Full Circle from Calcutta
Why my distinct Jewish identity remained an entirely private and family matter after moving to the U.S.
by Jael Silliman
I am from the Conservative Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta. My father’s ancestors were the first Jews to come to Calcutta from Aleppo in the 1790s when the city was the capital of British India. Most of Calcutta’s Jews had emigrated to the U.K., Australia, Israel, and America in the 1940s and 50s. I grew up in the 1960s, when there were less than six or seven hundred Jews left in the city.
Shabbat dinners at our home were shared with our Jewish and non-Jewish friends. Our non-Jewish friends nostalgically recall the silver Kiddush cup of wine being blessed, then passed around for each person to have a sip. This and other Shabbat traditions intrigued our guests. In truth, the prayers were a small part of the evening; it was the wonderful Iraqi Jewish dinner and the bonhomie that everyone relished.
The dining table would be laden with aloo makalas (a Baghdadi delicacy of crisp potatoes unique to Calcutta’s Jews), roast chicken, stuffed vegetables, shuftas (a meat kebab), hilbe (a delicious green fenugreek sauce), pilaf, and a rich chicken and coconut curry. Special homemade desserts – prepared by my mother – were the crowning glory of the meal. No matter how many people were present, there was always room for more. I now wonder how we managed to accommodate so many at our table!
I attended a Catholic missionary school, as they provided an excellent English-language education. At my school, there were girls from many religions – Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians of many denominations, and even a few Zoroastrians. I took my religion for granted. It did not matter to any of us what religion we belonged to; we respected one another’s customs and traditions. It made Calcutta the cosmopolitan and inclusive city we loved.
Though my granny had taught me to read my prayers in Hebrew, I read haltingly. I barely understood a word of the prayers I recited or heard in the synagogue. Even the Shema was a meaningless torrent of words that I dutifully recited each morning and night.
My family went to synagogue on the High Holidays, another marker of my Jewish identity. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur often coincided with the pujas that honor the victory of Goddess Durga over the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura. For the eight days of the pujas, crowds throng to admire the pandals that house gigantic clay statues of Durga and other deities that bedeck the city. The worship of the goddess is a very public affair. I was mindful of the contrast between the solemnity and introspection of our festivals and the noisy, joyous, and very colorful celebration of the pujas.
The Jewish festival that I most enjoyed was Simchat Torah. My father would buy water pistols for all the children in our congregation. We would chase each other down the grand synagogue hall, dousing one another with sprays of water and shrieking with joy and reckless abandon. We also loved to run through the inner sanctuary, which housed nearly a hundred Sifrei Torahs, each resplendent in its embossed case of silver. We would kiss them as fast as we could to show off to one another how speedily we could perform this feat.
I came to study at Wellesley College after having spent two years at a Catholic boarding school in Northern Ireland. I did not return to India during that time and missed home very much. I immediately gravitated to the other ten or so Indian students on campus, with whom I felt most at home. The Jewish students I met at Wellesley seemed as foreign to me as did the other American students. I learned about other Jewish experiences in India and Israel and read quite extensively about the Holocaust. In America, I found the persecuted Jew, justifiably, to be the dominant cultural narrative. However, it did not define my identity.
While I had many Jewish and non-Jewish friends in America, I did not participate formally in Jewish life. I did go to the synagogue a couple of times, but the style of the prayers was unfamiliar to me. I felt like an outsider. My distinct Jewish identity remained an entirely private and family matter.
I celebrated Passover at my home, serving the food we had eaten in Calcutta. I especially appreciated it when an elderly cousin of mine would lead the prayers and chant the songs in our Baghdadi Jewish style. Just as it had been in our home in Calcutta, friends of all faiths – Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians – sat around our seder table, read the haggadah portions, asked questions, and delved into the meaning and contemporary relevance of Passover.
I returned to Calcutta a few years ago; there are now just a handful of Jews here, most of them very old. The three stately synagogues and the expansive cemetery grounds are testimony to the existence of a once-thriving community. The Jewish Girls School has had no Jewish students since the early 1980s; 90 percent of its students are now Muslim.
It was upon returning to Calcutta from America that I acutely felt that even the memory of our community was fading fast. This deep feeling of loss compelled me to document and record our history. I networked with Calcutta’s Jews, who now live across the globe, so they could share their memories, photos, and documents. I made sure to also record how much Calcutta gave to us. We never faced any hint of anti-Semitism, and there was no field of endeavor in which our community members did not excel, no dream or ambition we could not fulfill.
Curating the website Recalling Jewish Calcutta has been testimony to the Baghdadi Jewish community and to Calcutta. It is proof of how a truly multicultural city enriches itself and all the communities therein. On a more personal level, coming back to Calcutta after living in the U.S. for 30 years and engaging with my community’s past has reaffirmed my Baghdadi Jewish identity. I believe it is essential, for India and the world, to preserve this unique Jewish experience.
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