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Calcutta’s longest man-hunt ends

Calcutta, Sept. 26: They waited for centuries before they found their promised land. They waited for 25 years to find 10 men in Calcutta.

The wait ended this evening — with one man to spare.

The Jews of Calcutta were able to line up the required 10 men for the prayer to celebrate Simhat Torah. With decisive help from Israel.

The last time such a formal prayer was held in Calcutta was in 1988, when Satyajit Ray was still making Ganashatru and Sachin Tendulkar had yet to make his Test debut.

Among the 11 men who prayed in the magnificent Magen David Synagogue today, only five were from Calcutta.

The shortfall could be made up because the Israeli ambassador to India, Alon Ushpiz, flew in with five other Jews to achieve the “minyan” or quorum of 10 men needed for a formal service.

“It is a very special and emotional experience for me to be here today to celebrate the festivalů You can say my first, second and third purpose for being in Calcutta today was to simply be with the Jewish community here,” said ambassador Ushpiz.

Calcutta’s Jewish community, once 6,000-strong but now down to 25, had not been able to make up the numbers since 1988 with most men too old and frail to make it to the 129-year-old Magen David, one of the two synagogues that remain in the city. The oldest, Neveh Shalom built in 1831, was destroyed. The other remaining synagogue is Beth El, built in 1856.

The ambassador was in Calcutta for two days to celebrate the Simhat Torah — or Simha Torah, as it is usually referred to in Calcutta — a Jewish High Holiday that marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of reading the holy book, Torah, and the beginning of a new cycle.

Ushpiz’s maiden visit to the city two years ago was his first outside Delhi and the Magen David Synagogue was the first stop then. “Grand is the word to describe this synagogue, one of the finest I have seen anywhere in the world,” Ushpiz said today.

At the previous service in 1988, the synagogue was packed, recounted 83-year-old Flower Silliman, who attended today’s service. “There was prayer and dance, happiness and merrymaking. Children were spraying home-made perfume on one another,” she recalled.

Mordecai Cohen, now 70, said: “It was a tradition that had almost died. Today, it got a new life. I never thought I would attend another prayer service in my lifetime.”

The history of Jews in Calcutta dates back to 1798. The Magen David or “Star of David” synagogue was built in 1884 by E. David Ezra in memory of his father David Joseph Ezra, both real estate magnates behind buildings like the Chowringhee Mansion and Esplanade Mansion. The ornate floral pillars inside were shipped from Paris.

The synagogue, now maintained by the ASI, had once hosted over 3,000 British, American and Indian troops for a prayer service in 1945 during World War II. The services were held every Saturday but attendance thinned in the 1960s with thousands of Jews leaving the city.

A prayer service was held last year as well at the synagogue but the quorum of 10 included women and did not constitute the minyan. “A rabbi had flown down from Alaska to meet his daughter in the city and decided to conduct a service with women in the quorum,” said Jael Silliman, Flower’s daughter.

Simhat Torah also marks the eighth and final day of Sukkot, when the hardships after the end of the bondage in Egypt are remembered.

“The ambassador called me last month and said he would fly in with his men to celebrate the festival,” said Jo Cohen, an active member of the community.