In India, A Struggle To Pass Down Passover Jews all around the world begin celebrating Passover this week. But commentator Sandip Roy says that it's hard to keep up old traditions in places like Calcutta, where the Jewish population is declining.

In India, A Struggle To Pass Down Passover

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/135120165/135503827" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

All over the world, Jews begin celebrating Passover tonight with the Seder dinner. About 4,000 Jews live in India, though there are only a tiny number in Calcutta. Commentator Sandip Roy recently moved back to Calcutta and discovered a community he never even knew existed.

SANDIP ROY: Nahoum and Sons bakery is part of the Calcutta of my childhood. They still have all the goodies I loved as a boy.

JAGADISH HALDER: Brownies and macaroons and the light plum cake

ROY: Jagadish Halder, who's worked here for over 30 years, tells me proudly the decor has not changed since 1911. I believe it. What I never knew as a boy was that Nahoum was a kosher bakery. Halder says once they made a lot of Jewish delicacies.

HALDER: Now, Jewish members are less, less day by day.

ROY: Eighty-one-year old Flower Silliman is a graduate of the school. This year, she's helping explain Passover to the students, with a little help from Charlton Heston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS")

CHARLTON HESTON: (as Moses) Arise, all Israel. Behold the dawn of freedom.

ROY: Silliman, now the memory keeper of her community, takes me to visit some of the synagogues left in Calcutta.

FLOWER SILLIMAN: These two are the last two.

ROY: They are grand but no longer functioning. After World War II, American troops came here for Yom Kippur. Now vendors selling plastic bangles block the gates of one synagogue. Sparrows fly between the columns of the other.

SILLIMAN: And they used to have alternate Sabbaths. They had the prayers in each one, because there were not enough people to run two services. And then that also stopped. You had to have quorum of 10 men before you can have a service. There are not 10 men to come.

ROY: Jews here didn't suffer the horrors of anti-Semitism they faced in Europe. In India, their cooks were Muslim, their colleagues Hindu, their neighbors Christian. But the tiny community never became fully Indian.

SILLIMAN: You know, in fact, when I started wearing Indian clothes my mother said, no, you shouldn't wear that. And I said to her why, the English clothes that you're wearing are not your clothes anyway. They didn't allow us to do anything that was too Indian.

ROY: Perhaps that separateness saved them after India's independence, when bloody riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims. Silliman saw a mob attack a pregnant woman.

SILLIMAN: I said stop. They said to us, You stay out of this. This is not your problem. This is between Hindus and Muslims, you are neither. And if you don't stay out we'll kill you, so please go. And that shows how we were immune and yet we were not empowered to do anything.

ROY: After the turmoil of independence, Jews started leaving India. The birth of Israel spurred another exodus.

SILLIMAN: We vanished. At least we didn't vanish because of anti-Semitism, because all that, India can be proud to say that the Jews left because they wanted to leave and nobody told them to go.

ROY: Flower Silliman sometimes dreams of one last grand reunion of the Diaspora of Calcutta. But she knows that's not going to happen. Not this Passover, anyway.

SILLIMAN: This year, I think me and Mr. Nahoum and one more old gentleman, older than us, are going to sit down together - and if you can call that a Seder, I don't know - three of us. But we'll do it just for old time's sake.

ROY: And her matzo will come in a packet from Israel.

LOUISE KELLY: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.