Exploring Kolkata's three surviving synagogues

Jan 05, 2018, 08:56 IST | Fiona Fernandez

The three surviving synagogues act as silent bystanders to a once-thriving community whose numbers today add up to barely 20

Junction of Brabourne Road and Canning Street

It's not yet 9 am on a crisp wintry morning in Kolkata. Our guide for a synagogue trail, Jael Silliman, a Jewish scholar and author, reiterates that it's the ideal time to explore the three hidden gems before chaos takes over the oldest part of the city.

The decorative piece that rests above the central entrance to the chamber of the Magen David Synagogue in which the scrolls of the law are housed. Spot the representations of the Menorah and the two tablets on which are inscribed the initial words of the Ten Commandments. PICS/FIONA FERNANDEZ; information courtesy/jewishcalcutta.in
The decorative piece that rests above the central entrance to the chamber of the Magen David Synagogue in which the scrolls of the law are housed. Spot the representations of the Menorah and the two tablets on which are inscribed the initial words of the Ten Commandments. PICS/FIONA FERNANDEZ; information courtesy/jewishcalcutta.in

She curates an ongoing project on the city's Jewish community in partnership with Jadavpur University's School of Cultural Texts and Records and NUI Maynooth (Ireland). The digital archive received initial funding from Fulbright. 

A collection of scrolls of the Holy Torah housed at Magen David
A collection of scrolls of the Holy Torah housed at Magen David

"The area pin code is 1; the city took shape from here," Silliman slips the fact in, in between guiding our cabbie as he negotiates his rickety yellow Ambassador with the deftness of a Formala-1 driver in slow-mo. The Bombaywallah is smiling. Saki Naka seems like a sprawling promenade in comparison.

The decorative piece that rests above the central entrance to the chamber of the Magen David Synagogue in which the scrolls of the law are housed. Spot the representations of the Menorah and the two tablets on which are inscribed the initial words of the Ten Commandments. PICS/FIONA FERNANDEZ; information courtesy/jewishcalcutta.in

FOR GUIDED TOURS : Ms AM Cohen, General Secretary, Jewish Community Affairs, Jewish Girls School, 63 Park Street, Kolkata.
CALL : 9831054669
EMAIL : amc1946@yahoo.com log on to www.jewishcalcutta.in

STOP 1: Magen David Synagogue

Junction of Brabourne Road and Canning Street

We crane our neck and take a few steps back to soak in the grandeur of the structure built in Calcutta Renaissance style, as Silliman points to its steeple and clock tower, a rare feature in synagogues. The 42m-high tower was possibly suggested by its makers, who might have been influenced by the prevalent colonial design template. Silliman tells us that its benefactors allowed it on the condition that it towered above all other buildings in the city! "This synagogue was built in 1884 by Elias David Ezra, as the Beth El synagogue nearby was unable to accommodate the growing numbers of the community. Now, we are barely 20," she rues. We gaze at the stunning interiors, from its mosaic tiles and polished wooden furniture to the large stained-glass rose window. Silliman takes us closer to the pulpit where the Rabbi would preach, and towards the half dome and three curtained doors. Behind this, are housed handwritten Torah scrolls that are out of bounds for non-Jews. As sunlight bathes the space in all its morning glory, we notice rows of chairs that line the balconies of the synagogue. "Those were meant for Jewish women," she informs, all along giving us glimpses into customs and more importantly, the philanthropy and enterprise of the community that shaped the city, just like their counterparts in Bombay.

STOP 2: Neveh Shalome Synagogue

Junction of Brabourne Road and Canning Street

Exhibits from the archive

Kolkata's oldest surviving synagogue, which is Silliman's favourite, appears more like a dressed-down version of Magen David. Located in the same compound as its opulent counterpart, it was built in 1831, and rebuilt in 1911 by Jewish pioneer Ezekiel Judah Jacob.

Junction of Brabourne Road and Canning Street

We are welcomed at the entrance by Masood Hussain, who leads us to the upper level where he proudly explains the contents of a few rare books of the community. "Our families have been caretakers here for generations," he tells us with a wide smile. We spot several photo exhibits around us.

Caretaker Masood Hussain
Caretaker Masood Hussain 

"We just held an exhibition of the city's Jewish history sourced from the digital archive that I am working on," shares Silliman. It's an invaluable resource. "Bring it down to Bombay!" is our first reaction to the exhaustive repository.

STOP 3: Beth El Synagogue

Pollock Street

Pollock Street

We diligently follow our guide while combating the bullish traffic on Brabourne Road, to reach Pollock Street. Walking through this narrow gully feels as if all of India's market produce has been hastily thrown into a tiny location. The smells and sounds are in full flow.

Pollock Street

All of a sudden, an impressive pale yellow façade springs up on us. The Beth El Synagogue was built in 1855-56 by visionaries, Joseph Ezra and Ezekiel Judah. Silliman leads us up the flight of marble steps to our final stop. Inside, we note that the basic architecture is similar to the other two synagogues. Though not in use for the congregation, its interiors are well maintained.

Pollock Street

The craftsmanship of the chandeliers, stained glasswork, especially above the main entrance, its half dome and balconies, take our breath away. Despite the buzz outside, we could hear a pin drop as the past and present come to a standstill inside. Finally, we are able to gauge the unique challenge that faces this once-vibrant, now-dwindling community that has been integral to Kolkata's cosmopolitan fabric.

Exploring Kolkata's three surviving synagogues

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