Regular readers know I am a sucker for “Jews among the the nations” stories.
Last Jews of Calcutta have one last guardian
By SAM DOLNICK
CALCUTTA, India (AP)—The stooped man in the yarmulke fights his way through this chaotic city, the weight of generations heavy upon his shoulders.
He squeezes past tea stalls and sidewalk electricians, past idle rickshaws and honking cars. He edges through rows of vendors selling sparkly hair clips and, finally, pushes open a rusty gate hidden from the street.
Today is the Sabbath, and Shalom Israel, one of the last Jews of Calcutta, has reached a cobwebbed synagogue, a once-grand building with imposing doors that nearly always stay shuttered, and spires that soar up toward the monsoon clouds.
Israel comes every Friday to light a candle, say a prayer, and check on the three synagogues still standing, however precariously, as relics of a passed era of plenty. Most weeks, he is the only visitor.
There were once 5,000 Jews living in this teeming port city, but today, as the Jewish New Year approaches, there are fewer than 35. Israel, 38 with a thin beard, is the youngest by nearly 25 years.
Israel lives inside the only place left where Jews aren’t a minority—the Jewish cemetery. He cares for the graves of his father, his great-grandparents, his uncles and his aunts, along with more than 2,000 other Jewish tombs.
He also tends to the two dozen Jewish elders still living, handles the last rites when they die, and, to stay kosher, butchers his own meat.
It’s not easy being the last of your people.
“It’s only a matter of time before people die or leave,” said Israel. “There is no future ... The inevitable, I can’t fight.”
Indeed, repopulating the community would be tough. There aren’t many unmarried Jewish women in Calcutta—Israel is single and doesn’t know any women younger than 60. His sister married a Hindu, for which the elders shunned her. The last Jewish wedding anyone can remember was in 1982.
He is weary from Calcutta’s midsummer heat, and from the responsibility of caring for his ancestors’ legacy. He’s well aware that a centuries-old community will likely die with him, but he sees nothing to do but tend to its remnants and blow on the fading embers.
“I’ve seen what the community was. To see the way it is now…” He trails off mid-sentence.
Israel survives on a combination of odd jobs, but his health is poor, his nerves frayed by his multiple responsibilities. He usually keeps his skullcap in his pocket because he tires of explaining its significance, but at the end of the day, when he’s in a taxi heading back to his solitary shed inside the cemetery, he takes it out and puts it on, exhaling for what seems like the first time all day.
To learn more about various lost, returning, hidden and new Jewish communities, visit the Kulanu (all of us) Web site.