Jefe's House

Remnants of Jewish Kolkata

by on Jan.31, 2015, under On the Road, Shaheb Cafe

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A Shaheb’s Guide to India

shaheb – (India; also saheb, sahib; from the Hindi and Urdu sāhab, master; from Arabic ṣāḥib, companion; participle of ṣaḥiba, to become friends) 
1. formerly, a term of respect for any  male landowner
2. formerly, a term of respect for white European men during the British colonial era
3. (modern) any white man
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Temple Beth-El built in 1856.

Kolkata’s oldest synagogue, Beth-El, built in 1856.

There only 25 Jews left in Kolkata but three large, old synagogues speak to their former vast numbers. They were Baghdadi Jews from the Middle East. Getting into these synagogues as an outsider is no easy feat. The Kolkata cabbies haven’t a clue nor do most native Kolkatans you ask.

You have to go to a certain bakery on the first floor of the historic New Market bazaar, get a phone number and call it, speak to a certain Jewish woman who’ll give you directions, then you go to the sites and mention her name to the groundskeepers so they know you’re legit, then they let you inside where you must be accompanied by a guide at all times. Suggested donation is 100 rupees (about $2.00).  I jumped through all of these hoops and it was well worth it.

We first step inside the Magen David (slideshow) synagogue built in 1884 and the guide, a slight Indian in his 30′s with a boyish face, sticks a yarmulke on my head. He barely speaks English. I barely speak Bangla. It goes like this:

Kolkata's 2nd oldest synagogue, the Magen David, built in 1884.

Kolkata’s 2nd oldest synagogue, the Magen David, built in 1884.

ME: Amar nam Jeff. Apnar nam ki?

HIM: Arif. You Jewish?

ME: No, I just like houses of worship. Buddhist monasteries, mosques, everything. Are you Jewish?

HIM: No, I am Muslim.

My jaw dropped. To a westerner fed on a steady diet of CNN this did not compute. To him it was no big deal. Arif knew this synagogue like the back of his hand, giving me an informative tour. He’s from the neighboring state of Orissa where my Bengali wife and I spent our honeymoon a few years ago, from a small village near the ancient Konark Sun Temple.

Arif and I had fun hanging out and talking about our families. I mentioned that the last time I was in Kolkata two years ago I had visited and written about the profound spiritual experience I’d had at the Nakhoda Masjid for the Washington Post. His face lit up. “I go every Friday!” he smiled. We took a few photos together and parted ways.

Kolkata's oldes and newest synagogue, the " Old Synagogue," official name Neveh Shalome. In 1825 a house was bought on this site and made into Kolkata's first synagogue. It was demolished and rebuilt as the present one in 1911.

Kolkata’s oldest and newest synagogue, the ” Old Synagogue,” official name Neveh Shalome. In 1825 a house was bought on this site and made into Kolkata’s first synagogue. It was demolished and rebuilt as the present one in 1911.

I next visited Neveh Shalome (slideshow) and Beth-el (slideshow), the other two synagogues in the same neighborhood,  and both also had Muslim guides and caretakers who were equally thrilled to have a visitor and clearly proud of their work in helping upkeep these historic places.

Mainstream news organizations only give us the extreme and the worst because they are in business to make money. Trite as it may seem, when you’re face to face with someone you remember that for the most part, despite our horror-centric daily news, people are people.

Happy New Year.

 

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