A few weeks before we left Chicago, our friend Phyllis sent us a link to a New York Times piece on the Last Jews of Kolkata: http://nyti.ms/16uNqze.The article featured Jael Silliman, who, it turns out, taught for a while at the University of Iowa. The Chair of her department was Ellen Lewin, one of my high school friends. I am convinced that one of the positive things about aging is that sooner or later you know or are connected to absolutely everyone in the world.
So the other day, we met Jael and visited the two remaining synagogues in Kolkata. Jael’s family came to Kolkata as traders in the 1790s (!) It was a small but thriving community of about 3,000 at its peak. Jael is involved with locating all photographs and documents pertaining to the Jewish community, especially from the 1930s-’40s. The shul is now watched over by several devoted Muslim caretakers. One of the many astonishing things about Kokata, is that not only is there no anti-Semitism, they absolutely love Jews. Anyone who finds out that we’re Jewish is ecstatic. Jael tells a story about a Hindu friend who asked her to buy her a mezuzah. When Jael remarked that her friend wasn’t Jewish, she replied “If God can protect your home, why can’t he protect mine?” She bought her a mezuzah.
Jael also took us to a wonderful exhibit on Indigo, showcasing the work of a local shop. The Harrington Street gallery is one of many superb spaces we’re being introduced to in Kolkata. The exhibit also drew a connection between the significance of Indian indigo used in African mourning rituals (and grown on Southern plantations) and blues music, something I had never thought about. It was admittedly strange, hearing American blues music playing in the gallery, standing next to an Indian Jew, looking at brilliantly done fabrics, with the sounds of car horns and Indian street vendors coming from below. But these kinds of juxtapositions are what make Kolkata the vibrant place it is. You just never know what unthought of combination lies around the next corner.
Jael then took us to her apartment, a huge, old place filled with art. Her 83 year old mother, Flower, lives with her and was equally engaging. She’s been featured in an NPR segment and numerous magazine articles. A few days later, we went to the book launch for her latest cookbook. She had earlier done one called ‘Around the World with a Skillet.’ Jael also says that Kolkatans frequently come up to her asking “Can’t you please bring back our Jews? We miss them!” Jews had left by attrition, not massacre, an unusual and welcome phenomenon in our history. They were concerned about partition, Britain had open immigration, Israel called, they thought the word was changing and opportunities lie elsewhere. So they left. There are about 30 Jews now in a city of 14 million. Make that 32, at least for the next four months.
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