Recalling Jewish Calcutta

Sunday, May 19

Please note that the times are different from our usual schedule!

USA 9:00 am PT / 12:00 pm ET

UK 5:00 pm / France 6:00 pm / Israel 7:00 pm

The talk will last approximately 90 minutes

About this talk

With the use of slides and audio-visual images, I will present the story of our community, starting with the first Jew, Shalome Obadiah Ha Cohen came to Calcutta, then the seat of the British empire, to seek his fortune. Shalome, a direct ancestor of mine, kept a diary from 1789 - 1834, which I drew up to write and illustrate my recently published book, Shalome Rides A Royal Elephant (ages eight up). The book is a colourful account of his life and times which I will share to describe the foundation of the community, its core values and the trail that they blazed, not only in India but across "Jewish Asia."

Arabic-speaking Jews from the Middle East made Calcutta their home for two hundred years. Though small in number, never more than 4000 Jews, they made an indelible impression on the mercantile city. Much smaller numbers of members of the community lived and worked in the port cities that stretched from Basra to Shanghai establishing a powerful trading network that have also left a rich legacy which I will also reference.

The focus of the talk, however, will be on Calcutta. I will discuss how members of the community flourished in every field of endeavor - there were business magnates, sheriffs, religious scholars, movie stars, and teachers, and some even rose to the highest ranks of the Indian army. Though immensely successful in the multicultural city, and never facing any discrimination, I will underline the global events of the 1940s and 50's that led to an exodus from the city. There are only a handful of Jews left in Calcutta today but there are 3 synagogues, two of which are quite magnificent, 2 schools, and a sprawling cemetery which I will present and describe the current challenges we face.

About Jael

Jael Silliman was a tenured Associate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Iowa, USA. She was also a Program Officer at the Ford Foundation, New York. She is the author of several books, scholarly papers and popular articles for newspapers and magazines on gender, development, race, social justice and women's rights issues. She writes about her community - the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta. Her books relating to Kolkata cultural history include Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women's Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope, two novels, The Man With Many Hats and The Teak Almirah and numerous scholarly as well as popular articles. Her most recent co-authored publication is Where Gods Reside: Kolkata's Sacred Places and Adda! The College Street Coffee House. She now lives mostly in Kolkata.