Members of the Tribe / Forgotten exodus, forgotten community
Within eight years, the most modern, diverse and best-educated Jewish community in the region disappeared. Perhaps the heterogeneity of Egypt's Jews is the reason their collective memory evaporated far more quickly than that of the Jews of Poland, Germany or Iraq.
Every Pesach, while most Jews in the world are gathering to mark the Exodus from Egypt, a few Egyptian-born Jews try to evoke the memory of the "second Exodus." Between 1948 and 1956, nearly 80,000 Jews left Egypt, half going to Israel and half to various Western countries. Within eight years, the most modern, diverse and best-educated Jewish community in the Mediterranean region disappeared. Perhaps it is the heterogeneity of Egypt's Jews that is to blame for the fact that their collective memory evaporated so quickly, far more quickly than that of the Jews of Poland, Germany or Iraq.
The history of Egyptian Jewry has been preserved in only a few books, a handful of studies and one small academic center. Two elderly people, one in Alexandria, the other in Cairo, are trying to preserve what remains of the formerly vast property of a community more than 3,000 years old. Only a few Jews in the world today know the story of Egypt's Jews.
To the eyes of a visitor, the Jewish community center of Alexandria, at 69 Nebi Daniel Street, is like a flowering garden in the middle of a desert. Large buildings surrounded by cultivated ornamental gardens stand in the heart of a filthy, neglected quarter that was once the city's magnificent center. This is the relic of a happy time when Alexandria belonged more to the Mediterranean at its feet than to the Arabian desert at its back.
Alexandria became one of the most important Jewish centers shortly after it was built in 325 B.C.E. In the first century A.D. it was home to the famos Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. In modern times, it was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 which transformed Alexandria into a vibrant, growing city, a magnet for migrants. Greek, Italian, French, English and Armenian were spoken in the city, in addition to Arabic. The 35,000 Jews who lived in Alexandria prior to World War II were fluent in all or most of those languages. In 1884, they built the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, one of the largest and most resplendent Jewish houses of worship in the world.
The synagogue, which easily held a thousand worshipers, is now an abandoned structure in the heart of the compound. Only the names of the community's wealthy patrons are still affixed to their seats on shiny brass plaques. Also abandoned are the rabbinical court, the high school and other community structures. The old-age home and the 17 synagogues scattered around the city were shut down long ago. Fewer than 10 Jews now live in Alexandria. The community's president, Dr. Max Salame, 94, is the last ember of the city's Jewish population.
Rich past, tragic present
Although Cairo was built by the Arabs a thousand years after Alexandria, the Jews of Cairo have a history which is just as rich, and a present which is equally tragic. For centuries, Karaite and Rabbinic Jews lived side by side in Cairo. (Karaites reject the Talmud as a source of religious law, relying on the Bible only.) At the end of the 12th century, Cairo was the most important Jewish center in the world, largely due to Moses Maimonides (the Rambam). The second great contribution of Cairene Jewry was the Cairo Geniza, a collection of hundreds of thousands of documents relating to the everyday life of the community. It was stored in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fostat (Old Cairo) for centuries before being discovered by Solomon Schechter in 1896.
Only a handful of Jews remained in Cairo after 1967. The luxurious villas the rich Jewish families built on the bank of the Nile became museums or foreign embassies, but most of the community's property was preserved. In fact, it was the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979 that dealt a heavy blow to the community, because of the tremendous momentum it lent to the illegal commerce in Judaica and other valuables.
In many cases these liquidation sales had the blessing of the community's leaders. The Ben Ezra Synagogue, which was renovated and restored with the generous assistance of the Bronfman family, is nearly the only structure that escaped the looting.
Cairo's Jewish community today, like that of Alexandria, consists of only one person. Carmen Weinstein, a businesswoman in her seventies, is courageously attempting to preserve the remains, under impossible conditions. The Egyptian press routinely accuses her of having ties with Israel's Mossad. For the more militant of former Egyptian Jews, Weinstein is a traitor who seeks to transfer community property to the Egyptians in exchange for financial reward.
Famous Egyptian-born Jews include Israeli author Haim Sabato, British businessman and politician Sir Ronald Cohen and the U.S.-based media mogul Haim Saban. No influential Egyptian-born Jews, however, have sponsored efforts to save community property remaining in the country or to commemorate the community's magnificent past. Jews of Egyptian origin around the world have established many organizations, but most are one-person shows that waste their time on struggles for honor and prestige. Some, like author and peace activist Prof. Ada Aharoni of Haifa, dedicate themselves heart and soul to preserving the memory of Egyptian Jewry, but regrettably they are too few.
Only 50 years have passed since the second exodus from Egypt, but the term refers to the dismantling of a community whose existence no longer means anything to most of the world's Jews.