The Forgotten Jews of Sudan Even Researchers Haven't Heard Of

Of all the Jewish communities living in Arab and Muslim states prior to the formation of Israel, the smallest was undoubtedly the 1,000 or so Jews who lived in Sudan. One octogenarian is desperate to preserve their history.

Yehoshua Levy

Yehoshua Levy, an 81-year-old retired marine engineer, left his Tel Aviv apartment two weeks ago, bound for Bar-Ilan University and a conference on “Exodus, Emigration, Expulsion and Uprooting.” It was the first ever national day in honor of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim states.

Levy, who had heard of the conference only a day earlier, wasn’t surprised he hadn’t received an official invitation. He belongs to a small, rare community of Jews who immigrated to Israel from Sudan. The organizers didn’t even know of its existence. Even researchers specializing in Jews of Mizrahi origin haven’t heard of it.

“We’ll die soon and there’ll be nobody to remember us,” he says.

In its heyday, the Jewish community in Sudan had fewer than 1,000 members – a drop in the sea compared to the 260,000-strong Moroccan-Jewish community, the 135,000-strong Algerian community, the 125,000 Jews living in Iraq, the 90,000-strong Tunisian community, and the 75,000 Jews who lived in Egypt before Israel was established.

The Jewish community in Sudan dissolved after 1956, when the country became independent and joined the Arab League. An estimated 500 Jews came to Israel, while the rest dispersed around the world.

“We don’t have an organization because we’re too small,” says Levy. “The charismatic leaders we had in Sudan went to America and England. Those who came here wanted to assimilate, to be like everyone.”

But for Levy, the numbers don’t matter. The stories, the heritage, the tradition and history of his community continue to occupy him, a full 65 years after he left Khartoum and came to Israel alone, aged 16.

The Levy family in Sudan, at the start of the 20th century. Grandfather Farag is in the center. Photo by Yehoshua Levy

His maternal grandfather, Farag Shua, took the train from Egypt to Sudan in 1900, “carrying a Singer sewing machine,” and became a textile merchant in Khartoum, Levy recalls.

Matchmaking in Egypt

In a small rented room in the then British/Egyptian-run state, Shua set up the community’s first synagogue in 1905. He taught the children Torah, Hebrew and prayers.

Shua visited Israel frequently; on one of his trips to Tiberias, he met Rabbi Salomon Malka and invited him to be the chief rabbi of Sudan’s Jews.

Shua’s eldest daughter, Rahma (Nehama) – Levy’s mother – was born in the Sudanese capital in 1901, the first of 11 siblings. When she was 16, her father took her to Egypt to find a match.

“In Sudan there were very few Jewish young men,” says Levy. “It was customary at the time to go to Egypt, where there was a much larger Jewish community. The matchmaker used to present a few young men and the father would choose one for his daughter.”

That’s how his mother met his father, Sasson Levy, and the two settled down in Khartoum. “We used to laugh at his Arabic, which was different from our grandfather’s, and at the way he pronounced all kinds of words,” Levy recalls.

Sasson and Rahma had eight children, including Yehoshua in 1933. “My life in Sudan wasn’t good. I don’t have good memories of it,” he says. “Anti-Semitism was widespread. When I left my neighborhood, children used to beat me up. Sometimes I fought against five at a time. In the street, they swore at me.”

After Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Levy started wondering why people shouted at him, “Jew, go to Palestine! What are you doing here?”

He decided to leave. In 1949 he boarded a plane – a propeller-powered Dakota – from Khartoum to Lod Airport, with a fuel stop on the Sudan-Egypt border.

His family joined him later. The last to leave Sudan was his brother, who remained until 1960.

Levy forged the age on his immigrant’s card so he could join the Israel Defense Forces. After his discharge he studied mechanics at the Technion, Haifa, and worked for Hayama, a company that built fishing boats. He obtained his second degree in marine engineering in The Netherlands.

After working in Israel Shipyards, he had a stint in England, where, among other things, he served as an adviser to shipping magnate Sammy Ofer.

Back in 1882, following a rebellion by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah against the Turco-Egyptian government in Sudan, the Egyptian army was defeated and the British governor, Gen. Charles Gordon, killed. The Jews were forced to convert to Islam and marry Sudanese women. The British conquered Sudan again at the end of the 19th century and the Jews were permitted to live as a community again. But when Sudan became independent in 1956, the Jews’ situation took a turn for the worse. “They wanted to be equal, but were accused of spying for Israel,” says Levy.

The entire community left Sudan, leaving behind its members’ private and communal property.

“It’s hard to believe how many people from that tiny community did so well in the world,” Levy says proudly. He knows of Sudanese Jews who became extremely wealthy doing business around the world. The long list includes names like Tamam, Gaon and Sarussi, as well as Levy’s own relatives.

“My brother, Morris Levy, became chairman of the multinational engineering and design firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. My cousin, Ezra Shua, was a nuclear engineer who worked on secret projects in the Pentagon,” he says. “And yet, 95 percent of Israelis don’t even know there were Jews in Sudan.”