Jews in Shushan

(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in the Civil and Military Gazette on 4 October 1887 and collected in Life’s Handicap, 1891.

The story

Ephraim, a bill-collector, is the leader of a small community of Jews in the northern city of Shushan. They keep apart from the local people, and Ephraim slaughters their meat according to ritual. He dreams of the day when there will be ten of them, when they can have a synagogue and he will be their rabbi. But there are only eight. Then two children die, their mother wanders dementedly out to look for them, and dies too. Another of the little group, an orphan boy, runs away, and then the oldest man dies. Ephraim leads the others to the railway station to go back to Calcutta. Soon there will be no Jews in Shushan.


Jan Montefiore notes: In Something of Myself (1937), Kipling recalls (pp. 52-3) joining the Masonic Lodge of Hope and Perseverance in Lahore:

I met Muslims, Hindus. Sikhs, members of the Araya and Brahmo Samaj, and a Jew tyler who was priest and butcher to his little community in the city.

Clearly this unnamed tyler, the door-keeper of the lodge, was the original of Ephraim. Lahore is presumably called ‘Shushan’ in order to emphasise the city’s alienness to Jews. The reason they can’t have a synagogue without Ephraim’s brother and family is the requirement for ten males to form a minyan, which is the quorum for a synagogue. [J.M.]

Critical responses

Like other stories in this volume, this one has been somewhat neglected by the critics and biographers, but Dr Shamsul Islam discusses Kipling’s attiture to the various religions in India in Chapter 3 of his Kipling’s ‘Law’, while Philip Mason, referring to “The Treasure and the Law” (Puck of Pook’s Hill) observes that Kipling is writing with a rare understanding of what it has meant to be a Jew in Christendom (p. 303.)

There is also an important article by Craig Raine in KJ303 where he examines Kipling’s somewhat ambivalent attitude to other races and creeds ranging from his verse “The Mother-Lodge” (1895) which shows a large tolerance, to some of his later work which shows a certain prejudice.

See also Andrew Lycett, p. 428 and passim for observations on Kipling’s shared interests on religion and freemasonry.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2006 All rights reserved