In eastern India’s Kolkata, synagogues are managed by Muslim caretakers. The Israel war won’t change that, they say.
Published On 9 Nov 2023
Kolkata, India – The afternoon sun streams through tall stained-glass windows into the Maghen David Synagogue in the city of Kolkata, the capital of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.
Anwar Khan, in his starched white uniform, with the name of the synagogue embroidered on his breast pocket, is at work. He puts the ornately polished teakwood chairs with well-kept rattan seats in symmetrical lines. Visitors to the synagogue are rare these days as there are very few Jewish people left in the sprawling city.
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But that doesn’t dim Khan’s diligence or pride in his job. The 44-year-old is the synagogue’s chief caretaker. He dusts, sweeps and swabs to keep the temple clean.
Some 4,000km (2,485 miles) away, Israel has been bombing Gaza relentlessly for a month now, killing more than 10,000 Palestinians. The assault began on October 7 after Hamas fighters entered Israeli territory, killed more than 1,400 people and took more than 200 people captive.
But in the tranquil halls of the Maghen David Synagogue, the Palestine-Israel conflict finds no echo.
“They stand and do their namaz [prayer]. We sit and do our namaz. That is the only difference between us,” says Khan, who since the age of 20 has been a caretaker at the 140-year-old Renaissance-style synagogue on Brabourne Road in Kolkata’s busiest business and wholesale market district.
Until about 75 years ago, the synagogues in Kolkata throbbed with life. The first Jews arrived in the city towards the end of the 18th century. Today, the number of synagogues in the bustling city – once the capital of the British empire in the Indian subcontinent – has shrunk from five to three, while the size of the Jewish community is down from more than 5,000 at its peak to just 20.
But there has been one constant for more than two centuries: the caretakers of the synagogues. For generations now, they have come from a village called Kakatpur in Puri district, about 500km (310 miles) south of Kolkata in the neighbouring Odisha state.
And they are all Muslim.
Between the three synagogues in the city, there are six Muslim caretakers, all of whom stay on the premises in quarters provided for them and go home occasionally to visit their families. They start work early in the day, cleaning, dusting, polishing and making sure the lights and other electrical devices are in order. They also escort guests and visitors around, something that happens seldom these days.
‘Sad that Muslims and Jews are fighting’
It is not as if the Jews of Kolkata or the Muslim caretakers of the synagogues are oblivious to the horrors of the Israel-Hamas war or Israel’s bombing of Gaza.
Like many other cities around the world, Kolkata, too, has witnessed pro-Palestinian protests by left-leaning activists and some Muslim groups. Muslims comprise about 27 percent of the population of West Bengal, where a political party opposed to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power.
But the Muslim caretakers say they have come under no pressure from their families or the community for working at synagogues.
“For me, this [synagogue] is the house of ‘Khuda’ [God] just like our own ‘Khuda ka ghar’ [mosque],” says Khan. “It is very sad that Muslims and Jewish people are fighting today in Gaza and Israel. But their house of God is also our house of God. We will take care of it all our life.”
Masood Hussain, 43, is the sole caretaker of Neveh Shalome, Kolkata’s oldest synagogue that sits next to Maghen David. He says he goes regularly to a local mosque for prayers, but no one has quizzed him about his Jewish connection.
“We go to our mosque for prayers but no one has said anything, neither the ordinary people nor the religious leaders,” he says.
A college dropout, Hussain came to Kolkata from Odisha 10 years ago, following in the footsteps of his father and father-in-law who also took care of the synagogue. A tall, lean man, who has two college-going daughters back home, Hussain points towards a small exhibition of photos of Kolkata’s earliest Jews. He knows their names and their histories by heart.
“Nobody has asked: ‘Why do you work for the Jewish people?’ No one in my family or community has said: ‘Quit your job,’” says Hussain.
“We go to offer namaz at our masjid [mosque]. No one says anything there either. The maulvi [imam] is very friendly. We have tea together. He has never said, ‘Masood, why do you do this?’ If he says something, I will respond. But I believe all problems should be solved peacefully.”
When asked about the anti-Israel protests in the city, Hussain says there has never been an attack on the synagogues. “And there never will be one, not in Kolkata. The people of Kolkata are very good. But if it happens, we will face it. At worst, what will happen? We will be killed. But this is God’s house. For this house of God, we are ready to face anything.
“Till we Muslims are here, we will be the first to confront anyone from our community [who] comes here [to create trouble]. If that happens, we will do a muqabla [resistance]. Nothing will happen to synagogues while we are alive.”
The bond across faiths that’s visible at the synagogues goes back to the early 1800s, when Neveh Shalome was built At that time, the Jewish community was about 300 strong, and came mostly from Iraq and Iran – the Baghdadi Jews – following the footsteps of wealthy Aleppo-born businessman Shalom Obadiah Cohen, believed to be the first Jew to have arrived in Kolkata, in 1798.
Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, was a coveted destination, where business was brisk for traders in jewels, textiles and, among other items, opium. The Jewish community flourished, along with the Parsis, the Armenians and the Chinese who flocked to the city that was the headquarters of the East India Company.
But with the creation of Israel in 1948, many in Kolkata’s Jewish community left. Families moved to Israel, and also to the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, as a newly independent India was convulsing in the aftermath of a bloody partition and devastating communal riots.
Today, of the 20 Jews left in the city, most are more than 70 years old. In all, India today has only an estimated 5,000 Jews, from a high of 30,000.
David Ashkenazy, president of the board that runs Beth El Synagogue, the honorary secretary of Maghen David and a board member at Neveh Shalome, is not sure how Muslims from a village hundreds of kilometres away came to be synagogue caretakers. But he confirms that the job has been passed on from generation to generation.
Khan, the Maghen David caretaker, got the job because his father Khalil Khan and grandfather Ajju Khan were caretakers at Beth El Synagogue and argued his case when he was seeking work.
That Muslim caretakers from another state should form a connection with then-immigrant Jews isn’t surprising, suggests Ashkenazy.
“We were both strangers in a new land – the Jews from Baghdad and these Muslims from a village 500km south,” he says. “Some of our dietary laws are also similar.”
“I don’t even think about it. It is normal. It is natural,” says Jael Silliman, a celebrated Kolkata-based Jewish author, painter and women’s rights activist, referring to the amity between the city’s Muslims and Jews. “We, Baghdadi Jews, lived together with Muslims in the Ottoman Empire and across the Middle East for centuries. We are Arab Jews.”
Silliman cites another example of that Kolkata bond: the city’s Jewish Girls’ School, founded in 1881, where 90 percent of students are Muslim.
“That, too, is a beacon of hope, like the Muslim caretakers of our synagogues,” she says.
‘Muslims natural choice for caretakers’
Initially, in Kolkata, rich Bagdadi Jews would hire Muslims as cooks in their homes, says Navras Jaat Aafreedi, assistant professor of history at Kolkata’s Presidency University, where he offers a course in global Jewish history.
“The prominent factors behind Jewish and Muslim amity were no idol worship and similar dietary restrictions,” he says, “the latter prompting the Baghdadi Jews to employ Muslims as cooks.
“Once the synagogues came up, Muslims were a natural choice for caretakers,” he adds. “In India, the Arab-Israeli conflict has not dented the historic cordiality between the Jews and Muslims.”
Yet, the ongoing war in Gaza is on the minds of the caretakers.
“Our ‘mazhab’ [faith] doesn’t teach us to hate,” says Sheikh Gufran, the oldest of Maghen David’s three caretakers as he meticulously polishes the teak pews of the synagogue.
“Whenever I offer namaz, I pray for the people of all religions suffering in the war [in Gaza and Israel]. Muslims are in pain there. Jews are in pain. I hope their suffering ends soon,” says the 48-year-old.
Ashkenazy hands over some religious books to Gufran and asks him to dust them carefully. The books are old and precious, and need to be handled with care.
It is time for Gufran’s prayers too. He steps out of the synagogue, faces west and begins to pray in the courtyard.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA