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Jael Silliman: Bringing India's Jews to Light

Indian Jews singing hymns at the Judah Hyam Hall Synagogue in New Delhi on September 4, 2003. (Findlay Kember/AFP/Getty Images)

Indian Jews singing hymns at the Judah Hyam Hall Synagogue in New Delhi on September 4, 2003. (Findlay Kember/AFP/Getty Images)

To what extent did Indian Jewish communities maintain their distinct identity and to what extent did they assimilate into mainstream Indian culture?

The Calcutta Jewish community till the mid-20th century strictly maintained their Jewish identity and drew impermeable borders between themselves and the other communities that engulfed them. They lived for the most part in close proximity to other Jewish families, went to Jewish schools, attended Jewish social functions and inter-marriage was taboo. This social segregation was commonplace in the Indian and colonial environment of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries where the compartmentalzation of difference was pervasive among all communities. As a religious community, the Baghdadi Jews were always worried about assimilation. They emphasized their foreign origin and their religion to distinguish themselves from the dominant Hindu and also the minority Muslim and Christian communities. They distanced themselves from India and Indian culture. However they were well integrated in the economic system and occupied that space between Brown and White in the colonial period. Neither British nor Indian, they clung tenaciously to their Jewish identity. However, they cultivated and enjoyed good social relationships with their Indian and British counterparts.

Can you unpack the term "Jewish Asia"? Where are there other Jewish communities in Asia and how were they connected culturally?

Throughout what I call "Jewish Asia" refers to this string of Baghdadi communities who carried out their business ventures and community life in key financial and port cities. The Jews within each of these communities were few in number and were sustained by the other Jews in Basra, Rangoon, Bombay, Karachi, Singapore, and Shanghai who provided each other religious, financial and social support. Thus this scattered and small, interdependent community of Baghdadi Jews provided one another with the business links as well as the cultural and religious resources they needed. Travelers and goods moved up and down this network. Women moved from one community to another in search of marriage partners and entire families moved up and down this vast geographic space to be part of family celebrations: weddings, brits [circumcision ceremonies]. and bar mitzvahs. Marriages, commercial news, and business ties welded the small communities into an important economic and cultural presence in the East.

In the US, Jewish studies has previously been dominated by Ashkenazim and by the experience of the Holocaust. Why is it important for other Jewish voices to be heard?

By constantly privileging the Ashkenazi Jewish experience, the histories of other Jewish communities are erased. The diversity of experience among Jews is obliterated and we are not able to imagine worlds where anti-Semitism does not exist. An understanding of Jewish life in Calcutta, where many diverse communities thrived, provides new insights into how multiculturalism operates. Multiculturalism was a way of life in Calcutta. It is important for this minority narrative to be heard in India today.

Why was now an important time to write this book? Does the imposing presence of the BJP and the rise of anti-minority sentiment in India underscore the importance of this book?

These minority narratives testify to India's plural past, in which many communities flourished. Telling these stories today is particularly relevant not only to understand India's past, but her future. Such accounts resist efforts to communalize India's past and present and stand in contrast to contemporary histories that are being rewritten to serve sectarian agendas. Though the Calcutta Jews were small in number, they played a significant role in shaping the cultural and economic contours of the city, as did Parsis, Armenians, Chinese, and other minority communities. Calcutta became a great city because its history was molded by many different communities and its interactions with the outside world. It is important to underline the role of minority communities in the development of India, especially today when anti-minority sentiment is on the rise and being used for political objectives.

What has happened to Calcutta's Jewish community today?

There are barely any Jews left in Calcutta today. I returned from Calcutta last week and heard that an older member of the community, a well-known restaurant owner, had passed away. There were not the ten men needed for the minyan [a Jewish prayer group requiring ten male Jews]. There are rumors in the city that the well-known Jewish confectioner Nahoums in the New Market will soon be selling out. The synagogues are immaculately maintained as they are run on Jewish Trust Funds. The Jewish Girls School in the heart of Calcutta has no Jewish girl attending it. As I said earlier as well, the Jewish presence has been written over by contemporary India and is now only visible to those in search of it.

For those who grew up in Calcutta when there was a thriving Jewish community, there is a nostalgia about the Jewish presence. People write to me after reading the book about Jewish friends they knew, businesses they patronized, and often ask me incredulously why the Jews left this city where they prospered and were always so welcome.

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell of Asia Society.