Travel Recommendations

Calcutta. The name itself evokes extremes, from jokes about the long-running show, Oh, Calcutta!, to images of desperate poverty. The piteousness is impossible to deny, but the city is more a kaleidoscope of shifting color than a stereotyped black-and-white still shot.

It is the gleaming brown bodies of Indian children naked on the street; the dusty, bare flat feet of their mothers as they squat to chop red onions outside makeshift shelters held together with rags and plastic; the running walk of coolies in plaid, skirt-like garments called lunghis, baskets of striped watermelons improbably balanced on their heads.

It is the sudden mint-green and salmon-pink dome of a mosque jutting out from among the drab sand-colored buildings around it, and the marigold-garlanded Hindu shrines that pop up just about anywhere.

It is pyramids of string beans, orange gooseberries, tomatoes and ginger piled in giant wicker baskets beside bundles of coriander and mint in open-air markets; tiny yellow bananas still clustered on the branch, dangling from street stalls; burlap bags filled with countless varieties of rice and lentils; shimmering displays of colored glass bangles.

For Jewish visitors, Calcutta holds remarkable surprises that testify to the generous presence of a community that once numbered 5,000. Today about 50 elderly Jews remain, but many sites of Jewish interest make the city a worthwhile stop on any tour of India.

Legend and tradition trace the earliest Jewish settlement in India to the time of King Solomon or to the Second Temple. However, the first Jewish community in Calcutta was organized by Shalom ben Aaron ben Obadiah ha-Cohen, a Syrian Jew who came to seek his fortune in 1789. At the age of 26 he left his native Aleppo for Surat, on the western coast of India.

Though it would never have as large a Jewish community as Bombay, Calcutta’s prominence as the capital of British India captured Ha-Cohen’s interest and he settled there, on the east coast, in 1798. To assist him in his trade in diamonds, silk, indigo and cloth, he employed many Jews who moved to the city from Aleppo and the south Indian city of Cochin. Ha-Cohen rose to become jeweler to the nawab (nobleman) of Lucknow, north of Calcutta. It is said he even rode with the nawab on his elephant.

News spread to Jewish communities throughout the Middle East, and immigrants began trickling in from Syria, Persia and Yemen. Religious persecutions in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Basra between 1825 and 1835 spurred a wave of emigration to Calcutta and gave the community its decidedly Baghdadi flavor.

A close-knit traditional group, the early settlers provided links in a chain of trading posts stretching from Shanghai to London dealing in opium, indigo, cotton yarn, silk and piece-goods, gold leaf, precious stones, ivory and coffee. Many flourished as confectioners, grocers and opticians; some became professionals.

A few distinguished themselves in business: David Joseph Ezra made his fortune in real estate; Benjamin Nissim Elias built an empire in cotton, jute and tobacco processing, engineering companies and electricity supply. It is to Ezra’s son, Elia David Joseph, that the city owes its magnificent synagogue, Maghen David. In 1886 Elia’s widow built the Ezra Hospital that still bears the family’s name.

In 1826, Ha-Cohen’s son-in-law, Moses Dwek ha-Cohen, established the city’s first synagogue, Neveh Shalome, as well as Beth-El 30 years later, where it still stands on Pollock Street.

To combat missionary activity, the Jewish Girls’ and Boys’ School was founded in 1881. When the boys’ division closed 13 years later, boys were accepted into the girls’ school. The Jewish Free School (renamed the Elias Meyer Free School) for indigent boys was founded in 1882. Jewish trustees still run both although there are no Jewish students.

After Indian independence in 1947, the community’s activities were curtailed by the restrictive policy of Indianization. The Jews, who had reached the zenith of their economic and social status under the British Raj, began leaving. About 2,000 emigrated to England and another thousand scattered to Australia, Canada and the United States. The establishment of Israel in 1948 prompted an aliya of about 2,000. The population gradually dwindled to a handful who remain to look after business interests or who have no children to draw them elsewhere.

Community: With a population of almost 2,000 by the end of the nineteenth century, the community began to move east from their original settlements near the Hooghly River toward the Bowbazaar area, close to their synagogues. Many adopted Western dress and etiquette and the English language. Wealthier members moved to the select residential area of Park Street in South Calcutta.

Throughout the 1930’s and 40’s Habonim, the pioneer Zionist group, promoted Jewish values and aliya. During World War II, Rabbi David Seligson, an American chaplain stationed in India, helped organize the Young People’s Congregation at Beth-El synagogue. Seligson influenced Ezekiel Musleah, then a teenager, to study for the rabbinate in New York. Musleah returned to India in 1952 and served for 12 years as the only ordained rabbi the community ever had.

A walking tour of the old Jewish neighborhoods provides a window to the community, while offering a closeup of Calcutta’s teeming street life. Starting at the Central Metro stop of the country’s only subway, walk down Bowbazaar Street (many street names have been changed to erase the British influence, but people still use the old designations anyway).

Almost immediately the archway of the Elias Meyer Free School and Talmud Torah proclaims this a Jewish area. Stop to admire the necklaces, bangles, and earrings of 22-karat gold that glitter like burnished sunshine in the windows of Bowbazaar’s jewelry shops. Street vendors hawk temptations of all kinds, but be careful of uncooked or deep-fried food. Sip the refreshing liquid of green coconuts sold on almost every corner.

Farther down is the Menassseh Meyer building with the name of its Jewish patron emblazoned across the front; it is now used by the police department. Continue straight down Lal Bazaar: Here tea sellers use old-fashioned scales to weigh out parcels of tea leaves from crates stacked high behind them, and public typists offer their services to the illiterate, tapping out letters on manual typewriters. One block past the massive red brick Calcutta Police Station, at 1 and 2 Old Courthouse Street, stand Norton Buildings, former headquarters of B.N. Elias and Company and former home of the Jewish Association of Calcutta. Retrace the route back one block and turn left into Radha Bazaar. As it becomes Pollock Street, look for the imposing yellow clock tower of the Beth-El synagogue on the left, adorned with light blue Stars of David.

Beth-El, renovated recently with community funds, typifies the architecture of Indian synagogues-soaring ceilings, delicate columns and arched stained-glass windows. It is easy to feel reverence sitting on the plain wooden benches downstairs (for men), gazing at the wood-and-brass bima Sefardim call a teba in the center of the sanctuary. The women’s galleries upstairs are at eye level not only with the chandeliers and ceiling fans, but with the domed top of the Ark, painted light blue with white stars to resemble the heavens. The perpendicular solidity of the seven columns on either side of the sanctuary gives the otherwise airy structure a necessary visual balance. The Ark, or hekhal, is literally a semi-circular room with a shelf around its perimeter that holds sifrei Torah in gleaming silver cases. Community members still gather in the courtyard to make matza as they did in days gone by. Directly across the street the original site of the Jewish Girls’ School is now a post office.

From Pollock, turn left onto Ezra Street, named for David Joseph Ezra, who lived at No. 54 and owned almost every property on the street. Turn right onto Brabourne Road, then left into Bihari Bose Road (formerly Canning Street), where bangle-sellers peddle their wares alongside barbers giving shaves and haircuts in the open. It’s hard to miss Maghen David at 109 with its imposing red brick exterior and 142-foot steeple. An unusual feature for a Jewish building, the steeple wasn’t strange for the Christian architect who designed it. Ironically, he inadvertently complied with the talmudic prescription to have the synagogue tower over all the other buildings in town.

When Neveh Shalome could no longer accommodate its growing congregation, Maghen David was built on the adjoining site. Nevertheless, Neveh Shalome continued to attract worshippers. It was demolished in 1910 and a smaller building took its place. Neveh Shalome suffered years of inter-synagogue strife based on competing claims to the land on which the buildings stood; it is not used as a synagogue any longer but remains a mute witness to the discord that plagued the community.

Maghen David is an exquisite example of the ornate Italian Renaissance style, its stained-glass windows throwing colorful patterns on the black-and-white marble floor. Eighteen stone pillars surround the sanctuary, topped by teal-blue arches inscribed in gold with Hebrew verses meant to deepen kavana, the meaningfulness of prayer. The semicircular platform in front of the hekhal, where the kohanim recited the priestly blessing and where weddings and circumcisions were performed, is inlaid with intricate Castilian tiles in blues, browns and beiges and bordered with a wrought-iron-and-wood rail. Menorah, an elaborate decoration over the semicircular hekhal, depicts a variety of symbols, including two menoras, the Ten Commandments, a painting of the Western Wall, a mystical 10 spheres and the urim and tumim, the priestly breastplate. The graceful sanctuary can seat 400 men and 300 women, but Shabbat morning services now barely draw a minyan. Services start at 6 and rotate weekly between Beth-El and Maghen David. During the week, the caretakers of both synagogues are happy to accommodate visitors. Just knock on the door, or call David Nahoum in advance to make arrangements (telephone 91-33-244-8364).

For another walking tour, to south central Calcutta, begin at the police station in Lal Bazaar. Turn right into Bentinck Street, passing No. 29, the former home of Habonim. Bentinck turns into Calcutta’s main thoroughfare, Chowringhee, now called J. Nehru Road. Past the Metro Cinema and Grand Hotel, turn left into Lindsay Street and follow it to New Market, a covered mart of hundreds of tiny shops selling everything from sweets to saris. A "guide" will inevitably attach himself to you-with the incentive of a commission from the stores he picks. It’s worth his guidance to be able to navigate the maze, but don’t forget to bargain.

Wherever you go in New Market, take a break at Nahoum’s, a Jewish-owned bakery and confectioner’s shop (244-3033). Although there is no rabbinical supervision, the community has patronized the shop since its inception. One hundred years ago, Nahoum Israel Mordecai came to Calcutta from Baghdad and began selling home-made pastries door-to-door; the shop he later established has been in its present location for 65 years. David Nahoum, his grandson, a trustee of most of the city’s remaining Jewish institutions, has become the community’s unofficial emissary; his brother, Nahoum Nahoum, ran the retail shop until he died. Lemon tarts, eclairs and cheesecakes, special occasion cakes shaped as boats and violins grace the shelves. On Fridays, Nahoum’s often bakes Jewish specialties like cheese pastries and date-filled babas. Shabbat loaves, different from braided hallas, can be special ordered.

On the Banks of the Ganga (Christopher), by Rabbi Ezekiel N. Musleah, provides a comprehensive history of the Calcutta Jewish community. Gay Courter’s novel, Flowers in the Blood (Dutton), portrays a prominent Jewish family from Calcutta. Open Heart (Doubleday), by A.B. Yehoshua, follows an Israeli doctor to India and includes a brief description of Calcutta. City of Joy, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (Doubleday), gives a powerful overview of the city. Calcutta’s greatest poet, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, can be read in translation; a Polish version of his drama, The Post Office, recently translated into English (St. Martin’s) was the last play performed at the orphanage of Janusz Korczak in the Warsaw Gheto.

Direct flights on Air India (800-223-7776; 212-751-6200 in New York) from the United States only stop in New Delhi or Bombay, from which travelers can connect for Calcutta. For information and assistance, contact the India Tourist Office, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112; 212-586-4901.

The best time to visit Calcutta is from November to February, when the temperature is comfortable. Avoid monsoon season, June to September.

Although there are no kosher restaurants in Calcutta, many Hindus are vegetarian, so kosher travelers will find plenty of tasty and inexpensive food. Eat cooked vegetables, opt for fruit with a rind and drink and brush your teeth with only sealed bottled water. While no inoculations are required, the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta (404-639-3311) has up-to-date recommendations. Your doctor can prescribe antimalaria pills and diarrhea medications; ask your travel agent for complete details on other food and health caveats.

Despite health warnings and poverty, India will charm you with its magic. The warm and hospitable people offer a small sampling of the harmony characteristic of the Jewish experience there.