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Ben Judah: The last of our synagogues

Our writer returns to his roots in India

    As shadows crept in before shabbat, I went to leave a stone on the tombs of my ancestors. But our cemetery is not in Poland, or Russia, but in an old rice paddy behind a Hindu temple in Calcutta.

    My grandfather, Joseph Judah, and my great-aunt (who is like a grandmother to me) were born in Calcutta and many of their first words were in Bengali. Our family had lived in India for centuries.

    All my life, India has lain around me in things: shipping trunks stamped with my grandfather’s passage, pewter opium weights, winged like tiny little monsters, and huge, carved camphor chests.

    Calcutta was the true capital of the British Empire: the colonial city of spice, jute, teak and opium. Until the 1960s, it was the city of a thriving centuries old Jewish community, known as the Baghdadis.

    Dusk, and Shabbat, arrived, and I stepped into the cool, with two of the city’s last Jews, to light a candle in the three synagogues built by my family: the Judahs, Sassoons, Gubbays and the Ezras.

    When my grandfather was born, there were over 4,000 Jews in Calcutta. Nearly all had emigrated by the 1970s. Yet Jews in India are first spoken of in the book of Esther; and the Baghdadis story, whose language was Judeo-Arabic, begins before British India.

    Arabic, and adventure, brought my family to India. As the Spanish plundered Central America, and Cortez was renowned, Hindu India was conquered by Muslim conquistadors from Central Asia and Persia, who gave it Urdu, the Taj Mahal and the Mughal dynasties.

    As Europeans went West, thousands of Arabic and Farsi speakers went East, to the new Islamic empire extending along the Ganges. Like the grammar of Hindi and Urdu; in India today tens of thousands of Indian Muslim families have Iraqi and Persian roots.

    Shalom Cohen, the founder of the Calcutta community, came this way from Aleppo. It was logical that an Arabic speaker like him should tempt his fate East, not West. He was the court jeweller to the Nawab of Awadh, and was asked by him to value to Kohinoor, the plundered diamond, Britain calls the Crown of India. 

    Jews felt close to Muslims in India, with their few words of Arabic and disgust at pork, preferring to choose them as their servants. They were also friends, and it was a Muslim Bengali friend of Shalom Cohen, who sold him the land where my family are buried.

    Today there are fewer than twenty Jews in Calcutta. There is no minyan, no shacharit, and no children. But Shalom’s friendship lives on. The two Jewish schools, serve almost only Muslim children, who proudly wear uniforms with the Magen David.

    As we said the blessings in the synagogues, for a moment I thought, this felt similar to Poland; these empty synagogues.

    But there is a difference. This story does not end in a pit on the way to the airport. India never persecuted the Jews. This is the one land which saw no antisemitism (outside of Portuguese Goa).

    In Calcutta the community are now painstakingly restoring the three synagogues. But why when they won’t be used?

    Because these are the last synagogues of Babylonian Jewry left. The Mesopotamian synagogues and cemeteries of Syria, and Iraq, from where the Baghdadis set off east, have been eradicated.

    The restoration of the synagogues is almost complete and the tiny community are planning to celebrate with a service in late 2017. They hope to set up a museum and then a Jewish guest house, for  Jewish and Israeli backpackers, and those seeking their roots. 

    This is their hope: that Britain’s Baghdadi families, like mine, would travel to the synagogues’ reopening. They are hoping to organize a Calcutta heritage visit and are waiting to hear from you. We’re going. Will the Sephardic Community help Calcutta?

    If you want to come, and help, write to Jo Cohen in Calcutta: amc1946@yahoo.com

    Ben Judah is the author of This is London

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