Meet the Muslim family who looks after a Jewish synagogue in India

Muslims have been the caretakers of the Magen David Synagogue in Kolkata, India for generations.

By Nina Strochlic
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:37 BST

More than half a century ago the pews of Kolkata’s stately synagogues were filled with members of a thriving Indian Jewish community. Today, the congregants are missing—less than two dozen remain—but multiple generations of Muslim families continue to maintain the houses of worship.

The first Jew to migrate to Kolkata was a Syrian jewel trader named Shalom Cohen in 1798. More followed, mainly from Iraq and Syria, opening businesses and exporting silk, indigo, and opium. In the mid- to late-1800s, synagogues were built to host the city’s 3,000 Jews. Famous movie stars and pageant queens came out of the minority group. Hybrid dishes were invented, blending Middle Eastern and Indian flavors. During World War II, Jews fleeing Europe sought refuge in Kolkata.

Before India gained independence from the British in 1947 there were nearly 5,000 Jews living in Kolkata. The community teemed with Jewish newspapers, schools, and businesses. But uncertainty about the country’s stability under the new government spurred an exodus from India. Many more left when Israel was founded, just one year later.

Today, only two dozen Jews live in Kolkata, according to the New York Times, but dedicated Muslim caretakers tend to the three active synagogues and their dwindling congregations. One patriarch, featured in this Short Film Showcase, has been a caretaker for 60 years. He now shares the work with his two sons. Without them, the last vestiges of a Jewish Kolkata could disappear.

In addition to the three synagogues, two schools—with no Jewish students—and a Jewish cemetery are in the city. The synagogues host more tourists than congregants, yet caretakers still recall days when the prayer sections were full.

The Muslim involvement isn’t incongruous in the tiny community. “Our grandparents always preferred to have Muslims here because they also worship God, or the Almighty, which we do too,” says Elisha Twena, secretary of one of the Jewish schools, in the short documentary. The two communities, both minorities in the Hindu country, grew up together. (Read about the friendship between a madrassa scholar and a Jewish reporter.)

"In Kolkata, Jewish families hired Muslim cooks because they ate only halal meat. Hindu families would not want to work in Jewish homes because of the meat being cooked,” Jael Silliman, a Jewish resident of Kolkata and founder of a digital archive about Jewish life in the city, told Al Jazeera. “Our music, food habits are also very similar and people tend to forget that the Arab world is the seat of the Jewish community. Even the early immigrants looked like present-day Arabs, before they began to reflect a Judeo-British identity."

With only a few aging members left, the last of Kolkata’s Jews fear that the community’s future will be a memory held by gravestones and fading street names. For now, the synagogues are kept afloat by donations and the dedication of the Muslim families who oversee them. "I’m not a god so I can’t predict what will happen 10 or 15 years from now,” says Rabul Khan, a second-generation caretaker for the Magen David Synagogue, “but I am hopeful, by the will and mercy of Allah, that this community will survive." (See 38 beautiful holy sites around the world.)

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