In India, A Struggle To Pass Down Passover

Originally published on April 18, 2011 7:07 am

Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media. He recently moved back home to India, and he's discovering some things he wasn't aware of growing up — like the country's tiny Jewish community. There are only 4,000 Jews left in all of India, and just dozens in Calcutta.

Nahoum and Sons bakery is part of the Calcutta of my childhood. It still has all the goodies I loved as a boy, like brownies, macaroons and plum cake.

Jagadish Halder, who has worked there for over 30 years, tells me proudly that the decor has not changed since 1911. I believe it. What I never knew as a boy was that Nahoum was a kosher bakery. Halder says once it made a lot of Jewish delicacies. But now, he sees fewer Jewish clients every day.

In fact, there are fewer than two dozen Jews left in Calcutta, most of them elderly. Once 5,000 strong, they came here as traders from Iraq and Syria. There's still a Jewish girls school, but without a single Jewish girl. Most of the students are Muslim now. Flower Silliman, who is 81 years old, is a graduate of the school. This year she's helping explain Passover to the students — with a little help from Charlton Heston and The Ten Commandments.

Silliman describes to students how Moses led the Jews out of Egypt in such a rush, they didn't have time to let the bread rise. She reminisces about the Passovers of her childhood — the smell of freshly baked unleavened matzo wafting into the school from the synagogue across the street.

Silliman, now the memory keeper of her community, took me to visit some of the synagogues left in Calcutta.

They are grand but no longer functioning. After World War II, American troops came here for Yom Kippur. Now vendors selling plastic bangles block the gate of one synagogue. Sparrows fly between the columns of the other.

Jews here didn't suffer the horrors of anti-Semitism they faced in Europe. In India, their cooks were Muslim, their colleagues Hindu, their neighbors Christian. But the tiny community never became fully Indian.

When Silliman started donning Indian clothes, her mother told her not to wear them. Doing anything that was deemed as "too Indian" was looked down upon.

Perhaps that separateness saved them after India's independence, when bloody riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims. Silliman saw a mob attack a pregnant woman. When she tried to help, she was told it wasn't her problem, as she was neither Hindu nor Muslim.

"That shows how we were immune, and yet we were not empowered to do anything," she says.

Silliman still wonders what happened to that woman. After the turmoil of independence, Jews started leaving India, while the birth of Israel spurred another exodus.

Silliman sometimes dreams of one last grand reunion of the diaspora of Calcutta. But she knows that's not going to happen. Not this Passover, anyway.

This year, she, Nahoum and another gentleman will sit down together for a small seder, for old times' sake.

And her matzo will come in a packet from Israel.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

All over the world, Jews begin celebrating Passover tonight with the Seder dinner. About 4,000 Jews live in India, though there are only a tiny number in Calcutta. Commentator Sandip Roy recently moved back to Calcutta and discovered a community he never even knew existed.

SANDIP ROY: Nahoum and Sons bakery is part of the Calcutta of my childhood. They still have all the goodies I loved as a boy.

JAGADISH HALDER: Brownies and macaroons and the light plum cake

ROY: Jagadish Halder, who's worked here for over 30 years, tells me proudly the decor has not changed since 1911. I believe it. What I never knew as a boy was that Nahoum was a kosher bakery. Halder says once they made a lot of Jewish delicacies.

HALDER: Now, Jewish members are less, less day by day.

ROY: Eighty-one-year old Flower Silliman is a graduate of the school. This year, she's helping explain Passover to the students, with a little help from Charlton Heston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS")

CHARLTON HESTON: (as Moses) Arise, all Israel. Behold the dawn of freedom.

ROY: Silliman, now the memory keeper of her community, takes me to visit some of the synagogues left in Calcutta.

FLOWER SILLIMAN: These two are the last two.

ROY: They are grand but no longer functioning. After World War II, American troops came here for Yom Kippur. Now vendors selling plastic bangles block the gates of one synagogue. Sparrows fly between the columns of the other.

SILLIMAN: And they used to have alternate Sabbaths. They had the prayers in each one, because there were not enough people to run two services. And then that also stopped. You had to have quorum of 10 men before you can have a service. There are not 10 men to come.

ROY: Jews here didn't suffer the horrors of anti-Semitism they faced in Europe. In India, their cooks were Muslim, their colleagues Hindu, their neighbors Christian. But the tiny community never became fully Indian.

SILLIMAN: You know, in fact, when I started wearing Indian clothes my mother said, no, you shouldn't wear that. And I said to her why, the English clothes that you're wearing are not your clothes anyway. They didn't allow us to do anything that was too Indian.

ROY: Perhaps that separateness saved them after India's independence, when bloody riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims. Silliman saw a mob attack a pregnant woman.

SILLIMAN: I said stop. They said to us, You stay out of this. This is not your problem. This is between Hindus and Muslims, you are neither. And if you don't stay out we'll kill you, so please go. And that shows how we were immune and yet we were not empowered to do anything.

ROY: After the turmoil of independence, Jews started leaving India. The birth of Israel spurred another exodus.

SILLIMAN: We vanished. At least we didn't vanish because of anti-Semitism, because all that, India can be proud to say that the Jews left because they wanted to leave and nobody told them to go.

ROY: Flower Silliman sometimes dreams of one last grand reunion of the Diaspora of Calcutta. But she knows that's not going to happen. Not this Passover, anyway.

SILLIMAN: This year, I think me and Mr. Nahoum and one more old gentleman, older than us, are going to sit down together - and if you can call that a Seder, I don't know - three of us. But we'll do it just for old time's sake.

ROY: And her matzo will come in a packet from Israel.

LOUISE KELLY: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.