Jael Silliman with her mother Flower at their Moira Street home. Picture by Arnab Mondal
The Jews of Calcutta may find themselves five men short for a religious ceremony requiring 10, but a digital museum on the kosher way of life in the city is on its way to keep Jewish lore alive.
The website, expected to be ready by the end of the year, will be a digital treasure trove of Hebrew documents, letters, marriage contracts, photographs, seals, recipes and knick-knacks contributed by members of the Jewish community settled across the world.
The joint effort reflects the community’s bid to maintain history and tradition in the face of odds, just as the Israeli ambassador to India, Alon Ushpiz, did last month. The Telegraph had highlighted how Ushpiz flew in from Delhi with five other Jews to complete the quorum of 10 men required for Simhat Torah rituals at the Magen David Synagogue on September 26.
The museum project is led by Jael Silliman, one of the 25 Jews remaining in Calcutta. The 58-year-old former women’s studies teacher at the University of Iowa is being assisted in her task by Amlan Dasgupta, professor at Jadavpur University.
The local Jewish community, comprising mostly elders, was once 6,000-strong. The first batch of Jews had arrived in the country from West Asia in the late 18th century. There are three main branches of the community in India — the Bene-Israel (literally meaning Children of Israel), the Cochin Jews who prospered along the Malabar coast and Baghdadi Jews, who settled mostly in Calcutta and Mumbai.
“I realised that once the few remaining Jews in Calcutta die, there will be little evidence of Jewish presence here and their contribution to the city and the rest of the country. That is when I decided to begin working on archiving the Jewish way of life over the centuries. I started writing to everyone I knew in the community or had heard of and asked them to send me pictures of their ancestors, recipes, letters or any other document they would like to be part of the archives,” Jael told Metro.
To her astonishment, everyone came up with something or the other. “People have sent me material from Australia, England, Israel, the US and Canada. I am in the process of compiling them. We are sure to have something concrete enough to launch by the end of the year,” Jael said.
Starting from the Calcutta of 1798, the digital archives will tell the story of the Jews and also offer a virtual tour of two city synagogues — Magen David on Canning Street and Beth El on Pollock Street.
Jael wants to make a visit to the digital museum “fun” rather than just a quest for information. She has already video-recorded the interiors of synagogues and interviewed their caretakers. “These people have seen the city change over the years from behind the synagogue gates. There are also going to be first-hand accounts of older people in the community and oral histories of Jews who lived and loved the city,” she said.
Friends have sent Jael family heirlooms like the katebuah, a Jewish marriage contract written in Arabic during the 19th century, from London. The language is almost poetic and has British emblems embedded into it.
The katebuah of the 1960s are startlingly different: more bureaucratic and visually staid. Also part of the collection will be a picture circa 1922 of Tabita Soloman, the first Jewish woman to acquire a degree in dental science from The Calcutta Dental College and Hospital.
Videos of Jael’s mother Flower cooking Jewish delicacies will be on display along with their recipes. Flower, known for her cooking skills within the community, has published cookbooks on Israeli and Jewish cooking abroad. She intends publishing one in India, too.
What had started as a poster project went from strength to strength to take the shape of a digital museum. As more matter started pouring into her mailbox, Jael realised she would have to consult an expert in documentation. She found Dasgupta, who agreed to provide technical help.
|Flower Silliman receives her graduation diploma certificate from Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948 and (right) Tabita Solomon was the first Jewish lady to acquire a degree in dental science from The Calcutta Dental College and Hospital in 1922.
Pictures courtesy Flower & Charles Silliman
“When she came to us and suggested the project, we were all excited. Photographs, digital documentation and video recording have been done by us under her leadership. This project was possible because Jael has access and resources to the history of Jewish community in Calcutta. Two of our former students, Antoreep Sengupta and Surja Deb, have done most of the legwork. Compilation is slated to be completed within the next couple of months,” Dasgupta said.
Jadavpur University has a grant that encourages city-specific work. Once Jael’s mission is over, the university plans to document the lives of various communities who came from outside and settled in the city.
The Jewish merchants who had fled deteriorating conditions in Iraq in the late 18th century were followed by other Jews, many of whom went on to establish thriving businesses. The Baghdadis kept up family and trade ties with other members of their community throughout southern and eastern Asia. These Jews of the Raj era had led a good life, complete with servants, summer houses, clubs and racehorses. All this came crashing down after Independence. When the British left the subcontinent, most Baghdadi Jews decided to emigrate to England and other English-speaking countries. Few went to Israel. Today, less than 300 Jews of Iraqi origin remain in the country.
The Baghdadi Jewish community in Calcutta gave India most of its earliest female film stars in the 1920s. These include names like Patience Cooper, Sulochana, Pramila, Rose, Romila, Arati Debi and others. India’s first beauty queen in 1947 was also Jewish — Esther Victoria Abraham, alias Pramila. Ezra Mir ne Edwin Myers, the filmmaker who established animation and documentary filmmaking in India, was also Jewish. So was General J.F.R. Jacob, under whom India won the 1971 war.
Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a JNU teacher whose grandmother Hannah Sen had grown close to the Nehrus, sent rare pictures of Nehru and Hannah to Jael. “I never knew Kamal was a Jew. When I heard of this, I was a little surprised. When I approached him, he gave me a lot of information about Jews who participated in the freedom struggle. I am also documenting oral histories passed on from generation to generation,” Jael said.
Of the stories she had heard as a child, quite a few were about David Joseph Ezra and Elia David Ezra, the father-son duo behind such landmark buildings as Chowringhee Mansion and Esplanade Mansion. Ezra Street is named after them.
“The address 3 Kyd Street that now houses the Central Drugs Laboratory is an Ezra property. The Ezras once had a private zoo in the house and threw lavish parties. It saddens me to see how that beautiful house has been turned into a storehouse for old government files today,” said Jael, who has authored two books, The Man with Many Hats (2013) and Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope (2001).