Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Visit To Kolkata's Magen David Synagogue


--- Saurabh Goel is a wanderer at heart. He loves to travel, learn news things along the way and stay inspired on the road. His infectious enthusiasm is a joy to behold. He reflects on his journey to Kolkata - city of Joy - in 2014.



I reached Magen David Synagogue quite late in the day.The noon had withered away and the sky was clocking the golden hour.
As usual my routine wanderings in the streets of Calcutta had consumed all my day, and I had kept just about enough time to reach the synagogue by evening somehow.
I had assumed that it would stay open well past the evening, and so I would see it at my leisure; clueless that it was going to prove to be a blunder, soon.

Let me point out here, as to how reaching the synagogue (supposedly a popular destination), without keeping the address handy or navigation on mobile, may turn into a detour; relying on local’s awareness of our monumental heritage would not really help; nor did asking passersby for direction along the way.


However, bypassing all of this and having taken a bit longer than expected, I finally spotted synagogue’s high tower – a tapering hexagonal structure protruding out of the building into the sky, resembling sort of a windmill’s trunk from distance.

But then, as dumbstruck as it left me, to my shock and disappointment, at the entrance, Gafoor(the resident caretaker of the Synagogue) informed me about the mandatory written permission, required to enter the Synagogue.
Adding further how the visiting hours would soon get over too.


The permission letter was to be issued by a popular Jewish bakery called “Nahoum and Sons”, set up 113 years ago in the city, and lay approx 3.5 kms away, which meant almost 30 minutes of commute up n down; however, as soon as I looked around, I could instantly realise that the evening office hours and the ambient hustle and bustle of crowded streets, would easily prolong my travel.
To avoid the immediate rush of the street crowd, I decided to walk a bit, before boarding a taxi. But then adding further to my woes, the legendary Eden Gardens also happened to fall on my way, with an IPL match lined up for the night, and given its mammoth size, the arrangements were being made outside for the crowd that would soon throng and choke it, putting even more strain on the running traffic.

It took me little over 1 hour to return.
By the time I got back, it was almost dusk and I was bit more exhausted by now. But then, weeks before coming to Calcutta, I had planned to visit the Synagogue.


I handed over the letter, and Gafoor let me in.
“What if I would get late, coming back?”, I remember I had asked him, while I was leaving to get the letter. To which he said, “Just get it ASAP”. As though it was not about the timing, but my intention to see it.
Or perhaps he was just happy at the prospect of receiving a visitor from outside the city after some time – his welcoming intent was as much evident from the reassuring reply he had given me earlier, as much from the warmth with which he sort of became my synagogue guide.

I did make it a point to catch up with Gafoor, after my mesmerizing visit to the Synagogue was over, but was dismally surprised to know that given the situation, the synagogue is now forced to fly down the Jewish community from outside the city for their yearly assemblies. From Bombay to Calcutta.
The numbers are so low that holding such an annual prayer is impossible with the leftover Jewry of Calcutta – once home to a thriving Jewish community, but unlike Chinese, Afgans and Anglos, it seems Jews had collectively decided to leave the city, no matter Indian origin or expats.


Call it my personal prejudice(and please excuse me for it) but one thing that struck me almost instantaneously was Gafoor’s name, which for a moment had veered my excitement in a different direction, and so, towards the end of my visit, as I asked him about his experience working in a synagogue, hiding slyly the underlying sentiment, followed by asking for his opinion on an omnipresent sense of resentment between the 2 communities.
To my surprise also. With a fervent display of hope, as one may not probably expect, he quite remarkably said and I still remember and quote him on this: “It is nothing. This problem in Middle East is nothing but just a property dispute between 2 brothers (read: Abraham’s children), and would end soon”.

Built in 1884, by the Ezras for the Ezras(the real estate tycoons of an erstwhile Calcutta), Magen David synagogue is a pride reminder of Jews’ legacy and magnificent past, and of their lofty stature in Calcutta’s history. More than 130 years old and still standing strongly. And so marvelously, when visited from inside.
A two storied structure with a steeple, it wasn’t just built to last, but to visually marvel as well, as it aged, growing more charming with time.


I have a personal fetish for visiting large abandoned buildings and mills, and the moment I entered the synagogue, I knew I was in for a certain visual and sensory delight.
Its grandness is imposing, which grips and seeps into your senses almost immediately. Like an eagle clutching onto someone from its head. Sitting on top of it. Almost riding and ruling it from there.
So as you step inside from its main doorway, which opens into a small corridor with swiveled stairways on both ends, dimmely lit up by incandescent yellow bulbs on a dilapidated old chandelier hanging in between, a somewhat heavy impersonification of its scale and entity captures your fancy, drawing an equal proportion of awe, endearment and nostalgia of its charm, as you walk up the staircase.

Everything about Magen David was fascinating, be it its altar(bema), arch, balconies or the central hall with windows of different sizes and patterns sporting magnificently large stained Belgian glasses which beautifully colour its walls, each time light hits them from behind and passes through.

I surely wanted more time inside the Synagogue, but then Gafoor was waiting outside for me to come, and to close the Synagogue.. He, for sure, had stretched the visiting hours and was working overtime, just to make sure I had seen around thoroughly.
My visit to Magen David Synagogue was not just over by now, but moreover was complete, in a sense that I had not just seen a glorious heritage building, but had a close brush with another tradition and culture and religion and identity, through a visit and a conversation which was as enriching as some wonderful short journey.

All images and text are by Saurabh Goel. Reuse is strictly prohibited. To read the original write-up and see more images, click here.

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