Jonah family, includes a note on Rachel Levy née Jonah.
See also: Aarati Devi, an actress and Jonah family member
Rachel Jonah - a note
Rachel Jonah, born in Calcutta, went to school in Loreto House and then College where she did her first degree. She then went to UCLA for her Master’s and moved to London in 1965 where she met her husband, who had read Law in Cambridge, became a judge and is now retired.
Rachel’s grandfather Jacob Isaac Jonah came to Calcutta from Baghdad in 1900. He married Rachel Saul and they had six children – six boys and a girl. Due to unrest in Baghdad an appeal had been sent to England to allow Jews to emigrate to the United Kingdom. The request was refused and Jews were encouraged to go to India to work as entrepreneurs in the British colony. Jacob came to India looking like a “Pasha.” “He learnt English and a few years later looked like an English gentleman dressed in stiff collar and tie. Jacob worked in the jute industry for E.D. Sassoon. His brother worked in the silk industry in Shanghai. That branch of the Jonah family emigrated to California.
Isaac, Rachel’s father, met his future wife, Edna Simmons, in Darjeeling. She was an English woman. Her father had come to India as an engineer. He left his wife and four children and disappeared to South Africa. It was Edna’s uncle, Cyril, who was a manager of a colliery who opened his home to his sister and her children. Edna went to school in Simla and trained as a nurse.
Edna agreed to dine with Isaac when he embarrassed her by entering the lobby of the hotel on horseback. She had a long engagement while she studied Judaism. Edna converted and was very revered in the community for her knowledge as she had studied to convert and kept a strictly Kosher home. The couple had two children – Rachel and her younger brother Jacob (Jack). The family maintained all the Jewish customs and attended the Maghen David synagogue. Rachel remembers her mother as being a very devoted wife and her father quite a dictatorial husband. The Jonah family lived in a rented property at 27 Theater Road.
Isaac attended Saint Xaviers but left at the age of sixteen and was self-taught thereafter. He was very knowledgeable and a lover of classical music. He started working for E D Sassoon at the age of sixteen. E. D. Sassoon was bought by B. N. Elias and Isaac became the Financial Director. B N Elias always treated the Jonah family as friends, not employees, often holidaying together in India and overseas.
The Jonahs had a very wide circle of friends and their home was a hub for the extended family. Rachel had many Indian friends whom she met at school and has kept in touch with them over the years. Her memories of Calcutta are fond. “It was a very vibrant society, there were no barriers of religion or color of skin. I would describe it as being a very cosmopolitan society.” Rachel misses the friendships, the food, and the “servants who were like family.” Many had worked for the family for two generations. She remembers her father sending them to the movies, educating them and generally taking care of their needs. While being cosmopolitan, Calcutta was very stratified where class trumped community to which one belonged.
The family vacationed, as other Jews did, at Mudderpore, Gopalpur and Darjeeling. Members of the Jewish community rented cottages in Mudderpore and Gopalpur and socialized with one another there. They played Backgammon, Poker and Mahjong just as they did in Calcutta but in a holiday setting. In Darjeeling they went horse riding and in Gopalpur they enjoyed the beach. The men would travel to the Sunderbans for vacation and enjoy “shikar” (hunting.)
Jacob Jonah was a conservative man: he told Rachel that her mother had to play tennis with a dress down to her shoes, as that was her husband’s wish. She remembers that one of her uncles had a mistress so the family was barred from visiting him. When Rachel finished college at Loreto she was not allowed to work as her father thought it would give her too much independence. She was allowed to tutor English in Marwari homes. She tutored many Marwari women including women from the Khaitan, Jalans, Jain and Pesari families. Not only did she teach at their homes she would accompany them to social occasions. Many became her life-long friends with whom she is still in touch.
Rachel remembers the war years in Calcutta vividly including the entire garden being dug up to serve as a trench. She remembers the sirens, the black outs and listening intently to the news on the radio. She remembers the Jews, including relatives, coming to Calcutta from Burma. She recalls Eze Cohen coming from Burma with his family. They had been very wealthy and had locked their home and left expecting to return. They never did. Eze married Isaac’s youngest and only sister, Hannah.