi.

On one rainy afternoon in 2016 my friend and I had first discovered that there were three (!) synagogues hidden within the maze of our very own madhouse named Calcutta. And all three of them were located somewhere around the Dalhousie area. Somehow our plan had failed to materialize that time and we had gone our own ways promising each other that someday we would come back and explore all three synagogues and make history. (We are a weird pair.) I was more emphatic about it because of my blog. Usually in life we make millions of promises every now and then and totally fail to keep even ten percent of them. And yet when I was on the way home feeling nauseated by the view of rural Bengal outside and Zulfiqar inside I had this inkling that this time we were going to make it. As I have mentioned earlier I am on a major promise fulfilling mission these days. Touchwood.

Now it may appear to people that I am a great Calcutta expert, but I am not. So when the very reticent looking cashier at Nahoum’s told me that the synagogue was located behind the Tea Board I was in a dilemma whether to poke at him further (scary option) or just turn on the effing GPS. I have social anxiety so I am always thankful for the marvel of technology. Google map told us that all three of the synagogues were clustered around the GPO/Writer’s Building/RBI area. Sounds like a cakewalk no? Well, try to explore that area on a Tuesday afternoon and you will know. Darjeeling has made me less self-conscious about my boobs while walking so I was quite comfortably maneuvering my way through the crazy crowd despite unwanted grazing every now and then. Who was not there? Vendors, office goers, beggars, porters. Everyone was on their way to earn livelihood while the jobless two of us were on another wild goose chase. I am lucky to have her I am telling you.

Calcutta heat and pollution had had us this time. She was having a gut-wrenching cough and cold and my whole face was swollen thanks to skin rash and a severe eye infection. Nevertheless, the Jupiter spirit was high as always. And finally we found it. A humongous red structure perched up amidst a sea of street vendors selling junk jewellery. Magen David Synagogue. The security guard at the gate asked for ID and we were ushered in immediately.

Now for the uninitiated – a synagogue is basically a church for the Jewish people. They follow the Old Testament of the Bible and their priest is called a Rabi. By far, they are the most persistent and badass community in the world. Idiots like Hitler thought they could wipe the entire race out. And there we were, in a city way far from Europe and Israel, standing in the middle of a Jewish temple bearing the sign of a heritage that was not only ancient but decaying. And yet, persisting.

The history of the Jewish community in Calcutta dates back to 1798 when Shalome Obadiah Ha-Cohen, a Jewish trader, arrived in Calcutta all the way from Aleppo, Syria. After Israel was formed most of the Jewish of Calcutta left India. Now there are only eighteen of them still living in Calcutta. Even Nahoum’s no longer has any Nahoum. The last person of that bloodline died a few years back.

Magen David Synagogue was founded in 1884 by Elias David Ezra in memory of his father David Ezra. Magen David means the Shield of David. It is the third oldest surviving synagogue in Calcutta, now maintained by the ASI. Magen David is well kept. The huge chandeliers, arches with Hebrew inscriptions and stained windowpanes took our breath away. We couldn’t help whispering our astonishment to each other.

Even though we knew that all three places were in the same area I did not have very high hope of covering all of them in one day. Mainly because it was already past 4.30 in the afternoon and I was afraid they would shoo us away. But thanks to Moses and King Solomon (I like both a lot fyi. One was basically a badass rebel. Another was a great great king.) it was our lucky day.

The second place, i.e., Neveh Shalome Synagogue turned out to be the next door neighbour of the first one. But good luck finding its entrance. The entire footpath was covered in shops and people thought we were there to buy utensil and junk jewellery. They gave us a subtly incredulous look when we asked them about the entrance to the synagogue.

Neveh Shalome is the oldest amongst the three brothers. It was founded in 1820 (that’s what the guide told us) by Shalome Obadiah Ha-Cohen in memory of his father. Neveh Shalome does not have the grandeur of its younger neighbour. It is a simple prayer hall. However, Neveh Shalome was demolished in 1884 to make way for Magen David and it was rebuilt in 1910. Unlike Magen David, Neveh Shalome is not maintained by the ASI.

The people at the synagogues were not so reticent and scary like the cashier fellow at Nahoum’s so we enquired about the direction to our next destination in details and they were very helpful. Our next stop was Beth El Synagogue which is located just opposite Pollock Street post office. Are you kidding? Neither of us had any idea where the hell Pollock Street was let alone locate its post office. My friend is a bit extra so she asked a local guy if he knew the direction to the nearby synagogue. I can bet that was the first and last time he heard the word in his life. I gave my friend a scornful laugh and lectured her on how to ask local people who were not so learned (read jobless nerd) like us. You see, I too am extra. However, soon enough we could locate the narrow alley which was apparently leading to our destination. We were walking while getting jostled by fast moving porters while discussing irrelevant stupid things like we always do. All of a sudden the parallel rows of shops vanished and we found us standing in front of a massive yellow structure. We looked to our left. Pollock street post office. Ok we had reached our destination.

The caretaker fellow at Beth El Synagogue was visibly excited upon our arrival. We could guess from his garrulousness that he didn’t receive many visitors often. However, he was really sweet. He showed us around and explained everything in detail. Here is an interesting thing. All these caretakers are Muslims which is very unusual given the global chemistry between the two communities. But in Calcutta the Jewish and the Muslim communities are on excellent terms. Not to mention all the three places are situated in predominantly Muslim localities. My dwindling faith in humanity gave me a tiny pat on the back. All is not lost yet perhaps.

Beth El Synagogue was built in 1856. Beth El means the house of god. All three of the prayer halls have the same pattern. It has a podium in the middle from which the rabbi preaches his sermons. The alter is called Apse which is a half dome and it represents the heaven. The Star of David (a pagan symbol which became the symbol of evil in Christianity later) is visible on every alter as well as an inscription of the ‘Ten Commandments’ by Moses.

Our caretaker bhaisaab took us to the annex part where he showed us the old wood-fire ovens, and giant pitchers where they would make wine, and a bath where the bride and groom would take shower before the wedding ceremony. He told us that there was a room in the main building where the Torah (scroll that contains the teaching of Moses) was kept. Entry was restricted though. Jewish people observe the Sabbath day which spans from Friday evening till Saturday evening. Photography or any kind of tomfoolery inside the prayer hall are restricted during that period.