Covid-19 pandemic, which has been writing our fate with irony, has also not spared the Jewish community in Kolkata, who are presently observing the Passover ~ a period marked by liberation ~ in lockdown.
The Jewish event that calls for exultation is instead being observed in isolation at homes than in the Kolkata synagogues which now stand as silent observers at Canning Street and Pollock Street in the northern part of the city.
Kolkata served as a humble abode to heterogeneous communities and likewise, has its fair share of Baghdadi Jews who travelled to the city from Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Recalling the past, Mrs Aline Mordecai Cohen, who belongs to the Baghdadi Jewish community, told The Statesman, “The community in Kolkata is more than 220 years old. Jews arrived here and prospered in trade and commerce but in the time periods post Second World War, Indian independence, and with Israel coming into being, most members of the community migrated.”
The Passover, which is observed for eight days and will end on 16 April, marks the liberation of Jews from slavery in Egypt, followed by their exodus from the country.
Narrating how the Passover is usually celebrated in the city and how different is it this year, Mrs Cohen, said, “At present, there are only heads of 20 Jewish families, all senior citizens, who are residing in the city. We gather on the first night of the Passover for dinner, known as Seder. The food tradition depends on whether one is an Ashkenazi or a Baghdadi Jew. Unleavened flat-bread (matzo) is a must. However, the number of people in our community kept dwindling with time and this year, because of the Covid-19 lockdown, we are observing it in our homes, in isolation.”
She pointed out that a Rabi and his wife, who was posted in Kolkata, used to conduct prayer services in the synagogue every Saturday but right before the Covid-19 lockdown came into effect, they fortunately were able to return to Israel.
“We do not know when the gates of the synagogues will re-open for prayers.”
The Statesman, in its survey of the Maghen David Synagogue (photo), located at the junction of Brabourne Road and Canning Street, found a row of closed makeshift stalls that line the sides of the pavement and on which, some vendors were taking a nap on a hot and sultry afternoon.
It is however difficult to miss the sight of a gargantuan brick-red structure with yellow hues and an embedded giant clock. The tall spire of the synagogue, jutting out towards the sky, seemed, as if it were poking the heavens to wake the gods into consciousness in these desperate times.
The Magen David Synagogue that was built in 1884, now remains shut. The caretaker walked up to the gates in an indulgent manner to confirm the closure of the synagogue since the lockdown came into effect.
Similar was the sight of Beth-El (House of God) Synagogue at Pollock Street where though no prayers are being offered at present, wishes are being fulfiled in the form of food packets for the poor, distributed from a Kolkata Police van, parked in front of the locked gates of the synagogue.
The structure that came up in 1856, exudes an ambience of the past era with Jewish symbol ~ ‘Star of David’ – painted on its outer walls in blue. A flight of stairs leading to the closed triptych doors were visible through the gaps between spear-like iron rods that fortified the premises.
Despite isolation being the prime guideline that now rule our lives, it has not been able to snap certain ties like that of Mrs Cohen with Kolkata. She admitted that the thought of migrating from this city never appealed to her ever since she set her foot in the City of Joy in the 60s.
All these years, she has engaged herself in community services and was quick to point out that she has observed this city morph, with clocks ticking by. Though it might be too early to bid goodbye to the pandemic till we have a definite vaccine, we certainly can never bid Shalom, as a parting note, to this community which is rooted in the chromosomes of Kolkata.