Calcutta


Calcutta (today Kolkata), capital of West Bengal State, N.E. India. The earliest association of Jews with Calcutta goes back to transient Jewish merchants, especially from Fort St. George (*Madras) who toward the end of the 17th century established commercial contacts with Bengal. One of the most prominent was Alvaro de *Fonseca . In the second half of the 18th century, Abraham Jacobs distinguished himself by providing food for the survivors of the "Black Hole" tragedy (1756). He is also mentioned as a confidential agent of the East India Company there. A permanent Jewish settlement came into existence only at the beginning of the 19th century when Arabic-speaking Jews from Syria and Iraq who had previously resided in *Surat settled in Calcutta. The first Jewish merchant to settle there was Shalom b. Obadiah ha-Cohen (d. 1836), originally from Aleppo, who, after a successful stay in Surat, arrived in Calcutta in 1798 and developed a profitable trade there in jewels and precious stones. In 1816 he became the court jeweler of the Muslim ruler Ghāzī al-Dīn Ḥayḍar and his son at Lucknow. Shalom ha-Cohen was soon joined in Calcutta by members of his family and business associates from Surat and *Bombay, among whom Jacob Ẓemaḥ Nissim figured prominently. With the arrival of Moses b. Simon Duwayk ha-Cohen and his family from Aleppo, Calcutta began to develop into one of the most prosperous and flourishing cultural and economic centers of Jewish life in India. Jews from Cochin and Yemen flocked there and took an active part in its development. There was a small *Bene Israel community in Calcutta as well.

The first synagogue built in 1831 in Calcutta was called Neveh Shalom in honor of its founder, Shalom ha-Cohen. It was followed by the Beth El in 1856 and then by Magen David, built in 1884 in memory of David Joseph *Ezra (d. 1882). Probably the largest synagogue in the East, it was an imposing landmark distinguished by its beautiful architecture, and had a fine collection of Torah scrolls. Elijah b. Moses Duwayk ha-Cohen served as spiritual leader of the Magen David congregation for over 50 years. Glimpses into the internal communal life are offered by the Judeo-Arabic diaries (Naurooz) of Shalom ha-Cohen, of Moses b. Simon Duwayk ha-Cohen (d. 1861), and of Eleazar b. Aaron Saadiah ʿIrāqī ha-Cohen (d. 1864), all preserved in the Sassoon Library, as well as by the accounts of Western visitors such as *Benjamin II (1850), Jacob *Saphir (1859ff.), Solomon Reinman (1884), and later emissaries and travelers. A central role in the development of Jewish life was played for many decades by Sir David and Lady Ezra and communal leaders such as Elias Meyer, the families Jehuda, Masliah, Jacob, *Gabbai , Elias, Kurlander, and others. Hospitals, synagogues, boys' and girls' schools, and other educational and charitable institutions were established. Calcutta Jewry included prominent lawyers, physicians, industrialists, and artists.

Prior to World War II, the Jews of Calcutta numbered around 5,000. In 1947, the violence of partition in which British India was divided into the then Dominion of Pakistan (later Pakistan and Bangladesh) and India was worse in Calcutta than in most parts of India. The Hindu-Muslim carnage, and the coinciding creation of the State of Israel in 1948, sent great numbers of Indian Jews into a migration West. The trend never reversed and in 2010 fewer than three dozen of Calcutta's over 12 million residents were Jewish.

See also: Synagogues of the World - India

[Walter Joseph Fischel]

Hebrew Printing

The first Hebrew printing press in Calcutta was founded in 1840 by Eleazar b. Aaron Saadiah ʿIrāqī ha-Cohen and continued until 1856. A scholar and poet, ʿIrāqī was an expert printer who probably cast his own type. The products of his press, some of them his own writings, are comparable with the best European productions of the time. Another press, operated by Ezekiel b. Saliman Hanin from 1871 to 1893, printed the Judeo-Arabic weekly Mevasser in Hebrew type from 1873 to 1878. This paper was followed by Peraḥ (1878–88), printed from 1871 by Elijah b. Moses Duwayk ha-Cohen. Two further weeklies, Maggid Meisharim (1889–1900) and Shoshannah (1901), were edited and printed by R. Solomon Twena, author of almost 70 works published by his own press.

[Avraham Yaari]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

I.A. Isaac, Short Account of the Calcutta Jews (1917); Ezra, in: South African Jewish Chronicle (Oct. 1929), 13–15; D.S. Sassoon, Ohel David, 2 (1932), 113 (Hebrew section); idem, in: JQR, 21 (1930/31), 89–150; idem, History of the Jews in Baghdad (1949), 209–16; A. Yaari, Ha-Defus ha-Ivri be-Arẓot ha-Mizraḥ, 2 (1940), 9–51; Fischel, in: REJ, 123 (1964), 433–98 (Eng.); idem, in: PAAJR, 33 (1965), 1–20. F. Elias and J.E. Cooper The Jews of Calcutta, An Autobiography of a Community, 1798–1972 (1974); E.N. Musleah, On the Banks of the Gangathe Sojourn of Jews in Calcutta (1975); M. Hyman, Jews of the Raj (1995). The Jerusalem Report.

Photo courtesy of HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library (© Jono David Media)