In search of a lost world…

Nahoum’s! Does that ring a bell? Well, for confectionary lovers, it is bound to…for the nostalgic Kolkatan, it is bound to! I mean, who has not tasted something, anything from Nahoum’s at least once in their life, and still calls oneself a true blue Kolkatan? Ok, hang on, if you think this post is about the history, geography, menu, prices and other information about Nahoum’s, then you are mistaken. This is a story of a visit to three of the oldest synagogues in Kolkata and that’s where Nahoum’s comes in. This 115-year-old Jewish Bakery set up by Nahoum Israel Mordecai, a Baghdadi Jew living in Kolkata. Nahoum Saab, David Elias Nahoum, the third-generation owner of the store was last of the most benevolent and active members of the Jewish community till he passed away in 2013, as Masood informed us. Masood and his father-in-law are entrusted with the maintenance of Naveh Shalome and Maghen David synagogues respectively. For more than three generations, Muslim caretakers have been diligently maintaining these beautiful places of worship, in Kolkata. You read it right! That is just the tip of the iceberg of the spirit that is Kolkata!

So, onward from Tirreta Bazaar, on our walk across the city, we headed towards the synagogues of Kolkata. Walking down Parsee Church Street towards Ezra Street, tucked behind one cluster of particularly jazzy looking chandeliers, stands the derelict old Parsi Fire Temple. The first fire temple of the city, consecrated in 1839 by Seth Rustomji Cowasjee Banajee, a pioneering shipbuilder and a close friend of Prince Dwarakanath Tagore, today stands hidden and decrepit, serving only as a storage dump for the adjoining electrical stores, with the expensive marble floor coated with grime and dust, and even scooped out and sold in parts. old fire temple

As a lone pigeon welcomes us till the gates that have been shut for formal ceremonies  since 1989, a much-labored peek inside the dark hall that once used to be the formal prayer hall for more than a century, wrenches us to think how a once-out-of-bounds thriving prayer hall made warm and bright by the holy fire now stands dark and cold and in a shambles. With the tall gothic pillars standing mute spectators of a history dating back centuries, we leave the premises with a heavy heart trying to estimate how long this architectural marvel can survive this neglect and misuse.

Not too far away from this neglected monument, however, stands the first of our destinations – the Beth-El Synagogue. Standing right across the street from the mysteriously chained gates of the Pollock Street post office, the magnificent façade of Beth-El is one of the most welcome sights. Second in age among the synagogues of Kolkata, Beth-El was built in 1856 jointly by David Joseph Ezra (yes, the Ezra of Ezra Street) and Ezekiel Judah as one of the foremost places of worship for the Jews of Kolkata. Literally translating to “House of God” in Hebrew, this magnificent structure is now a heritage monument and rightfully so.

beth el synagogue

The flight of marble stairs, with the stained-glass arch on top, crowned by the traditional “Menorah” in the centre and a number of “Star of David” etched in blue on the pale-yellow façade instantly offers a sense of peace and calm. Identity proofs signed, the men in our group were each given a Kippah to cover their heads, as the very knowledgeable caretaker explained how they have meticulously been preserving the  Torah, though it has probably not been used in ages and how every Shabbath they light the candles in the synagogue in keeping with the religious customs. It is most astonishing how, even after the services having stopped long ago, the Muslim caretakers religiously observe the Jewish religious festivities. The interior of the Synagogue is not something that can be described merely in words. As sun rays of different colour streaming in through the stained-glass windows bounced off gleaming chandeliers casting colourful patterns on the chequered marble floor, we could just sit there in silence and soak ourselves in the calming peace of the enormous hall.

The peace seemed even more otherworldly the moment we climbed down the stairs and stepped out once more to continue on our journey, the only solace being the fact that the next two stops – Neveh Shalome and Magen David synagogues were sure to offer the same experience – a most welcome feeling, we all agreed as we headed towards the eternally crowded Brabourne Road. If you have ever been to this part of the city, you are perhaps smiling to yourself, but if you have not, well, like everything else in life, this is also a ‘must do’! With more cars than humans trying to bypass each other in a ‘traffic signal less’ (we didn’t notice any, especially because it is perpetually a one-way road) zone, the unassuming structure of the Neveh Shalome Synagogue looks so near, and yet so far! Here we met Masood, who was like an encyclopedia on Jewish culture in Kolkata. And rightfully so! He is the third generation of caretakers maintaining these peace abodes! From the way we were looking at it from across the road, Masood, standing on the terrace guessed our destination and as we tried to figure out the almost-lost-behind-the-hawkers entrance to the place, Masood came down the stairs to welcome us to the oldest synagogue in Kolkata.

neveh shalome

Another round of ID proof and handing and putting on Kippahs led us to the very heart of history. Dating back to 1831, Neveh Shalome was built as the first synagogue in the city by Shalom Obaidah Ha-Kohen, named in memory of his father Shalom Ha-Cohen. Built as a simple prayer hall for the then small Jewish community in the city, the prayer hall soon failed to suffice the growing and flourishing community. With the attention shifting to Beth El soon, Neveh Shalome was shifted to its present location in 1910, making way for the magnificent Magen David synagogue. The simplest of the three, Neveh Shalome alone has a wedding altar or Chuppah, that Masood informed us has been last used in 1982. Fortunately, there was an exhibition going on where we could also see a Ketubah or a marriage contract. The exhibition was like a journey through time showing how a once thriving community that had commanded a large section of the city now has only about 20 members left. Masood also took us to the terrace where he puts up a decorated Sukkah during Sukkot between the 13th and 20th of October every year just a fortnight after Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year celebrated on the 1st October. Smaller than Beth El, and most certainly Magen David, Neveh Shalome offered its own quiet charm that we carried with us right across the courtyard to the compound of the might and gorgeous Magen David Synagogue, translating roughly to “the Shield of David”.

Saving the best for the last, we were humbled by the magnanimous peace that reigned in this more than a century old house of worship. As one of my friends rightly said, “If God was to be found somewhere, it sure is here!” The quiet grandeur of this prayer hall could have never been fathomed as it stood quietly behind an office building on Brabourne Road with just the spires rising from the top of this non-descript red brick monument. It is almost as if they mock the traveler from outside saying, dare to come in and then let me see you ignore me! It is not until the elderly caretaker opened the doors that we could catch the glimpse of the grandeur that left us spellbound for a few minutes.

maghen david 2The magnificent stained-glass windows, casting colourful designs on the exquisitely polished marble floors… the podium standing right in the middle of the hall (the Rabbi, generally speaks from this podium addressing people sitting all around, on rare occasions when there is a minyan or a gathering of a minimum of 10 adult men) with its intricate woodwork in shining black, gilded with golden rims, fitted with ornate candelabras, century-old fans, and spherical light globes… an Apse crowning an altar painted in dark shades with stars right behind a raised platform… it all looked straight out of a storybook describing exquisite Italian and European architecture. The Apse, with Hebrew inscriptions and iconography and tablets depicting the “Ten Commandments” covers three curtained doors that hold the sacred Torah scrolls.

maghen david 1

A steep staircase moves straight up to the terrace that offers a most stunning view of the city, now unnaturally populated, that once must have been sparsely dotted with spires and domes of churches, synagogues, temples, mosques that reside harmoniously within a five square kilometer area of one of the primary and most Europeanised city in the country. As we sat facing the Apse on the first-floor rows, tales of a time long gone floods our senses as yet again we feel the presence of the Almighty, in whatever form we may want to feel. Sitting here, I feel proud to live unique heritage zone in a city that graciously accommodates and embraces almost 7 religions and close to 15 or more communities that, anywhere else in the world, would not be able to live in harmony.

More on the walk covering some more unique locations in the city.

Picture courtesy: Shameek Sarkar, Shibaji Banerjee, Aritra Ganguli, Sanchari Sur

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