To Kolkata, From Baghdadi Jews, With Love

Jael Silliman in The Wire:

Baghdad1 (1)Crisp on the outside, soft inside, the golden brown, whole fried potatoes were brought piping hot to the dining table. My father, David, urged his guests to abandon even trying to tackle these “jumping potatoes” with their forks and knives. “Just sink your teeth in them!” He had remarked cheerfully. We did and enjoyed the crackle in our mouths that slowly yielded to the soft, oozing centre melting on our tongues. Aloo makallah was definitely the star attraction of Baghdadi Jewish meals and a Calcutta specialty.

My father’s ancestor, Shalome Obadiah Ha Cohen, was the first Jew to come from Aleppo, Syria in the late eighteenth for trade in Calcutta and make it his home. Yet, our Middle Eastern community is loosely called ‘Baghdadi’ as we followed the liturgy of Baghdad, a centre of Jewish learning. We Baghdadis flourished in the port cities of ‘Jewish Asia’ that stretched from Baghdad to Shanghai. In Karachi, Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore, Penang, Djakarta, Hong Kong and Shanghai, small enclaves of Jews relied upon one another for religious, financial and social support. Marriages, commercial news, business and family connections welded us into a powerful economic and cultural presence in the East.

In Calcutta, the second city of Empire, we adapted to our new home and shifted from being Judaeo-Arabic to Judaeo-British in our language, as well as shifted in terms of dress and cultural orientation. We lived among Anglo Indian, Parsis, Armenians, Chinese as well as Hindus and Muslims.

More here.