The Zachariahs lived in a sprawling mansion in a leafy cul-de-sac, a brisk five minute walk from the hustle and bustle of Park Street. Senior Zac, as the patriarch had been fondly addressed by his contemporaries at the Club, had run a successful business house, one that he had inherited from his father. Benjamin’s father, Junior Zac, a stern disciplinarian, endowed with a sharp intellect and a shrewd commercial acumen, had expanded his father’s business manifold.
S (Dear Husband) and I were in Nahoum’s, the legendary confectionery in New Market, relishing our lemon tarts and mutton puffs. Baked fresh, as the elderly gentleman at the till had proudly reminded us, at our factory in Hartford Lane, just behind the Market.
The Grand Old Lady of Hogg Market, S had chuckled, still going strong at over a century. And no, he had added, pointing at the ancient teak furniture and antiquated wood-paneled glass displays that housed the the melange of tempting delights, plum cakes and pastries, pies and puffs, macaroons and tarts, she has not changed even a wee bit.
By the way, did you know Nahoum’s was established (and till date is run) by a family of Baghdadi Jews ? S had quipped. And that Kolkata at the mid of the last century just after the Great War was home to over 4000 Jews ?
That’s when the conversation had veered to the Zachariahs.
Persecuted and tyrannized in the land of their forefathers, Benjamin’s ancestors had arrived in Calcutta at the turn of the nineteenth century. Calcutta had welcomed them with open arms and before long, the Baghdadi Jews, gifted with an astute business sense, had made their mark in the burgeoning trade and commerce scene of the vibrant metropolis.
The Ezras and the Cohens were soon rubbing shoulders with the elite in the city. They dabbled in real estate and gemstones, opium and indigo, silk and spices and as their businesses flourished, synagogues for worshippers and schools for Jewish children started dotting the city.
First to arrive was the Old Synagogue on Canning Street. The Beth El Synagogue on Pollock Street, with its dazzling chandeliers and stunning stained glass windows and the Magen David Synagogue, built in Italian Renaissance style with its imposing clock-tower at the junction of Brabourne Road and Canning Street, followed.
And soon the skyline of the metropolis started pompously flaunting the most imposing of edifices commissioned by Baghdadi Jews. Ezra Mansion ( sadly, now in a pitiable derelict state :-(), the Chowringhee Mansions and the awe-inspiring Art Noveau style Esplanade Mansions happened in rapid succession.
This city was their very own, Benjamin’s ancestors vouched.
Waves of Anti-Semitism might be ravaging the West but Calcutta was still their safe haven.
The Second World War though changed it all.
The indescribable horrors of Holocaust, the mindless extermination of Jews, the birth of a new independent India with socialistic leanings and the creation of Israel impelled a lot of the Baghdadi Jewish families to introspect about their future.
Were they more secure in their Holy Land ? They pondered.
The next decade saw an exodus of Baghdadi Jewish families to Israel.
Senior Zac though had stood firm.
Calcutta was his city, there was no question of relocating, at least for now.
Cut to the present. (More on the Zacs and their Aloo Makalla and Helbeh, Mahashas and Chopped Chicken Liver in later posts.)
When a blogger friend sent a note regarding hosting a virtual cookie feast for Christmas, I knew at once what I wanted to bake.
Yes, Hamantaschen, traditional Jewish cookies with a delectable poppy-seed filling.
Poppy-seed pockets that Benjamin’s mother and grandma would bake, as my husband fondly recollects, that we would gorge on. And that sublime taste of poppy-seed halwa with a faint whiff of citrus enveloped in a crisp cookie lingers on my taste buds even today.
I see you frown.
Yes, I do know Hamantaschen are baked for the Jewish holiday of Purim, one that celebrates the triumph of good over evil (by the way, isn’t that what all religions profess ?), not Christmas.
But then that’s my ode to Calcutta.
A city that has over centuries welcomed all with open arms, learnt and taught, adapted and influenced.
A city where pluralism and diversity are celebrated, not derided.
A city where Hindus celebrate Christmas with the same gusto as Muslims join the festivities of Durga Pujas and Christians queue up for Biryani on the holy occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr.
In a world riddled with intolerance and bigotry, Calcutta stands like a beacon of hope.
Where else would Muslim caretakers protect century-old synagogues for generations ?
Where else would Muslim girls be provided subsidized education by a Jewish board ?
Where else could a Farooq and a Benjamin grow up to be the closest of friends without their families frowning ?
This is Calcutta.
Our city of joy. And hope.
An oasis of reason in a mad bigoted world.
Enjoy the festive season and if you do feel like baking some cookies, try your hand at Hamantaschen !!!
And if you want to know what our feast for Christmas looked like, here are the remaining recipes