From Cairo to Kolkata, Traces of a Vibrant Jewish Past

I detected the front doors of the cemetery one morning on my approach to Arabic class in downtown Tunis. Squished into a swarmed metro auto, I couldn’t see obviously around alternate travelers, yet that Hebrew and Star of David were undeniable.


In the a long time from that point forward, I’ve gone by no less than twelve other semi-deserted synagogues and Jewish burial grounds over the world — in Egypt, Turkey, Morocco and India — however you always remember your first memorial park.

A short stroll from the Cité El Khadra metro station, the Borgel Cemetery is on the edges of downtown Tunis, sandwiched between the metro tracks and a light mechanical zone. On the day I went to research, the front doors were bolted with an overwhelming chain and nobody reacted to my yells. So I went around back and lifted myself up the eight-or nine-foot block divider that encompassed the burial ground. When I got to the best, I heard an uproar and saw a gathering of children assembled in the rear way beneath.

“The Catholic burial ground is over yonder,” said one of the more established young men. He pointed toward an adjacent memorial park, this one loaded with crosses.

“You are Catholic,” one of the others asked, “right?”

I wavered for a minute, at that point disclosed to them reality.

“My dad is Catholic,” I stated, “however my mom is Jewish.”

They looked fairly dazed by this confirmation. On the off chance that they had been conceived 70 years sooner — when Jews made up 30 percent of the city’s populace — they may have had Jewish neighbors and companions. They may have purchased their create from a Jewish merchant. Their mom may have worn adornments made by a Jewish goldsmith. Nowadays, nonetheless, there are just a couple of hundred Jews left in Tunis and they tend to mind their own business. Beside Israeli warriors on Al Jazeera, the greater part of these young men had most likely never observed a Jew.

There was a long quiet before one of the more established ones talked up.

“Respect your mom first,” he said and whatever is left of them concurred.

Dropping down into the memorial park had a craving for venturing into an overlooked world. Throughout the following weeks, I would return, meet the graveyard’s guard, and visit other, all the more very much tended areas. Be that as it may, on first look, the burial ground seemed as though it had been relinquished for a considerable length of time. The plots around me were congested and unkempt. Tombstones had fallen over. A pack of white canines gave off an impression of being living in an old sepulcher.

Strolling around the burial ground, forgetting about the tombstones, I endeavored to envision the lives of those entombed around me: guardians and youngsters, married couples, drug specialists, businesspeople and architects. A large portion of the general population covered in the plots close-by had spent their whole lives in Tunis. They experienced childhood in the old city or Nabeul or La Goulette. They went to class, began to look all starry eyed at, battled with their folks and drank espresso with companions on the Corniche in La Marsa. Of this life, what remains?

It isn’t hard to discover remnants of Jewish life in Europe. A large number of the biggest and most essential synagogues have been painstakingly reestablished. There are Jewish exhibition halls in Berlin and Prague. In Barcelona and Venice, the old Jewish ghettos have themselves moved toward becoming vacation spots.

Outside Europe, these remainders are more hard to discover, however not for an absence of history. For a considerable length of time, the scholarly and social focus of Jewish life was in the capitals of the Middle East. Not as much as a hundred years prior, there were energetic Jewish people group in Baghdad and Isfahan, Bukhara, Aden and Fez, cosmopolitan financial center points where Jews lived close by Muslims and Christians, Armenians, Berbers and Kurds. Today — beside a couple of striking exemptions in Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and Iran — these networks have vanished.

Our aggregate memory of the Jewish past tends to center for the most part around Yiddish-speaking European Jews, the world that was devastated by the Holocaust. Be that as it may, hints of a Jewish past can be found over the Middle East and North Africa, in Central and South Asia, and South America. It’s in synagogues and burial grounds, in the veneers of old structures, in dialect, nourishment and the recollections of the individuals who left. You simply need to know where to look.

Points of interest in Cairo

There are just twelve or so Egyptian Jews left in Cairo. Be that as it may, these for the most part elderly ladies are the last remainders of a thousand-year-old history. In medieval circumstances, Cairo was home to a standout amongst the most vital Jewish people group on the planet. An opponent to Baghdad and Jerusalem, the city pulled in Jewish traders, vagrants and researchers, including the immense rationalist Moses Maimonidies who once said of his embraced home: “In times passed by, when storms undermined us, we meandered from place to put; however by the benevolence of God we have now been empowered to discover a resting place in this city.”

First experience with the city’s Jewish past was 18 years prior, when a companion at the American University of Cairo welcomed me to Rosh Hashana administrations at the Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue, a hundred-year-old Art Nouveau structure in the core of downtown. The devotees that night were for the most part expats (understudies, international safe haven staff and the representatives of different multinational organizations), yet there was a little gathering of Egyptian Jews at the front of the corridor and one could feel the nearness of their forbearers in the void space above us.

In the years since, I’ve come back to Cairo about six times, most as of late on an exploration trip for a novel based on Sha’ar Hashamayim’s substantially more seasoned kin, Ben Ezra. Tucked in the midst of the twisting avenues of Old Cairo (otherwise called Fustat or Coptic Cairo), the squat and unassuming Ben Ezra Synagogue has been an inside for Jewish life in the city since 1040. Reconstructed and renovated various circumstances in the course of recent years — most as of late through the joint endeavors of the Egyptian government and North American Jewish donors — the synagogue was once home to the popular Cairo Geniza, a fortune trove of records that reformed the investigation of the medieval Mediterranean world. As indicated by legend, Ben Ezra was named after the prophet Ezra himself and the well in the yard is said to be where the baby Moses was drawn from the Nile.

Aside from these two synagogues — and the as of late remodeled Maimonides Synagogue, where the savant asked as a kid — Cairo’s most remarkable Jewish milestone is the Bassatine Cemetery. Set up in the ninth century, when the Sultan Ibn Tulun chose to manufacture his royal residence on the site of the previous Jewish graveyard, Bassatine sits on a mysterious fix of land, a long way from the downtown area.

As indicated by the Lonely Planet manual, the graveyard is a couple of miles east of Maadi (a selective, verdant neighborhood where numerous Jews made their home in the late nineteenth century). The Bassatine News site, an online bulletin put out by Cairo’s Jewish people group committee, gives the burial ground’s correct longitude and scope, which would have been valuable if my telephone had worked in Egypt.

None of the cabdrivers I solicited had ever gotten notification from the place and the maps I carried with me didn’t cover this piece of the city. In the end, in the wake of strolling around the edges of Maadi for the vast majority of the evening, I happened upon the burial ground, tucked into the curve of an interstate amidst a stone cutters’ locale.

As I overviewed the apparently perpetual field of little workshops, men and young men cutting statues and clearing stones for the manors of Cairo’s privileged, a little pickup truck drove past, the bed of which was loaded with men canvassed in white tidy. They took a gander at me like I was an apparition.

“No passage,” said a man remaining outside a close-by workshop.

Likewise with the burial ground in Tunis, the entryways of Bassatine were bolted with an overwhelming chain and the cemetery was encompassed by a divider, this one no less than 12 feet high. It was too high to climb, however along the far side I detected a temporary earthen incline.

I was most of the way up the incline when somebody began yelling at me from inside the memorial park.

“It’s shut,” he stated, “the burial ground is shut.”

“I’m Jewish,” I yelled down.

In spite of the fact that his face mellowed to some degree, despite everything he wouldn’t give me access.

“Converse with the rabbi,” he stated, “you require an arrangement.”

When I returned home that evening, I attempted futile to discover the rabbi who might give me consent to enter. In any case, it didn’t generally make a difference. There are hints of Cairo’s Jewish past scattered all through the city. They’re in the veneer of the old Les Grand Magasins Cicurel retail establishment, one of the numerous earlier Jewish-claimed stores downtown. They’re covered up in the tomb of Saad Zaghloul, the adored Egyptian patriot, whose Jewish partner composed the nation’s first constitution. They’re in the create stands offering molokhia, that quintessentially Egyptian vegetable otherwise called Jew’s mallow. They’re in the city, in the contraband DVDs of brilliant age Egyptian motion pictures from the 40s, highlighting Jewish performing artists and makers like Najima Ibrahim and Togo Mizrahi.

Challah and Kolkata

For a significant part of the nineteenth and twentieth hundreds of years, Kolkata was home to a flourishing Jewish people group, a large number of them migrants from Baghdad and Aleppo attracted to the capital of the British Raj. The people group included performing artists, government officials, brokers and writers, and the acclaimed model and performer, Pramila, who was the main Miss India in 1947. With the finish of British expansionism and World War II, a large portion of the network moved to another country, deserting a sprinkling of synagogues, burial grounds and schools, and in addition a little healing facility and various avenues named after Jews.

I initially found out about this history from a lady who happened to sit beside me on a departure from San Francisco to New York, whose removed relatives were overseers of the city’s two most remarkable synagogues, Beth El and Magen David. This thought of a Muslim family taking care of a synagogue after its gatherers are run stayed with me and was a piece of the motivation behind my second novel, which

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