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.
The synagogues host more tourists than congregants, yet caretakers still recall days when the prayer sections were full.
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.