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21 From the Outside In: Recollections of the Jewish Community of Calcutta

Shared Cultural Celebrations

[Uncle David] would come during Ramzaan. I can’t imagine any Eid without him. Eid was not the same without him and my dad. He would make vegetarian breakfast for all of us because Uncle Dave would be there. Even Ramzan we would make Nutrela Haleem or paneer Haleem. He loved the food we served.  –Abeda (Muslim, 1976)

For the bar mitzvah others were invited and I was a permanent invitee for all these functions. I was totally accepted…All the people called me an associate Jew as I was there for funerals and services. During the festivals I sit in the Temple. I was always there. – John (Syrian Christian, 1927)

My sister and I would shamelessly hang around in one of our Jewish neighbour’s houses on Friday evenings, hoping to be asked to stay on for the Sabbath Dinner of Alu Makalla etc., which we thought was the most delicious thing in the world. Similarly, my mother would often ask our little friends to join us for Bengali style fish curries or the fried dough delicacies called “Luchi” with accompaniments. For a bar mitzvah it was like we were celebrating a function for someone of our own. We would be in a state of feverish excitement for days. The City folk would come as invitees but we were the family. Those are the most gorgeous memories—everyone making a fuss over the boy who said the prayers. We went to the lunch after the bar mitzvah prayers were over, gorging on the Jewish delicacies while all the aunties helped in serving up the Lunch. It was difficult to say who were the parents and who were the doting neighbours. We also celebrated and enjoyed each other’s festivals. The Jewish families would also come for Durga Puja and though they did not participate in the prayers, the celebrations that followed in the evenings were for everyone. There was always a big event on the first day of Puja-swhen the company gave a party for the occasion. The kids would put up plays and concerts and the parents would attend the functions and applaud extravagantly. It was a different festival to what was celebrated in the city when we talked about it to our relatives they could not believe that things like that existed in the world they knew. –Iti (Bengali Hindu, 1941)

Ellis was very integrated into Bengali society and during the months leading up to the Bangladesh war all his Bengali friends from East Bengal would come to say 'hi' and called him Ilias Abraham or Abraham sah’b. He was unmarried and adopted a Bengali boy and looked after him. They really looked after him well. Ellis told me once that he used to go to bar Mitzvahs and now only goes to rice ceremonies. Became very Bengalified. –Sunanda (Bengali Hindu, 1937)

They were very generous people and every Friday night we were invited to a meal at the Cohen family and we were included as part of their family. They were a large family with many pets and the kids grew up together almost like a colony. They had a lot of spirit.  We cherish those Friday evenings and we still talk about the Jewish wine, the aloomakala and the chicken. —Katayun (Parsi, 1938)

I never even thought of my best friend as Jewish.  We participated in everything in my friend’s home.  Looked forward to Friday night and the ceremony and the dinner, the drinking of wine etc. –Anita (Punjabi Hindu, 1955)

(I remember) Friday night dinner: lovely food, aloomakala, chicken and that it was a weekly ritual.  There were prayers and candles and challa bread. –Susmita (Bengali Hindu, 1955)

Yes (I had meals in Rachel’s home). That is where I learned about unleavened bread. We always had unleavened bread in Passover. Rachel would bring it for us. I loved it, and the date sauce with it. –Rati (Punjabi Hindu, 1954)

But in my aunt’s house whenever we had celebrations we went to our house and a standard offer was Aloomakala, yakni pilaf is a rich Muslim dish that my father would bring, fried fish – it would always be an eclectic meal.  It was part of everyday life for us. –Dolores (Anglo Indian, 1955)