East of the Hooghly River in the Indian city of Kolkata sits Barabazar, a wholesale market whose history goes back to the 18th Century. Everything – from spices, clothes and electronics to salvaged doors and second-hand furniture – is traded here. Amidst this bustling grid of roads, at the corner of Brabourne Road and Canning Street, sits the imposing Magen David Synagogue. Adjacent to it is the city’s oldest existing synagogue, Neveh Shalom Synagogue.
Built in Italian Renaissance style in the late-19th Century with bright brick finish, beige trim, arches and a pointed tower, Magen David is striking. Inside, chequered floors, ornate pillars, shimmering chandeliers and stained-glass windows make for a memorable image. However, the synagogue is deserted on most days, and hardly any religious activity takes place.
Kolkata is home to the Baghdadi Jews, who were once abundant enough to warrant five synagogues; now there aren’t enough for a minyan (minimum  male Jews required for liturgical purposes). Magen David and the smaller Beth El Synagogue on nearby Pollock Street were both classified as protected monuments and renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India in 2017. Today, they are tourist destinations, and kept open for the odd visitor.
The story of disappearing Jewish populations finds echoes elsewhere in India. Esther David’s recent book, Bene Appetit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews, is an attempt to preserve the culinary traditions of these diminishing communities. Jews are believed to have first arrived in India about 2,000 years ago, according to David. Since then, until two centuries ago, waves of Jewish immigrants continued to come here from various parts of the world, fleeing persecution and looking for better livelihoods. Once they landed, they settled in disparate corners of the country.
The largest group, the Bene Israel Jewish community, is spread over Mumbai and Pune in Maharashtra and parts of Gujarat; while Malabar or Cochin Jews can be found in in Kerala. Baghdadi Jews settled in Kolkata; Bene Ephraim Jews near Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh; and Bnei Menashe Jews in Manipur and Mizoram. By 1940, an estimated 50,000 Jews called India home. But widespread immigration to Israel in the 1950s slowly whittled away the numbers and it is estimated that fewer than 5,000 remain.