I FINALLY MEET UP WITH SHALOM ISRAEL ON FREE School Street, near my hotel. His
name always comes up when I speak with Jews in Calcutta. There are not many left
– three dozen maybe. Almost all of them are elderly. Israel, at 37, is not.
That’s why his name comes up.
There are other reasons, too. He visits the
sick and the poor, washes the bodies of the dead and cares for the graves of the
dead. And he lives in the Jewish Cemetery with the dead.
It takes a while
for all of this to sink in. Israel is paid from a Jewish community social
welfare fund for his work. It’s his only source of income. But how does one
assess the worth of a man who does hospice work for a dying community, whose
responsibilities extend to the vast parts of it that no longer even exist? The
Jews of Calcutta, whose descendants first arrived from Syria and Iraq in the
late 18th and early 19th centuries, numbered around 5,000 before World War II.
During the violence of Partition in 1947, in which British India was divided
into the then-Dominion of Pakistan (later Pakistan and Bangladesh) and India,
the Hindu-Muslim carnage was worse in Calcutta than in most parts of India. That
violence, together with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, sent great
numbers of Indian Jews into a migration to the West.
That downward spiral
was never reversed.
I see Israel approaching from the direction of Nahoum
& Sons Bakery at New Market. Built by the British in 1874, New
Market is an
indoor hive of tiny shops, touts, alleyways and hustle. It’s like the
of Jerusalem, but without the impediment of any Holy Places.
consumerism by day, by night the ground outside New Market becomes a
sprawling bedroom for hundreds of Calcutta’s homeless, most of them
Nahoum’s is owned by the community’s patriarch, David Nahoum, who,
at 90, maintains the welfare fund and heads most of the Jewish
delegates the tasks of selling plum cakes and distributing funds for the
to his associate, Mr. Hulda, a Hindu.
Israel had been visiting with
ISRAEL AND I GREET EACH OTHER WITH IRONIC flourishes, finally
getting together after many fruitless phone calls over many days. Once, I
tried to visit him at the cemetery, but he was in town lighting candles
saying prayers at Calcutta’s three synagogues, which he does every
to the start of the Sabbath. Services are no longer held in the
synagogues – it
is impossible to bring together 10 elderly, frail and ill Jewish men for
“When we come together as a community, it is for funerals,”
Israel says, smiling dryly. His smile travels slowly beneath his black
He is slow moving, and his body is slightly stooped, as if in
solidarity with his clients. You half expect him to turn gray before
“What is it like living in a cemetery?” I ask him. The question
flies out of me, autonomously.
He doesn’t flinch. “It’s no big deal. I
have a house there. In this life, it’s the living who will harm you, not
dead. Besides, the cemetery is the one place in Calcutta where Jews are
What must it be like, I wonder, to emerge every day from death
to life, from gated silence to the signature shriek and honk of
million (or more) residents.
I know he is single. Does he bring women
home at night? I don’t dare ask. How does he answer the question, “Where
live?” Maybe he just smiles, says nothing. The sound of a gate opening
moonlight would hold promise. But then what? Can romance blossom among
headstones? Why not? Astory to tell at parties forever and ever.
has come to Eastern Diagnostics, a storefront clinic on Free School
assist a 90-year-old Jewish woman who fell and broke her femur. She is
treated by a doctor inside.
“I will be out in a minute,” he
He emerges pushing a wheelchair. Inside a floral-patterned
housedress is a woman the size of a bird – a very white, trembling,
Israel lifts her from her chair onto the high seat of a hand-drawn
rickshaw that will ferry her and her broken femur through the raging,
early evening traffic.
Am I dreaming? I wonder. It’s a thought I have
often in Calcutta. A woman who looks like my mother is being loaded onto
rickshaw pulled by a scarecrow? I won’t allow myself to feel frightened
because I don’t want to feel silly when I wake up.
Israel, wheezing in
his black trousers, is trotting beside her, as if he were yet another
the traffic. Calcutta is no shtetl, but I see Israel as a frayed,
Chagall-like figure, blown by mystical elements into the polluted air of
I catch up with him later at a second clinic, the size of our old
candy store in the Bronx. We sit across a table from one another as a
doctor is busy examining the old woman’s femur.
“Every Jew I speak to, it
seems, is plotting to get you to go to Israel at some point,” I tell
“I know.” He heaves the sigh of a man being pressured by his family
to enter into an unwanted marriage. “My younger brother, Mordechai [who
is in the process of making aliya.”
He has a younger sister, Matanah, 32.
She married and divorced a Hindu, and is estranged from the Jewish
The three Israels are the only young Jews in Calcutta.
“Sure, I could go
to Israel. Probably, I could find a job there, maybe on a kibbutz. But
should I go? What could I contribute there? Here, the community needs
the community is what’s most important.”
I ask him, through the heat and
the street noise, and because I have let a decent amount of time elapse,
you imagine yourself as the last Jew of Calcutta?” “Yes,” Israel says
any hesitation, as if he had been waiting for that question.