From Cairo to Kolkata, Traces of a Vibrant Jewish Past

Magen David Synagogue in Kolkata, India.

I spotted the front gates of the graveyard one morning on my way to Arabic class in downtown Tunis. Squished into a crowded metro car, I couldn’t see clearly around the other passengers, but that Hebrew and Star of David were unmistakable.

In the 15 years since then, I’ve visited at least a dozen other semi-abandoned synagogues and Jewish cemeteries across the world — in Egypt, Turkey, Morocco and India — but you never forget your first graveyard.

A short walk from the Cité El Khadra metro station, the Borgel Cemetery is on the outskirts of downtown Tunis, sandwiched between the metro tracks and a light industrial area. On the day I went to investigate, the front gates were locked with a heavy chain and no one responded to my shouts. So I went around back and hoisted myself up the eight- or nine-foot brick wall that surrounded the graveyard. When I got to the top, I heard a commotion and saw a group of kids gathered in the alley below.

“The Catholic cemetery is over there,” said one of the older boys. He pointed in the direction of a nearby graveyard, this one filled with crosses.

“You are Catholic,” one of the others asked, “aren’t you?”

I hesitated for a moment, then told them the truth.

“My father is Catholic,” I said, “but my mother is Jewish.”

They looked somewhat stunned by this admission. If they had been born 70 years earlier — when Jews made up 30 percent of the city’s population — they might have had Jewish neighbors and friends. They may have bought their produce from a Jewish grocer. Their mother might have worn jewelry made by a Jewish goldsmith. These days, however, there are only a few hundred Jews left in Tunis and they tend to keep to themselves. Aside from Israeli soldiers on Al Jazeera, most of these boys had probably never seen a Jew.

There was a long silence before one of the older ones spoke up.

“Honor your mother first,” he said and the rest of them agreed.

Dropping down into the graveyard felt like stepping into a forgotten world. Over the next weeks, I would return, meet the cemetery’s watchman, and visit other, more well-tended sections. But on first glance, the graveyard looked like it had been abandoned for decades. The plots around me were overgrown and unkempt. Headstones had fallen over. A pack of white dogs appeared to be living in an old mausoleum.

Walking around the cemetery, brushing off the headstones, I tried to imagine the lives of those interred around me: parents and children, husbands and wives, pharmacists, shopkeepers and engineers. Most of the people buried in the plots nearby had spent their entire lives in Tunis. They grew up in the old city or Nabeul or La Goulette. They went to school, fell in love, fought with their parents and drank coffee with friends on the Corniche in La Marsa. Of all this life, what remains?

It isn’t difficult to find vestiges of Jewish life in Europe. Many of the largest and most important synagogues have been carefully restored. There are Jewish museums in Berlin and Prague. In Barcelona and Venice, the old Jewish ghettos have themselves become tourist attractions.

Outside Europe, these remnants are more difficult to find, though not for a lack of history. For centuries, the intellectual and cultural center of Jewish life was in the capitals of the Middle East. Less than a hundred years ago, there were vibrant Jewish communities in Baghdad and Isfahan, Bukhara, Aden and Fez, cosmopolitan economic hubs where Jews lived alongside Muslims and Christians, Armenians, Berbers and Kurds. Today — aside from a few notable exceptions in Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and Iran — these communities have vanished.

Our collective memory of the Jewish past tends to focus mainly on Yiddish-speaking European Jews, the world that was destroyed by the Holocaust. But traces of a Jewish past can be found across the Middle East and North Africa, in Central and South Asia, as well as South America. It’s in synagogues and cemeteries, in the facades of old buildings, in language, food and the memories of those who left. You just need to know where to look.

There are only a dozen or so Egyptian Jews left in Cairo. But these mostly elderly women are the last remnants of a thousand-year-old history. In medieval times, Cairo was home to one of the most important Jewish communities in the world. A rival to Baghdad and Jerusalem, the city attracted Jewish merchants, migrants and scholars, including the great philosopher Moses Maimonidies who once said of his adopted home: “In times gone by, when storms threatened us, we wandered from place to place; but by the mercy of God we have now been enabled to find a resting place in this city.”

My introduction to the city’s Jewish past was 18 years ago, when a friend at the American University of Cairo invited me to Rosh Hashana services at the Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue, a hundred-year-old Art Nouveau structure in the heart of downtown. The congregants that night were mostly expats (students, embassy staff and the employees of various multinational corporations), but there was a small group of Egyptian Jews at the front of the hall and one could feel the presence of their forbearers in the empty space above us.

In the years since, I’ve returned to Cairo a half-dozen times, most recently on a research trip for a novel centered around Sha’ar Hashamayim’s much older sibling, Ben Ezra. Tucked amid the winding streets of Old Cairo (also known as Fustat or Coptic Cairo), the squat and unassuming Ben Ezra Synagogue has been a center for Jewish life in the city since 1040. Rebuilt and refurbished a number of times over the past thousand years — most recently through the joint efforts of the Egyptian government and North American Jewish philanthropists — the synagogue was once home to the famous Cairo Geniza, a treasure trove of documents that revolutionized the study of the medieval Mediterranean world. According to legend, Ben Ezra was named after the prophet Ezra himself and the well in the courtyard is said to be the place where the infant Moses was drawn from the Nile.

Apart from these two synagogues — and the recently renovated Maimonides Synagogue, where the philosopher prayed as a boy — Cairo’s most notable Jewish landmark is the Bassatine Cemetery. Established in the ninth century, when the Sultan Ibn Tulun decided to build his palace on the site of the former Jewish cemetery, Bassatine sits on an anonymous patch of land, far from the city center.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, the cemetery is a few miles east of Maadi (an exclusive, leafy neighborhood where many Jews made their home in the late 19th century). The Bassatine News website, an online newsletter put out by Cairo’s Jewish community council, gives the cemetery’s exact longitude and latitude, which would have been useful if my phone had worked in Egypt.

None of the cabdrivers I asked had ever heard of the place and the maps I brought with me didn’t even cover this part of the city. Eventually, after walking around the outskirts of Maadi for most of the afternoon, I came upon the cemetery, tucked into the bend of a freeway in the middle of a stone cutters’ district.

As I surveyed the seemingly endless expanse of tiny workshops, men and boys cutting statues and paving stones for the villas of Cairo’s upper class, a small pickup truck drove past, the bed of which was filled with men covered in white dust. They looked at me like I was a ghost.

“No entry,” said a man standing outside a nearby workshop.

As with the cemetery in Tunis, the gates of Bassatine were locked with a heavy chain and the graveyard was surrounded by a wall, this one at least 12 feet high. It was too high to climb, but along the far side I spotted a makeshift earthen ramp.

I was halfway up the ramp when someone started shouting at me from inside the graveyard.

“It’s closed,” he said, “the cemetery is closed.”

“I’m Jewish,” I shouted down.

Although his face softened somewhat, he still wouldn’t let me in.

“Talk to the rabbi,” he said, “you need an appointment.”

When I got home that afternoon, I tried in vain to find the rabbi who would grant me permission to enter. But it didn’t really matter. There are traces of Cairo’s Jewish past scattered throughout the city. They’re in the facade of the old Les Grand Magasins Cicurel department store, one of the many formerly Jewish-owned stores downtown. They’re hidden in the tomb of Saad Zaghloul, the beloved Egyptian nationalist, whose Jewish ally helped write the country’s first constitution. They’re in the produce stands selling molokhia, that quintessentially Egyptian vegetable also known as Jew’s mallow. They’re on the street, in the bootleg DVDs of golden-age Egyptian movies from the 1930s and 40s, featuring Jewish actors and producers like Najima Ibrahim and Togo Mizrahi.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Kolkata was home to a thriving Jewish community, many of them emigrants from Baghdad and Aleppo drawn to the capital of the British Raj. The community included actors, politicians, bankers and journalists, as well as the famous model and actress, Pramila, who was the first Miss India in 1947. With the end of British colonialism and World War II, most of the community moved abroad, leaving behind a smattering of synagogues, cemeteries and schools, as well as a small hospital and a number of streets named after Jews.

I first heard about this history from a woman who happened to sit next to me on a flight from San Francisco to New York, whose distant relatives were caretakers of the city’s two most notable synagogues, Beth El and Magen David. This idea of a Muslim family looking after a synagogue after its congregants are gone stuck with me and was part of the inspiration behind my second novel, which revolves around a family of Muslim watchmen who guard the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. So, years later, when I visited Kolkata I asked a journalist friend about the watchmen, half expecting him to say it was all a legend. Not only was it true, he said, he had recently done a radio piece about the Jews of Kolkata. The synagogues were definitely worth a visit, he told me.

“But first you have to try the challah at Nahoum and Sons.”

One of the most visible remnants of Jewish life in Kolkata, the 116-year-old Nahoum and Sons bakery once supplied challah, hamentashens and other Jewish specialties to a community of 6,000. There aren’t many Jews left in Kolkata — as few as nine, according to the Jerusalem Post — but the shop’s current owner, Isaac Nahoum, continues to sell challah as well as a famous Christmas fruitcake, which the former the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, said was the best fruitcake he had ever eaten.

Once I had my provisions — well worth the trip — I turned my attentions to Burrabaazar, the neighborhood where the Beth El and Magen David Synagogues are. Even with directions from my friend and a map drawn by the manager of Nahoum and Sons, I spent the better part of the afternoon wandering around the neighborhood, asking people if they knew where I could find Synagogue Street. Eventually, an employee of a nearby sweet shop took pity and joined me in my search. Twenty minutes later, after a detour to the Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary (on Portuguese Church Street), we found ourselves looking up at the red and yellow arches of the Magen David Synagogue.

“Jews used to live here?” the sweetmaker asked.

“Yeah,” I said and half nodded, as if I wasn’t entirely sure myself.

For the rest of the afternoon — walking around the synagogues, talking to their watchman, and listening to the story of their reconstruction — this question kept playing in my head. Jews used to live here? The sweetmaker had been working in the neighborhood for years and had no idea that there were two enormous synagogues around the corner. Just like I never would have known about Kolkata’s Jewish history if I hadn’t happened to sit next to that woman on the plane.

Slowly over the course of the afternoon, the question became an affirmation. Jews used to live here. They prayed in those synagogues and played cricket on the Maidan. They ate cutlets at the Coffee House on College Street and bought their wedding cakes at Nahoum and Sons. And now that the community has dwindled to a few dozen or less, the last remnants of Jewish life in Kolkata are watched over by their former Muslim neighbors.

It might be difficult to find the traces of Jewish history in Kolkata or Cairo or Baghdad or Fez. And it might be difficult to imagine that now-vanished world in which Jewish bakers lived side by side with Muslim doctors, Armenian tailors and Zoroastrian jewelers.

But that’s all the more reason to search out those places. In visiting these semi-abandoned cemeteries and synagogues, in seeking out the remnants of this mostly forgotten past, I’ve tried, in my own small way, to pay my respects to the dead and to remember that lost world in which they lived.

Michael David Lukas's second novel, “The Last Watchman of Old Cairo,” was recently published by Spiegel & Grau. He lives in Oakland, Calif.

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