Once home to a sizable Jewish community founded by Iraqi Jews in the 18th century, Calcutta now has only twenty-three Jews. Yet three of the city’s historic synagogues, two of which were recently restored, are maintained by local Muslims. Tanmay Chatterjee writes:
At Magen David, [built in 1884 and South] Asia’s biggest Jewish prayer building, featuring a 165-feet-high steeple, Rabbul Khan represents the third generation of a family of “caretakers” hailing from the adjoining state of Odisha. At Nave Shalom, [Calcutta’s oldest synagogue], thirty-five-year-old Masood Hussain, also from Odisha, is the newest among the caretakers but never forgets to offer skullcaps to visitors.
“Miyazan Khan, my grandfather, worked here all his life and my father Ibrahim Khan served for 50 years,” says Rabbul Khan as he tends to some glass candelabra inside the prayer hall. . . . Don’t his friends and family object to his working at a synagogue? “Nobody ever uttered a word. We all live like family here,” comes a firm reply.
Muslims on the payroll of the Jewish trusts that run the synagogues practice their own faith and share a warm relationship with the people of the neighborhood in central Calcutta. At the Jewish Girls’ School on Park Street, the students Zeba Shamim, [a Muslim], and Subhosmita Majumdar, a Bengali Hindu, feel proud to be part of a choir that sang Shalom Aleykhem at the Beth El synagogue, [built in 1856], for the first time before members of the Jewish community who arrived from Israel and other parts of the world to witness the restoration. Israel’s ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, figured among the guests.
Students from Elias Meyer Talmud Torah School, the Jewish boys’ school, also took part in the celebrations at Magen David synagogue. Oseh Shalom, a Jewish prayer for peace, was performed solo by a Muslim boy, Suharnuddin Ahmed. He was trained by his teacher, S. Nayak, a Hindu.