Calcutta's dwindling Jewish community has one last guardian
Shalom Israel maintains Jewish landmarks in the Indian port city once home to 5,000 Jews.
CALCUTTA, India - The stooped man in the yarmulke fights his way through this chaotic city, the weight of generations heavy upon his shoulders.
He squeezes past tea stalls and sidewalk electricians, past idle rickshaws and honking cars. He edges through rows of vendors selling sparkly hair clips and, finally, pushes open a rusty gate hidden from the street.
Today is the Sabbath, and Shalom Israel, one of the last Jews of Calcutta, has reached a cobwebbed synagogue, a once-grand building with imposing doors that nearly always stay shuttered, and spires that soar up toward the monsoon clouds.
Israel comes every Friday to light a candle, say a prayer, and check on the three synagogues still standing, however precariously, as relics of a passed era of plenty. Most weeks, he is the only visitor.
There were once 5,000 Jews living in this teeming port city, but today, as the Jewish New Year approaches, there are fewer than 35. Israel, 38 with a thin beard, is the youngest by nearly 25 years.
Israel lives inside the only place left where Jews aren't a minority - the Jewish cemetery. He cares for the graves of his father, his great-grandparents, his uncles and his aunts, along with more than 2,000 other Jewish tombs.
He also tends to the two dozen Jewish elders still living, handles the last rites when they die, and, to stay kosher, butchers his own meat.It's not easy being the last of your people.
"It's only a matter of time before people die or leave," said Israel. "There is no future ... The inevitable, I can't fight."
Indeed, repopulating the community would be tough. There aren't many unmarried Jewish women in Calcutta - Israel is single and doesn't know any women younger than 60. His sister married a Hindu, for which the elders shunned her. The last Jewish wedding anyone can remember was in 1982.
He is weary from Calcutta's midsummer heat, and from the responsibility of caring for his ancestors' legacy. He's well aware that a centuries-old community will likely die with him, but he sees nothing to do but tend to its remnants and blow on the fading embers.
"I've seen what the community was. To see the way it is now..." He trails off mid-sentence.
Israel survives on a combination of odd jobs, but his health is poor, his nerves frayed by his multiple responsibilities. He usually keeps his skullcap in his pocket because he tires of explaining its significance, but at the end of the day, when he's in a taxi heading back to his solitary shed inside the cemetery, he takes it out and puts it on, exhaling for what seems like the first time all day.
In this country of 1.1 billion people, there are believed to be roughly 5,000 Jews - not enough to be counted as a distinct group in the Indian census. Jews first came to India as traders some 250 years ago, and today their largest community is in Mumbai, the country's most cosmopolitan city.
Calcutta's first Jews are thought to have come in the late 18th century, descendants of the Baghdad Jews who came from Syria, Iran and Iraq. They thrived as diamond traders, real estate dealers, exporters, spice wholesalers, and bakers - one Jewish bakery famous for its plum cakes still stands, run by the founder's octogenarian grandson. Rickshaws and taxis still ply Synagogue Street and other roads named for prominent Jews.
The Jewish community built at least five synagogues and two schools. Today, there are 700 students at the Elias Meyer Free School and Talmud Torah. Not one is Jewish, and nothing particularly Jewish is taught there.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Calcutta was a bustling, raucous hub, and Jews formed a solid minority, their wedding parties and religious feasts flowing down the temple steps. Jews were players at the popular horse track - Israel remembers his father's racehorses, Onslaught, War Dance and Black Toy - and they were regulars at the fashionable restaurants. Jews rarely faced discrimination, mainly because "no one knew who we were," said Ian Zackariah, 64.
As a community, "We were too small to bully," he said. "There were so many other people to beat up - Hindus vs. Muslims, high castes vs. lower castes. Who's going to pick on us?"
The birth of independent India in 1947, and the creation of Israel the following year, marked the beginning of the end for Calcutta's Jews. Many left for the new Jewish state; others moved to Europe or the United States in search of better business opportunities.
Some stayed behind, but life was different. During services, women left the temple balcony, where they used to sit in keeping with Jewish custom, and sat with the men in the main hall - the synagogue felt too empty otherwise. Slowly, the Jewish butchers put away their knives, the bakers turned off their ovens, the teachers boxed up their Hebrew books.The stalwarts stayed to care for their aging parents, to raise their children or simply because Calcutta was home.
Aline Cohen, 62 was born after the community's heyday, but she still remembers rowdy festivals and packed synagogues. Now, there aren't enough able-bodied men to form a minyan, the quorum necessary for services, and no one but Israel regularly visits the temples. The Jews rarely get together except at funerals, and sometimes not even then.
"It is lonely," said Cohen, whose three children were raised in Calcutta but have since left. "We all have non-Jewish friends, but...there's a spiritual loneliness. You miss Sabbath services.... You miss the feeling of community."
Shalom Israel never really knew what it was to be part of a community. His only Jewish peers are his younger brother, who is preparing to move to Israel, and his younger sister.
Israel lives in a small, cluttered shed inside the Jewish cemetery, just steps from his father's grave. Visitors may find the arrangement macabre, but he says it offers him peace inside a frenzied city.
"I find the living more dangerous to deal with than the dead," he jokes. "I have very easy neighbors."
Cohen worries about Shalom Israel and what will happen to him after the elders are gone. She says he should move to Israel, but he won't."If I go to Israel when I'm 40 or 50, what's the point?" he said.Besides, he says, the Jews of Calcutta need him.
He ticks off his to-do list: take several elders to the doctor, take others to the dentist, take another to a hearing test; check on the temples, trim the overgrown cemetery foliage, visit the infirm living alone.
He gets paid by the community for all this, but he says the work is important not because of the money but because "it gives me meaning, a matter of belonging."
"The community is dwindling to almost nothing," he said. "I am trying to keep it surviving as much as I can."
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