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)

Jael Silliman is an Associate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Iowa and the author of the new book Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women's Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope (Brandeis University Press, 2002). This immensely personal book chronicles Calcutta's little-known Jewish community through the lives of four generations of Jewish women in Silliman's family. It has been called "a fascinating account of the relationship between urban and national identities, the heterogeneity of the Jewish diaspora, cultural difference between colony and post-colony, and, above all, women's lives" by Gayatri Spivak. Asia Society spoke with Professor Silliman from her home in Iowa City.


As far as I understand, there are three distinct Jewish communities in India. Can you give a brief explanation of the history of each community? When did each community come to India and under what circumstances? How did the communities interact with each other in South Asia?

The Jews of Cochin are the oldest Jewish community in India. They are believed to have come as traders or as refugees from the siege of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago or more. They were a prosperous community of agriculturalists, soldiers and merchants and a few held high political office under the Hindu Maharaja. The second oldest Jewish community is the Bene Israel community, who supposedly were shipwrecked off the Konkan coast and settled in and around Mumbai way before the city existed. They assimilated into Hindu culture but maintained some Jewish observances that enabled them to be "discovered" much later and brought back into the Jewish mainstream.

I am from the Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta. The Baghdadis came to India during the British Raj and settled in Bombay, Calcutta and other port cities in Asia. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries the Baghdadi Jewish diaspora stretched from Baghdad to Shanghai and westwards to London.

There was very little interaction among the three distinct Jewish communities in India; they spoke different languages, observed different traditions and were products of very different cultures. They also lived in three very different regions of India. While the Baghdadi Jews of Bombay lived in close proximity with the Bene Israel there was very little interaction between them.

How is the history of the Baghdadi Jewish community in India tied into colonial history?

The Baghdadi Jews who came to India as traders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were responding to the new economic opportunities generated by colonialism. The community flourished under colonial rule. When the first Baghdadi Jewish settler, Shalome Cohen, arrived in Calcutta in the late 18th century, the British had identified Calcutta as an important commercial center. Calcutta's appeal was enhanced by its connection to both river and ocean traffic. The British had established the key economic institutions for trade to flourish and Fort William afforded Calcutta's merchants political protection and security in their business enterprises. Jewish traders made large fortunes in the opium trade and when that trade declined they invested in cotton and jute products as export staples. They were also involved in the cultivation, shipping, and sale of indigo, among other items.

The Baghdadi Jews partnered both Indian and European commercial interests. Their relationship with India and with colonialism was complicated; they played an exploitative role as outsiders in the economic colonization of India, while facilitating the colonial project. They were loyal to the British and when the British left they were unsure of their future in India. This led to a Jewish exodus that was propelled by the Second World War, Indian independence, and the formation of Israel. Today there are barely 30 Jews left in Calcutta though three impressive and large synagogues, two prayer halls, two schools, and a cemetery remain, along with a few stately mansions and street names. For the most part the Jewish presence has been written over by contemporary India and is visible to only those in search of it.

You have written that once you came to the US you identified much more with South Asian culture than with Jewish culture and that "Calcutta's Jews had a kind of colonial politics that embarrassed" you. Can you explain this?

I grew up in an independent India. By the '60s and the '70s there were only a handful of Jews left in Calcutta. I strongly identified with India and did not have any Jewish friends. Most of the Jews who I knew were the older members of the community who had stayed behind in Calcutta. These older members of the community who had grown up in a colonial world still had very colonial mentalities. Most had colonial ideas about race and placed themselves in the upper echelons of the social pyramid that structured social life in the colonies They wore dresses, did not identify with an "Indian India" and still lived in predominantly Jewish worlds. They did not mix with others and seemed very narrow-minded, outdated, and anachronistic to me. It was certainly not a world I wanted to be part of; it was a backward-looking rather than a forward-looking community and had little to offer me as a young person. I wanted to be part of the Indian mainstream and was full of idealism about India's future. I winced when my grandmother would refer to my friends casually as "natives."

How does the Judaism you grew up with differ (both religiously and culturally) from mainstream American (Ashkenazi) Judaism? What are the similarities?

I did not grow up in a very religious world. Though my home was Jewish and I was proud to be Jewish, I did not grow up as part of a Jewish community. Thus I was not very familiar with my own Jewish traditions or heritage. For me Judaism was more a form of identity than anything else. It fixed my location in a very plural society. While Jewishness set me apart and made me different, it also made me like everybody I knew. They too, like me, identified with being Indian as well as with the community to which they belonged, be that Christian, Parsi, Bengali, Punjabi or Marwari. Thus I would say that by the time I grew up I was very much like assimilated Jews in America today. This was strikingly different from the generations who preceded me who lived almost exclusively in Jewish worlds and identified primarily with Jewishness.

In India those Jews who studied in the Jewish schools had primarily Jewish educations and were very familiar with Baghadi Jewish traditions. However we did not have Sunday schools or religious teachings outside the schools. Religious observances were limited to going to services on the high holidays, keeping Passover, having Shabat dinners every Friday, etc. Our melodies for prayers were completely different from Ashkenazi melodies, as was our food. Our food is primarily Middle Eastern with an Indian influence. There are a few Calcutta specialties like aloo-makallah, which is a deep fried crisp potato that we eat on Friday nights.

I have often heard Indians proudly say that India is the one country where Jews have never been persecuted. Do you think this is an accurate assessment?

Yes, that is very accurate. In fact I would say that Jews have been treated with great respect in India and never been excluded from social or political life. When they have chosen to identify with India and serve the country they have achieved high political office and their Jewishness has never been a political or social bar. Socially, Jews have been members of exclusive clubs and societies and have not been restricted in any social spaces. They have thrived in their economic endeavors and been writers, artists, political commentators, film stars, army generals and even governors of prominence.

You called Calcutta's Baghdadi Jewish community "a diaspora of hope." What makes this diaspora hopeful? Did Indian Jews successfully avoid the horrors of the Holocaust?

I called our community a diaspora of hope because as the community moved from Baghdad to India and the Far East in the 18th and 19th centuries, and reconstituted themselves in the Western world by settling in Australia, England, Israel, the US, and Canada in the latter half of the 20th century, they advanced their social and economic positions in each of these moves. This diaspora of mobility and gain shows that diasporic processes do not have to be framed in terms of overwhelming loss, exile, and displacement. As the Baghdadi Jewish experience indicates, Jewish diaspora experiences are very varied. The European Jewish diasporic experience cannot be generalized to other communities that thrived in diaspora. The Calcutta Jews did not experience anti-Semitism even as the Holocaust raged in Europe. In fact the Baghdadi Jews provided shelter to several European Jews who escaped the Holocaust and lived in India. Several of those European Jews stayed on in Calcutta after the war and did very well for themselves and their families.

The book focuses on women in your family. What are the advantages of learning history from personal narratives? Are there any pitfalls? How did you research the book? Was the bulk of it gleaned from family stories or did you have to do a lot of outside research?

Learning history from the personal narratives of women enables the lives and voices of women that have never been heard or critically understood to emerge. One of the challenges of conducting this form of research has to do with ethical issues: what you can and cannot say about people's lives. This is especially complex when you are telling the story of members of your family and your concerns regarding how they and other family members will read your account of their lives. I relied heavily on oral histories as there are almost no written documents about their lives. My mother knew all the women portrayed and was critical in this writing. The book blends together my consciousness with my mother's, making it sometimes hard to separate one from the other. I began each portrait by asking my mother to tell me what she thought was most significant about each character and the time in which they lived. She provided me with a series of dates and notes. Starting from her telling and cursory notes I probed and pushed myself and her, moving each account in very different directions. Knowing I could not produce an "objective" account of their lives, I let my mother and other informants speak for themselves as much as possible so that readers may draw their own conclusions.

I have visited, interviewed and spent time with members of the community who knew or were related to the women whose lives I portray. I have cross-referenced and substantiated the family narratives with historical material, oral interviews with others members of the community, inside and outside experts as well as my own perceptions and experience of growing up Jewish in Calcutta.

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.