Leaving Kolkata

Photographer Ashok Sinha captures the tiny and disappearing Jewish community in his hometown

Keeping watch Muslim and Hindu caretakers oversee the Magen David Synagogue in Kolkata, India. (Ashok Sinha)

With the exception of Friday Sabbath, Kolkata’s Magen David Synagogue is almost always closed. When the doors do open, occasionally someone enters, lights a candle, and prays. But mostly, the Magen David sits quietly. Upstairs, the balcony is lined with rows of dusty wooden chairs and pews, leftovers from the synagogue’s last service in 2013. (The most recent, prior service took place in 1988.)

Soft, sandled footsteps do sometimes echo through the main hall, but they belong to the caretakers—who are Muslim and Hindu, not Jewish. These days, it’s hard to find a Jew in Kolkata. The bustling capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is home to some 14 million people. Most are Hindu, some are Muslim, and a few are Christian, Jain, and Buddhist. So small is Kolkata’s Jewish population that it doesn’t even appear in the city’s census. Yet tucked into corners of the city are the Magen David and other synagogues and Jewish schools, remnants of another era.

The Jewish community there was never large. In the first half of the 20th century, there were about 3,500, and that number swelled to 5,000 during World War II, as Jews fled Europe. The population was small, but prosperous. They established newspapers, traded in indigo and silk, built schools and synagogues, and created a trust to ensure the longevity of those institutions.

Today, just over 20 Jews remain, which is why many Kolkatans don’t even know they’re there. Ashok Sinha, a New York-based photographer who grew up in Kolkata, didn’t know until August 2013, when he returned for a weeklong visit. A friend familiar with Sinha’s interest in issues of identity and multiculturalism suggested he try to find members of the disappearing community.

Sinha’s interest was piqued, and he began looking for the city’s Jews. At first, he could only find one: Shalome Israel, the groundskeeper for Kolkata’s Jewish cemetery. Israel had been planning a move to—appropriately enough—the country of Israel, and would have already left had he not been delayed by a hospital stay. Sinha and Israel walked through the cemetery, Israel’s dog Musafa bounding alongside, and got to know each other. Sinha asked if he could take Israel’s picture, and he agreed.

Over the next year, Sinha maintained his connection with Israel, hoping he would stay in Kolkata until Sinha could return to take more photos. When Sinha finally returned in August 2014, Israel became Sinha’s guide. He took him inside the synagogues, normally closed to non-Jews, and spoke to him about his sense of identity. How does it feel, Sinha wondered, to watch your community slowly disappear? When everyone is gone, what happens to your culture?

Israel’s answer is that even when every Jew in Kolkata is gone, their mark on the city will endure. Even now, the city’s two Jewish schools are full, although not with Jewish children. Funded by the trust, the subsidized schools are a boon to many poor Hindu and Muslim families who can’t afford private schools but want their children to have a better education than they can get in the generally failing public schools.

Israel has made his planned move, but for him and other Jews of Kolkata, that education is key. The institutions they built will continue to serve the community, their legacy surviving in the hands of Hindu teachers and the padded footsteps of Muslim caretakers.

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Christie Chisholm is a CJR senior editor. Follow her on Twitter at @c_chisholm. This story was published in the January/February 2015 issue of CJR with the headline, "Before it's gone."