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11 Social and Cultural Life

A note on social life

Calcutta Jews, especially the wealthy and the middle-classes had a great deal of leisure time due to the availability of domestic help. Family gatherings like weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, Maftirs, Yorsets and Hatimas for the dead, and festivals were occasions for large family and community gatherings. Weddings went on for seven days and even pre-wedding celebrations were popular. There were large functions held for Hanukah and Purim at both the schools and the Club. There were fancy dress parties for Purim and Hanukah parties were held for several nights in people’s homes. Birthday parties were also very popular and was celebrated with presents, cake, candles, dancing and games.

In addition to large family gatherings and community events the members of the community also enjoyed a variety of outdoor activities including many kinds of sports. Hockey was very popular among both boys and girls and the Jewish community fielded teams for both. A hockey team even went to Israel for a competition in the late forties/early fifties. Badminton was also very popular. Many young people were in the Girl and Boy Scouts and there were camps to Mudapore and Gopalpur that were organized from the 30’s to the 50’s.

Gopalpur, Mudapore and Darjeeling were vacation spots for Jewish families. People traveled to Mudapore in the winter and to Darjeeling and Gopalpur in the summer. Swimming at the beach was very popular in the twentieth century when the community was more Anglicized. Wealthy families had their own bungalows like Brighton Villa in Gopalpur and several bungalows including Bilaiti Bungalow in Mudapore. Often the shohet (ritual slaughterer) went along with the family so they could enjoy eating meat dishes too while on vacation. Those who did not own property rented homes for a week or a month. These vacation spots were appreciated for good country air, good water, fresh milk and health living. Mudapore, being closest to Calcutta, was by far the most popular. There were so many Jews vacation there that there was always a minyan to conduct services.

Outings that were very popular across the community were picnics, visits to the zoo, swimming, and drives. Picnics in the early part of the twentieth century and before were called “Bagichas” where Indian music was performed, men drank and there were kebabs cooked. These “Bagichas” were mostly male affairs. Later when the community became more Anglicized bagichas became picnics and a family activity. Picnics were held at the Botanical Gardens and the zoo as well as several places along the Hooghly including Barrackpore and Agrapara. Large extended families would make this outing an all day event.

The fondness for the zoo can be seen in two structures that still stand there – the Ezra and the Gubbay House. Elia David Joseph Ezra provided an enclosure for large animals (Ezra House) and Elia Shalome Gubbay bore the cost of a building for monkeys. A favorite destination was Riverside, Agrapara, was owned by members of the B N Elias family. This beautiful bungalow had all kinds of facilities like swimming, croquet, a huge dolls house on the enormous lawns, tennis and badminton. As everyone did not have access to Riverside the Agrapara tank and its grounds was used as a picnic and swimming spot.

Going to the races was also very popular despite the major race day being on Shabbath. Jewish bookies would go from house-to-house to take pre-Sabbath bets. Many did attend the races on Saturdays. Several wealthy Jews, men and women, owned race horses and were actively involved in the racing scene in Calcutta. Mrs. Susan Sopher’s horse, Winged Tiger won the Viceroy Cup in 1945 with the odds at 35/1. Aslan Manasseh was for many years the Stewart of the Calcutta Royal Turf Club. There were Jewish trainers and jockeys and the popular racebook The Turf that started in the 1940’s and lasted till 1981 was published by the Elite press owned by Mrs. Lily Einy and Ezra S. Ezra. (Ezra was originally a lawyer who switched to publishing the race book.) Haskell David was an amateur rider who became a champion rider and trainer. Jews also raced in Tollygune (for amateurs) as well as in the race courses in Darjeeling and Shillong

Going to the movies was also very popular and most of the Jewish community watched Western films. The Metro Cinema, in the heart of the Jewish area, had a special provision where one could book 4 seats for an entire year for a show on a fixed day of the week. If the tickets were not collected on Thursday they were sold to the public. There were so many reserved seats for Jewish families it seemed like a Jewish Pew for Sunday matinee and several other shows. The young people in the community loved listening to music and enjoyed dancing. Community members in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were more comfortable with Indian and Arabic music and enjoyed what they called “gana bajana.” At these sessions there were live Indian dance performances and the men drank.

The community also enjoyed a number of indoor games like cards, touli (backgammon), and the younger men were very interested in boxing and weight lifting. The community had their own boxing and weight lifting clubs. Elite women enjoyed playing Mahjong that was a game introduced from China during the Opium trade. Parsees also played Mahjong and this was done in one another’s homes after lunch.

The Judean Club first on Kydd Street and then on Madge Lane was a social Club that was enjoyed by the community and offered members the opportunity to play billiards, card games, Touli, table-tennis and Caroms and was the place for dancing parties and events. They would have the Simcha Torah Ball where a Simcha Torah Queen was selected.