A Real Passover Miracle in Calcutta
While studying abroad in India for the second semester of my junior year, I have had a number of interesting experiences ranging from challenging to incredible.
Some experiences have been frustrating - like the time I spent 20 minutes arguing over a fair price with an auto rickshaw wallah, only to be ripped off when reaching my destination.
Some experiences have been educational - like the week I spent in Jaipur learning the traditional technique of Indian miniature painting.
Some experiences have been cultural - like the time I learned to cook a range of Indian delicacies.
Some have been bonding experiences - like the time I befriended a group of Bengali monks at a monastery in Bodhgaya.
Some experiences have been purely enjoyable-like the afternoon I spent in Khajuraho, biking to and sketching medieval temples.
And some have been ironic - like the time I had "Delhi Belly" while visiting the Museum of Toilets.
All of these experiences were foreign; unlike anything I had ever done or seen before. In thinking about my life in India, however, I'm surprised to find that the most amazing experience I have had during my time here has been the experience that was most familiar; the experience that most reminded me of my life at home - attending a Passover Seder.
I always knew there were small, but active communities of Jews throughout India. In Delhi, there are a few functioning synagogues, while in Varanasi, there is a Chabad. Although small today, the city of Cochin in Kerala is thought to be the oldest community of Jews, while the largest community is found near Mumbai where there is not only a Chabad, but a Jewish Community Center (JCC). Naturally, I believed finding a seder to attend would not be a difficult task. March rolled around and I started to make plans for my Independent Study Project in April. I created a schedule for myself and it was only after I had made travel arrangements for the initial part of my research that I realized I would be in Calcutta on the first night of Passover. Still, I wasn't concerned. If you flip through a Calcutta travel guidebook, you are certain to read that two of the biggest synagogues in the world are actually in Calcutta! I thought I had hit the jackpot of Jewish communities. In my mind, where there is a synagogue, there are Jews.
I went right to the Internet. I Googled: "Synagogues in Calcutta?" Nothing. "Functioning synagogues in Calcutta? Passover Seder in Calcutta? Passover in Calcutta? Jews in Calcutta?" Still nothing. It became clear to me then that finding a seder in Calcutta would not be as easy as I had thought. Then something caught my eye on the Google search page. There was an NPR report titled In India, A Struggle To Pass Down Passover. I clicked on the link and listened to the five-minute podcast that aired in 2011. My jaw dropped.
The story featured 81-year-old Flower Silliman, one of the two dozen - that's right, two dozen - Jews remaining in Calcutta, with the youngest being 56 years old. At one time 5,000 strong, the Jews of Calcutta, who were traders from Iraq and Syria, once filled the enormous synagogues that still exist today. They had schools and hospitals, sports centers and restaurants. The NPR reporter, Sandip Roy, grew up in Calcutta and used to frequent the famous Nahoum and Sons Bakery, where he was conducting his interview, unaware that it was a kosher bakery. Through the years, with the founding of the state of Israel and for various other social and political reasons, the community dwindled. Generally the Jews of Calcutta kept to themselves and never really identified as Indian, despite that there was a time when they were a very vibrant part of the community.
When I came to the close of the NPR report, I had tears in my eyes. I knew what I had to do. I was going to find Flower. I searched for her contact information on the Internet without luck until finally I realized the only way I would reach her was through NPR. I wrote a long comment in the feedback section of the website and left the rest up to fate. At this point I thought, whether or not NPR gets back to me, at least I can say I made the effort.
Two days later, an email appeared in my inbox:
A real Passover miracle. Please phone or e-mail me regarding Passover. Seder will be at the house of Mr. NAHOUM, but I will ask him today regarding a few guests.
Love and Hag Samayeh,
I couldn't believe it. NPR had read my comment and passed it along to Flower Silliman herself. I was going to a Passover seder. I was going to a Passover seder in Calcutta. I would be sitting down to Passover seder in Calcutta with two of the two dozen Jews remaining in the city.
April 6th rolled around faster than I had expected. That Friday morning, I arrived in Calcutta and immediately phoned Flower for seder details. She was incredibly pleased to hear from me.
The seder was more wonderful than I could have ever imagined. Gathered at the table were Flower, Mr. Nahoum of Nahoum and Sons Bakery, his brother visiting from Israel, an Israeli woman who has been staying with Flower while working in Calcutta, a friend from my program, and myself. The Passover Hagaddah, the retelling of the Passover story, was in Arabic and Hebrew. As I would have done at home, I sang the Four Questions, asked by the youngest child at the Seder. The first question never had so much meaning to me. It asks, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
Having grown up in the Ashkenazi tradition, the Iraqi Sephardic traditions were different, while at the same time completely familiar. Flower explained that Sephardic Jews prepare the sweet charosets, which is meant to recall the mud the Israelites used to make adobe bricks when they were enslaved in Ancient Egypt, with dates, not apples. When it was time to make the Hillel sandwiches of matzah and maror (bitter herbs), Mr. Nahoum sat at the head of the table, tossing pieces of matzah to each person, just like my own grandfather had always done at my seders at home. The meal even accommodated my vegetarian diet for lack of kosher meat in Calcutta. Everything was perfect. Up until that moment, I hadn't felt such a sense of belonging in India, a feeling of being home. It was incredible. Throughout the evening, however, it became clear to me that while being so warmly invited to share in a Passover seder in India meant so much to me, it had immense significance for my hosts. My being there brought a Jewish community to Calcutta that had not existed for nearly 50 years. Mr. Nahoum apologized for not remembering the seder well - he hadn't conducted a real seder with a real community in 10 years.
I left India with the fondest memories of seeing incredible sites, feasting on the most delicious food, and meeting the most fascinating people. I will never forget all the amazing foreign experiences I had. But I know what will stay with me most was that moment of coming home. That moment of familiarity that forged the strongest connection I have felt to India; that sense of belonging.
The day after the seder, Flower took my friend and me to see the old synagogues. They are no longer in use, but Mr. Nahoum has vigilantly kept them preserved as pristine Indian Heritage Sites for public viewing. There was once a motion to move the larger of the two synagogues to Israel brick by brick so that it could function again, but Mr. Nahoum and a tiny committee maintain the faith that a Jewish community will exist in Calcutta once again, and when that day comes, they will have a synagogue to pray in. After our tour, Flower made us matzah brei and matzah ball soup for lunch (with coriander, in the Indian fashion). We sat and talked for hours.
Before we left, she wrote down all my contact information so that she can come visit my home the next time she is in the U.S. I was already feeling so connected to Flower when I learned that she has a son who graduated from Brandeis and now lives with his family in Lexington, MA, and her daughter lives only a few neighborhoods away from my home in Brooklyn, NY. When we left, we thanked Flower profusely for her hospitality. She said, "Please, call me Safta. Everyone does." Safta. OK! Safta - my grandmother of India.
Truly a Passover miracle.
Sophie Golomb is a senior at Brandeis University. She will be graduating in May with a double major in Anthropology and Studio Art. Sophie is a campus tour guide and senior interviewer for prospective students. She performs with an a cappella group and is a student representative to the fine arts department, as well as the communications Eco Rep for the Campus Sustainability Initiative. Sophie is an alumna of URJ Crane Lake Camp. Her award winning article, "A Real Passover Miracle," was first published in Wander, Brandeis Abroad, Issue III, Fall 2012.