In the heart of Calcutta, there is a family, a muslim family who have been the sole caretakers of the last standing Jewish synagogues for four generations. We meet the men, the caretakers of two religions.
Kolkata is magic. You feel awkward and uneasy as it plays out its cards, until it reveals its secrets and you are pleasantly surprised. You are then moved by crowds, carefully like a pawn on a chess board till you are completely overwhelmed. You wake up to the sounds of crackling radios and crumpling newspapers. You see dancers on the Hooghly at dawn and shivers of those who seek their deities on her shores. You see white mist and black smoke adorning little streets and grand old walls. There’s a glimpse, a mouthful for your eyes no matter where you look. A game of cricket, a poet on the march, a symphony of one and all. Here, you break into a smile with a stranger, till they are a stranger no more. Your tongue would find an interest for words that are unknown. You find quiet in the maddening chaos that comes like waves from faraway horizons. It was in one of these moments of quiet that we found a Jewish Synagogue in the heart of Kolkata. Beth El synagogue it read, a house of God.
Hidden behind rows of shops littered along narrow lanes. A fading yellow facade that screamed of yesteryear. Old plaques that spoke of wise Jewish men who had laid the foundation for the rise of a culture two hundred years ago. Syria is where they came from, like a million men and women who traverse to Europe today, they undertook a journey through desert and snow in the year 1798. That was when the first Jewish settler arrived. Amid the old Torah’s we saw on overcrowded desks, there was a diary of the settler himself.
‘5th August 1798 – Last Night I arrived in Calcutta’ a page read.
We stood in front of this massive yellow synagogue, a rusted lock adorned its black bars. We stood awkwardly till two men came to us and asked us what we were looking for. We had just met Sk Osim and Siraj Khan, two of the Muslim caretakers of the Beth El Synagogue. We soon learnt that we were at one of the last three standing synagogues of Kolkata, and they were all taken care of by an extended Muslim family. ‘He’s my cousin’ Osim said. ‘We used to run around these grounds together.’ Siraj chuckled. As they walked us into the mighty hall of the Synagogue. My first question was an obvious one, and a silly one on hindsight. ‘Why a Jewish Synagogue?’ I asked him. Osim looked at me earnestly and said – ‘ Why not. It is an honour to take care of someone else’s god.’ ‘Besides the Jews have never seen us as servants or caretakers. They have always treated us as family.’ added Siraj thoughtfully. They were men of two religions. One religion they practised and the other they helped preserve.
We walked to the first floor where one of the last jews of Calcutta had painstakingly worked with a local university to create a little montage of memories. Actors, magicians, songwriters from the Jewish community who had become an essential part of the Calcutta way. We stood there, where the women would sit and prayer on the holy day of Saturday. When we looked down and saw ‘Mohammed Khaled’, Siraj’s father. A man gracefully dressed in the Navy blue blazer that was part of the Synagogue’s custom. He couldn’t talk as much, but his hands shivered into a warm welcome and questions of my well being.
Their family had come from a village that was five miles from Puri in Orissa. They had been caretakers of the synagogues for over a 100 years. ‘My father, his father and his father. Maybe his father also.’ Osim said, while looking at the synagogue’s colourful windows. Four generations of a Muslim family had come here and had taken care of these mighty walls and peaceful corridors, all a symbol of Jewish prosperity and well being, while the world went about their ways of tearing each other to pieces. As I wondered about how a family and a little jewish community had worked so beautifully together, an example that humanity well and truly exists, I saw Mohammed Khaled, Siraj Khan’s father sit silently in the last seat of the Synagogue, staring into its grand walls, playing the memories of echoing prayers through his vivid mind.
Just down the road from where Beth El synagogue lies a structure that was called the grandest Synagogue of the east. The Maghen David synagogue, built in 1884. A time when the Jews in the city were thriving. We made the short walk to find the entrance was even harder to spot through lines of little street shops that dotted its mighty red walls. The gate was locked here as well, all I had to do was smile and I saw the little figure of Rabul Khan slowly make his way to the gate. ‘I have been here all my life. I spend everyday cleaning every inch of this synagogue. It has to be ready by the time of prayer. I am completely devoted to what I do.’ he calmly said.
‘Some of our neighbours do ask us why we do this, they ask us why we serve the enemy. I tell them that we serve God. We serve people who treat us like their own. They have no animosity towards us and neither do we. It has simply been that way for a hundred years. It has been the way of life in the city since they came, since we came. We are all guests here and we will make them feel at home, just like they make us feel the same.’ said Anwar khan, another cousin of SK Osim.
The third synagogue Neveh Shalome is at the adjoining building. A relatively simple looking facade welcomes us as we see SK Masood standing at the little ladder that leads us to its door. ‘It used to be much grander before, now it has turned simple.’ he said. SK Masood was a relatively new caretaker as he had just newly married into the family. You would have imagined that someone new wouldn’t understand the wonderful sensitivities of this job, yet SK Masud Hossain was the most vocal of all the caretakers. He had taken a great interest in the Jewish faith and had drawn multiple comparisons to his own. ’There’s everything on the Internet’ he said, when he caught me looking surprised at his knowledge. I was more surprised when he said that. Of all the violence you can find on the internet of these two religions, of all those noises that have hijacked the voice of sanity professed in these religions, Masud had found all that was grand and sincere that came out of the Jewish faith. He took us on a tour of the ways of the Jewish faith when we told him that we weren’t Jewish. He told us that there were marriages in this particular synagogue. ‘It’s big enough just for your close family’, he ventured a thought. He told us about its walls, its windows, its little prayer rooms and the function of each door. He told us about the flame that burnt in the centre of the room, about the rabbis that came. I could have been in Israel if I simply closed my eyes, but I was in the heart of Kolkata and a Muslim man was narrating all the tenets of the Jewish faith.
The irony of his deep rooted wisdom was that there were only 20-25 members of the Jewish faith that lived in the city. A lot of the Jewish community had migrated from India soon after Independence and the formation of the state of Israel. Leaving only a handful of Jews in the city. The Jews need at least ten men to constitute a ‘Minyan’ a prayer that happens every Saturday. Yet the last time they had ten Jewish men in the same synagogue was in in 2005. That should have marked the beginning of the end for these beautiful synagogues and its deep rooted traditions, but Aline Mordecai Cohen, commonly known as Jo has ensured that she or one of the members of the community visits the synagogue once a week and burns the fire or the Tamid in hebrew as per Jewish traditions. It is the eternal flame that represent the light and goodness of God.
‘Muslims and Jews have worked together for as long as Muslims and Jews have been together in Calcutta and anyways I believe in people not ideologies. If people took the time to get to know each other just a little bit, there would be no more hate. That sense of acceptance and understanding is one of India’s greatest traditions’ Jo said. Her husband had migrated from Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1968 after the war in Israel had prompted violence against the Jews by radical Muslim elements. Yet there was no bad blood in his eyes. Most of his best friends were in fact muslim. Men who paid their respects when he died just last week after a much fulfilled life. Jo is now the secretary of the Jewish community affairs in Kolkata and she sits at the Jewish Girls school in which 90 percent of the students are Muslim. ‘We are only a remaining few Jews in the city, so we are looking at measures to protect our heritage and the people who care for them long after we are gone.’ Jo said.
The remaining 20-25 jews of Calcutta are mostly above the age of 70 and hence it becomes difficult for them to even come to the Synagogue and the light the Tamid or the eternal fire, the most essential ritual of the Jewish faith. It is also symbolic of the fading Jewish presence in the city. We asked the Muslim family of what they see as the future. They said that even their family is old and the younger folk in the family have moved to other jobs in the city. ‘Yet we will do our duty till it is time to retire and move back home.’ said Siraj Khan.
As all of Calcutta herself, there is a nostalgia in the synagogue that seems to be slipping away in its narrow windows and wide halls. Grand traditions of acceptance, of value and of understanding that could only thrive in a city such as this are now at its very end. An example for the world to live by, a lesson for the world to learn, is right here for everyone to see. The world is a measure of its people, believers in the choices of others. Making the truth as broad as possible so as to bring in one and all into a grand hallway filled with coloured windows and thoughtful chairs. Where the truth echoes far beyond its walls, like it has for over a hundred years now. We, me and you, of all faiths and reasons, makers of a million choices. It is us who need to ensure that this fire, the fire that represents all of us, this gentle humble fire remains.