Notes on The Jewish Cemetery in Calcutta

by Robert Hirschfield Apr 21, 2010
Robert Hirschfield visits the Jewish Cemetery in Calcutta, thinking of the last Jews left in India, and of last places.

WE ARE driving up and down Narkeldanga Main Road looking for tombstones.

All I see are storefronts. The heat is roasting the car windows and my stubby pencil.

The driver is throwing up his hands, which I take as a good sign. In another minute, he will be heading back to Park Street in search of lunch.

But a man is waving to us in front of a locked gate. We have arrived at the Jewish Cemetery of Calcutta. I blink in disbelief when the gate opens. I am not expecting to see this thriving density of tombstones, many elongated, some upright, others tiny, the graves of little children.

Above ground, there are only about thirty-five Jews left, and most of them are in their seventies and eighties. I identify strongly with last places and last things and the last souls of dying communities. I may not be an observant Jew, but my spirit naturally gloms on to that which is scattered, to that which hangs on by fingernails over an abyss.

Finding myself in the physical manifestation of the abyss, I begin by looking for the grave of Shalom Cohen, Calcutta’s first Jew, the late eighteenth century court jeweler of the Nawab of Oudh, who will soon be greeting (in whatever way the dead greet the dead) Calcutta’s last Jew.

I can’t find where he is buried, but I visit with others who followed him, who were buried with him, who inevitably, I suppose, belong to him. I see where Jocelyn Raymond Leveroy, born on January 16, 1913, died on October 17, 1946. Why such a short life? What delighted her? Who loved her? At least she didn’t die in the heat of Calcutta’s wicked summer.

I think of another grave at the other end of the world. A grave that has seen every season, but only once. The grave of my brother, Reb Aryeh Hirschfield in Portland, Oregon.

He drowned in Mexico a year ago, but I still talk to him. Now even more than before. “What do you make of all these Jews dead behind a gate,” I say. “How does this pan out mystically?”

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