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Remnants of Jewish Kolkata




shaheb – (India; also saheb, sahib; from the Hindi and Urdu sāhab, master; from Arabic ṣāḥib, companion; participle of ṣaḥiba, to become friends) 
1. formerly, a term of respect for any  male landowner
2. formerly, a term of respect for white European men during the British colonial era
3. (modern) any white person

Temple Beth-El built in 1856.

There only 25 Jews left in Kolkata but three large, old synagogues speak to their former vast numbers. They were Baghdadi Jews from the Middle East. Getting into these synagogues as an outsider is no easy feat. The Kolkata cabbies haven’t a clue nor do most native Kolkatans you ask.

You have to go to a certain bakery on the first floor of the historic New Market bazaar, get a phone number and call it, speak to a certain Jewish woman who’ll give you directions, then you go to the sites and mention her name to the groundskeepers so they know you’re legit, then they let you inside where you must be accompanied by a guide at all times. Suggested donation is 100 rupees (about $2.00).  I jumped through all of these hoops and it was well worth it.

We first step inside the Magen David (slideshow) synagogue built in 1884 and the guide, a slight Indian in his 30’s with a boyish face, sticks a yarmulke on my head. He barely speaks English. I barely speak Bangla. It goes like this:

The Magen David synagogue built in 1884.

ME: Amar nam Jeff. Apnar nam ki?

HIM: Arif. You Jewish?

ME: No, I just like houses of worship. Buddhist monasteries, mosques, everything. Are you Jewish?

HIM: No, I am Muslim.

Arif and I had fun hanging out and talking about our families. I mentioned that the last time I was in Kolkata two years ago I had visited and written about the profound spiritual experience I’d had at the Nakhoda Masjid for the Washington Post. His face lit up. “I go every Friday!” he smiled. We took a few photos together and parted ways.

Kolkata’s oldes and newest synagogue, the ” Old Synagogue,” official name Neveh Shalome. In 1825 a house was bought on this site and made into Kolkata’s first synagogue. It was demolished and rebuilt as the present one in 1911.

I next visited Neveh Shalome (slideshow) and Beth-el (slideshow), the other two synagogues in the same neighborhood,  and both also had Muslim guides and caretakers who were equally thrilled to have a visitor and clearly proud of their work in helping upkeep these historic places.

Mainstream news organizations only give us the extreme and the worst because they are in business to make money. Trite as it may seem, when you’re face to face with someone you remember that for the most part, despite our horror-centric daily news, people are people.

Happy New Year.

Four Pairs of Sandals as an Act of Faith

Jeffrey Stanley’s latest essay is in the Washington Post. A born again experience? In a mosque? With Allah? Why not.

May 15, 2013

On Faith

Four Pairs of Sandals as an Act of Faith

Walking a mile in another man’s shoes leads to kismet

by Jeffrey Stanley

Three years ago I got married to my wife in a traditional Hindu Bengali ceremony in Kolkata and spent three weeks touring the country. I bought a pair of sandals there which I wore throughout my trip and back home here in the States. This December my wife, our young son and I went back to India for a month to visit relatives. I brought my well-worn “India sandals” with me.  A week into the visit they broke irreparably and I tossed them. The location of their demise seemed appropriate — from India they had come and to India they would return. The next day while we were out sightseeing we stumbled upon a tiny shoe store, one of a zillion in Kolkata, where I found the perfect pair of replacement sandals. They were simple but unique enough that they suited me as a souvenir.

Nakhoda Masjid. Kolkata, West Bengal, India. January, 2013.

A few days later I struck out on my own for a sightseeing visit Nakhoda Masjid, the largest mosque in Kolkata, built in 1926. A billboard told me with no intended irony that this was Road Safety Week in India. Still the taxis, auto-rickshaws and pedestrians were up to their usual danse macabre.

After a requisite insane cab ride and a short walk down a crowded, narrow street full of screaming sidewalk merchants selling Muslim prayer rugs and other Islam-themed souvenirs I found the mosque. It was sparsely populated at that late morning hour. The Continue reading “Four Pairs of Sandals as an Act of Faith”