On Pollock Street, surrounded by shops that sell electrical goods, stands the Beth El Synagogue. It is one of Calcutta’s (Kolkata) three surviving synagogues and is evidence of the fact that the city once had a thriving and rich Jewish community.
THE JEWS OF CALCUTTA
5th August 1798 ‘Last night I arrived in Calcutta’
That one plain sentence is how Calcutta’s first Jewish settler, Shalom Aharon Obadiah ha-Cohen recorded his arrival in the City of Joy in his diary. Born in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, in 1762, Cohen was a jeweller who had set up shop in Surat in 1792. He moved to Calcutta 6 years later and became the court jeweller to Ghazi-ud-din Haider, the Nawab of Lucknow. With him began Calcutta’s Jewish community, which flourished until 1947 when uncertainty about the future in a now independent India, and the establishment of Israel, caused a mass exodus. There are perhaps a dozen Jews left in Calcutta now, which makes it impossible to have a service in a synagogue, since a “Minyan”, a quorum of ten adult males, is required.
ORIGINS OF THE BETH EL SYNAGOGUE
In 1816, with only 50 Jews in Calcutta, enough of a rift had developed for them to maintain two places of worship, one of which was the house of Shalom Cohen. When he moved to the North and his house was no longer available, a house was rented in a neighbourhood called Amratolla. After some time, this was shifted to a single-storeyed house known as Khan Hajji Masuda on 49 Ezra Street. Ultimately a plot of land was acquired on the corner of Brabourne Road and Canning Street and the house that stood on that plot became the Neveh Shalome Synagogue. This house would later be demolished and Neveh Shalome rebuilt in 1911.
The dates and details of Beth El (also spelt Bethel) Synagogue are provided on a plaque adjacent to the entrance. The land for the synagogue was purchased, we are told, by David Joseph Ezra and Ezekiel Judah, for 50,000 Rupees in A.M. 5616. A.M. stands for Anno Mundi, literally meaning “in the year of the world”. This date is according to the Jewish calendar and refers to the Biblical year of creation as year zero. By the Gregorian calendar, which we are all familiar with, the date would be 1856 A.D. (or C.E. if you prefer). The name Beth El is Hebrew. Beth means house, and El is derived from El Shaddai, one of the names of the primary Judaic God. El Shaddai roughly translates to God Almighty. Therefore, Beth El would mean “House of God”. In A.M. 5646, or 1886, Beth El underwent a major renovation. Two years earlier, Elias David Joseph Ezra had constructed the Maghen David Synagogue, “the grandest synagogue in the East” and dedicated it to the memory of his father. But Elias Shalome Gubbay, who continued to worship at Beth El, was concerned about its state of disrepair, and had the whole structure renovated at his expense. The synagogue was extended, the centre raised and marble flooring was added. Further renovation was carried out in A.M. 5654, or 1894; two galleries were added and the massive pillars inside the synagogue were replaced by “elegant iron columns”. The bill? 100,000 Rupees! Just for a sense of perspective, the total monthly salary of the 9 employees of Punjab National Bank, also established in 1894, was around 320 rupees.
But then, this was no big deal for the Gubbays or the Ezras, who were among Calcutta’s richest and most powerful Jewish families. The Ezra family was the foremost Jewish family of Calcutta. The first Ezra to arrive in Calcutta was Joseph, on 22nd February 1821. Among his sons, who settled in the city, David proved to be the most enterprising in commerce, and later real estate. In recognition of the vast amounts of real estate owned by him, two streets in the Jewish quarter, David Joseph Lane and Ezra Street were named after him, on which he owned almost every property. Next to the Ezras in prominence were the Gubbays. David Hakham Aaron Gubbay came to Calcutta from Baghdad. His nephew was Elias Shalome Gubbay who found success in the real estate business. He was the man who financed the Gubbay House in the Calcutta Zoo, for birds and reptiles.
ARCHITECTURE OF THE BETH EL SYNAGOGUE
The exterior of the Beth El Synagogue is somewhat plain with Italian and Byzantine influences. 15 marble steps lead up to the main door, and to the left is the marble plaque which contains details about Gubbay’s beautification of the synagogue. The interiors remain spectacular even today. A spacious recessed balcony on the 1st floor accommodates the ladies. Beautiful stained glass may be seen on windows and high panels while stunning chandeliers may be seen hanging from the ceiling. Most of the glass for the chandeliers and lampshades comes from Belgium.
Unlike a church, the place for the priest in the synagogue is not at the end of the room, but on a raised platform at its centre. At one end of the room, where a one would find an altar in a church, is a raised platform with three doors. Above the platform is an apse, or half dome, painted blue with white stars. Three red glass panels on the dome contain inscriptions from the Ten Commandments. Hebrew inscriptions are also seen on the curtains which hang in front of the doors. Those three doors lead into the Ark Room, which Gubbay had had expanded, to accommodate an ever growing number of Torah scrolls, sacred Jewish scrolls containing the entire text of the Five Books of Moses, hand-written by a pious scribe in the original Hebrew and stored inside the most ornately decorated cylinders. Only four such scrolls now remain in Calcutta, two of which are in Beth El. The Torah scrolls are unfortunately not for public viewing.
MUSLIM CARETAKERS OF A JEWISH HOUSE OF WORSHIP
This is one of the unique things about Calcutta’s synagogues; all the caretakers are Muslim. While, in the Middle East, Jews and Muslims are literally at each other’s throats, in Calcutta there has never been any trouble. Neither has the Jewish community in Calcutta ever been discriminated against. “We have never known fear here, and we will always be grateful for that”, writes Sally Solomon, one of Shalome Cohen’s descendants, in her book “Hooghly Tales”. Matzah bread, a special unleavened bread eaten during the Jewish festival of Passover was once made in Beth El, and while the ovens are still there, Matzah is no longer made in Calcutta. Beth El, Maghen David and Neveh Shalome continue to mark major Jewish festivals, however, and if you happen to walk in around Sukkot, you will find the traditional temporary hut made from palm leaves.
But what happens to Beth El and Calcutta’s other two synagogues when all the Jews are gone? Shalom Israel, who, many thought, would be the last Jew of Calcutta, has recently left for Israel and the remaining members of the community are old and ailing. The Archaeological Survey of India has already taken over Beth El as a monument of national significance, so there is no fear of it being demolished or encroached upon. Jewish trust funds have also kept the synagogue in good shape. But a house of worship is built for precisely that; worship. Sally Solomon, who lived in Calcutta till a little after independence describes a typical service in her book, “…a sea of heads wearing different coloured skull caps and swathed in prayer shawls, chanting and responding in unison to the Hazzan, a venerable king on the central dias…”. This is a scene we will never see again. There is a sadness in the silence that now permeates the vast interiors of Beth El. It reminds us that in spite of every effort that we make, all shall fade.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
NOTE FOR VISITORS
Permission is required for entering Calcutta’s synagogues. That may be obtained from Aline M Cohen or any member of the Calcutta’s Jewish board. She may be reached at her office in Calcutta’s Jewish Girls School, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Still photography is permitted inside the synagogue, but not video. There is no entry fee as of now. The synagogues are open on all days, except on major Jewish festivals and occasions.
MORE ON THE JEWS OF CALCUTTA
- Maghen David Synagogue
- Neveh Shalome Synagogue
- Jewish Cemetery
- Video footage of Matzah making in Beth El Synagogue
- Aline M Cohen for permitting me to enter and photograph the Beth El Synagogue.
- The images accompanying this article were shot while on a photowalk with Vibgyor. Check out their Facebook page here for details about their upcoming events.
Hooghly Tales – Solomon, Sally
On The Banks of the Ganga – Musleah, Rabbi Ezekiel N.