Jewish heritage-in Kolkata

Healing touch for Jewish heritage

KOLKATA: The Jewish built heritage in Kolkata mirrors the plight of the dwindling community. But now, the Archeological Survey of India is throwing it a lifeline.

The ASI on Friday promised to "protect and project the glory of the Jewish community" by renovating the monuments built a hundred years ago. Regional director of ASI (east) P K Mishra visited three synagogues on Friday along with the gritty Aline M Cohen, who has been battling every odd to conserve Jewish monuments in the city.

Two of these - Beth El Synagogue



  and Maghen David Synagogue -


are nationally protected monuments but the third, Shalo
me Synagogue, is unprotected although it is equally important to the community's history and heritage. It stands next to the Maghen David structure.

Mishra announced plans for a unique Jewish tourism circuit in the city, which will begin with a festival-cum-fair to exhibit the unique facets of Jewish life and culture. The Jewish community will itself restore Neveh Shalome Synagogue, which marked its centenary in 2011.

"Apart from their rich history, these monuments, speak eloquently of the great cultural melting pot the city is. Many communities came and settled here and left their indelible mark in the form of these monuments. But I am afraid after Aline M Cohen, there will be hardly anyone to tell the stories behind these magnificent structures," said Mishra.

His concern is not unfounded - the Jewish community in Kolkata now numbers 25 from a high of 6,000 during World War II.

"Thus it is important to look for the history of Jewish community in the city. We need to add cultural text tags at these synagogues. Otherwise, people won't be interested to see these sites," he remarked. ASI wants better communication between the community and conservators.

In fact, most Kolkatans are not aware of these synagogues, tucked away as they are behind office buildings and hawker stalls in Canning Street and Pollock Street.

Aline Cohen was excited by the idea of Jewish tourism circuit. "There is no dearth of elements for developing it. Apart from these five independent synagogues in the city, there are the Jewish cemetery and a girls' school," she said.

The Beth El and Maghen David Synagogues were declared national monuments and brought under ASI protection in 2003. It isn't easy for tourists to access these monuments because of security restrictions.

Last week, the chairperson of National Monument Authority (NMA), professor Himanshu Prabha Ray, was almost denied access. There was a hue and cry over it. "We are streamlining the system. We are setting up a door-frame metal detector, a surveillance system and bag counter to make things easy for tourists and the monuments safer," said Mishra.

The Jewish community has a special place in Kolkata's heart. The first recorded Jewish immigrant to Kolkata was Shalome Cohen in 1798 from Aleppo ( Syria). The most influential Jewish family in Kolkata was perhaps the father-son real estate magnates of David Joseph Ezra and Elia David Ezra, who founded the Jewish Girls School. The confectioner Nahoum's in New Market is still a top draw.

The independence of India in 1947 and the birth of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 marked the decline of Jewish population in Calcutta (Kolkata). Today the only about 30 Jews are left in the city. The Beth El Synagogue built in 1856, is located on Pollack Street while the Magen David Synagogue built in 1884 is located at the junction of Brabourne Road and Cannig Street (Biplabi Rashbehari Road).

The Synagogues of Kolkata
This is going to be my last post on Kolkata. And I want to end it with the beautiful Synagogues of Kolkata that I photographed as part of my photo story on The Jews of India. Out of the five synagogues in Kolkata only two synagogues, Beth El & Magen David are still open to visitors. Declared as protected monuments they are looked after by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI). However you still need permission from David Nahoum, who own's the famous Jewish bakery and confectionary shop called Nahoum's located in New Market, to visit the synagogues. 

Constructed in 1850-1856 by the famous Ezra family of Kolkata, the Beth-El Synagogue, typifies the architecture of Indian synagogues - soaring ceilings, delicate columns and arched stained-glass windows. 

The Magen David synagogue is truly a picture of grandeur. Replete with an ornate Holy Ark, a beautifully-carved tebah (an elevated platform for reading the Torah), stained-glass windows shaped as the Tablets of Stone, Hebrew plaques and polished furniture, the immaculate interiors even in their silence reflect a sense of bustling times.

The altar of the Magen David Synagogue is crowned with a Apse (Half Dome) studded with stars representing Heaven. The large plaque in the middle contain the Ten Commandments, some Hebrew inscription along with several other items of Jewish Iconography.

Magen David Synagogue is architecturally Italian and the towering floral-carved pillars were shipped from Paris by the Ezras

Its 140 feet high clock tower still dominates the Kolkata skyline. Its one of the most splendid synagogues in India. The din outside its periphery only heightens the calm you feel on its precincts.

The Beth El and Magen David Synagogues speak of a celebrated legacy, while Neveh Shalome in the vicinity stands a crumbling structure. The Neveh Shalome Synagogue, Kolkata’s first-ever synagogue was established in 1826. When Neveh Shalome could no longer accommodate its growing congregation, Magen David was built on the adjoining site. Neveh Shalome, now in ruins, suffered years of inter-synagogue strife based on competing claims to the land on which the buildings stood. It's sad to see a how a rich thriving community is diminishing and all that remains today are a few prominent landmarks.

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