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03 Notable Members of the Community

Shalome Aaron Cohen

Shalom Aaron Cohen

“…I would like to imagine my great-great-great grandfather arriving in a city where he was to leave his indelible marK on history. In his own words, however, the event could not have been recorded more plainly: 

'5th August 1798: Last night I arrived in Calcutta.' 

For Shalom Aaron Cohen of Aleppo the journey was not in itself unusual, being one of many in the course of his working life as a jeweler and highly successful trader on routes around the Middle East and India: but the end of this particular seven-month voyage from Surat, via Bombay and Madras, turned out to be the beginning of his destiny as founder of the Jewish community of Calcutta.  On this voyage, Shalom brought his most essential retainers, a cook and a shohet (ritual slaughterer); he also brought a wealth of professional experience and a reputation of “Jewish Chief Merchant,” a title by which he was widely nown in Surat, a key trading center of the East India company. He was thirty-five years old.

A dwelling place rented from an Armenian in the Native town was Shalome’s first home; a year later, he was installed in Aloo gudam, Potato Godown, a roomy building which became a family residence for hiself, his wife and two daughters. Other Jews from Surat, and also from Aleppo, were lured to join the little immigrant band with jobs and good precious stones being just a few of the desirable commodities. They came; and by the end of a decade, the community had increased to about thirty people, held together by their common experience in a foreign land, but even more so by religious observance conducted by their leader under his own roof. In this way did the first synagogue of Calcutta come into being.

Shalome’s shoulders were more than capable of bearing the responsibility of communal worship, his confidence no doubt bolstered by a background of respect and recognition given to Jews by their Turkish overlords. According to Alex Russell, Physician to the British Factory in Eighteenth century Aleppo, “the established banker of the Seraglio is a Jew and the private bankers of most of the Grandees are Jews…”  Further reading gives us the impression than when their feasts and festivals came around, the commercial world was driven practically to a standstill; departures of caravans were delayed and postponements were not unusual; nothing could interfere with the Jewish holidays. 

Shalome followed the spirit of the law learned in his birthplace, to which he never returned, ending his days in Calcutta in 1836 at the age of seventy-three. His legacy survives till today in the Jewish cemetery where he lies (a plot, for which we are told, he presented his Muslim friend with the token payment of a ruby ring), and in the Calcutta Jewish Community, which continues to survive one hundred and sixty years after his death.”

From Hooghly Tales, by Sally Solomon, p 57 – 58, David Ashley Publishing, 1998, London.