Kolkata synagogues draw Jews again

Past is present: The Maghen David Synagogue was built in 1884 by David Joseph Ezra.  

A long-pending refurbishment of two synagogues in Kolkata — one of them nearly two centuries old — has triggered a renewed interest among members of the Jewish community who had left the city of their birth nearly 60 years ago.

It was a poignant moment for Sarah Brown, whose parents were married in Beth El Synagogue on January 6, 1946. “I brought a framed picture of their wedding for this trip and took a picture with it, marking the spot where they had stood. It was very emotional for me,” she told The Hindu. Calcutta-born Sarah left the city in 1974, four years before her mother migrated to Israel where she still lives.

The Beth El Synagogue was built in 1856 by David Joseph Ezra and Ezekiel Judah and expanded by Elias Shalome Gubbay to accommodate the growing Jewish community. But in the absence of major repairs, the synagogue developed serious structural issues which needed to be addressed. “Every inch of the basement was supported [by bamboo poles], we found during our survey,” said Ajay Kumar, a conservation advisor associated with the refurbishment.

Across the street, in the midst of the city’s wholesale market area, stands the Maghen David Synagogue. Built in 1884 by David Joseph Ezra in his father’s memory, this is among the largest and most ornate synagogues in Asia. Its brick-red finished exterior, gleaming chandeliers, stained glass windows and floral pillars were shipped from France to enhance its continental look, according to the digital archive www.jewishcalcutta.in.

Kolkata synagogues draw Jews again

“In both the cases the challenge was to consolidate the structures without demolishing them. At Maghen David, the walls were damp and water was seeping through the roof,” said Mr Kumar. A 14-member technical team took two years to complete the project.

The funding came from the Jewish community but no one is willing to share the figures. Conservation experts told The Hindu that it would typically take around ₹3-4 crore each to restore such living heritage structures. “I had to be back in India when I heard that my synagogue [Maghen David] was being renovated and rededicated. The last service I attended was in 1959 and we were thrilled to hear a service being conducted by a Rabbi who sang traditional prayer melodies of the Baghdadi community. I left the city in 1959, as a 16-year-old. I have very clear memories of my family praying at Maghen David. And at the cemetery at Narkeldanga lie many of my ancestors. These are my roots,” said Ilana Sondak, who now lives in Galilee in Israel.

Most Calcutta Jews were the Baghdadi Jews, who began arriving in the city in the early 19th century to capitalise on the thriving commerce.

“Calcutta — then the star of the British Empire — was a hub of economic activity and an attractive destination for many including the Jews, whose number peaked at around 4,000 by the 1940s. Today, they are less than 20,” said Jael Silliman, the curator of her community’s digital archive. “I felt it was critical to document my community’s rich history — in a few years there would be no one to tell it.”

Aline Cohen, general secretary of the Jewish Community Affairs, said that nostalgia and interest in architecture was bringing a lot of visitors to the synagogues. She said efforts were now on to create a fund for maintenance of the refurbished synagogues through corporate support.

But the city’s dug-up sidewalks, ugly encroachments by hawkers, and the concrete jungle now standing in place of mansions in leafy avenues, can shock some of the visitors — such as Ilana Sondak. “The state of the city, especially the unrepaired pavements, shocked me,” she said. “I had to walk on the road risking my life as I could not find space on the pavement. The palatial buildings are being brought down. But I will always love Calcutta, just as a mother loves her child, ugly or beautiful.”

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 8:07:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/kolkata-synagogues-draw-jews-again/article22785257.ece

Next Story