Remembering The Last Jews Of Egypt

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    The last of Egypt's once thriving Jewish Community celebrating Purim at Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, in the center of Cairo, Egypt in October 1997. (Photo by Norbert Schiller)

    The last of Egypt’s once thriving Jewish Community celebrating Purim at Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, in the center of Cairo, Egypt in October 1997. (Photo by Norbert Schiller)

    (MINNEAPOLIS) – I met Carmen Weinstein, the current President of Cairo’s Jewish community, in the mid-1990s through a very good friend, Egyptian historian Samir Rafaat, who was helping her set up an online newsletter to keep the Egyptian Jewish diaspora informed of the latest news from the tiny Jewish community living in Cairo. Samir asked me to accompany Carmen to some of the historical Judaic sites, as he needed to have them documented by someone he could trust and who wouldn’t turn around and publish the photos without permission.

    I had been warned of Carmen’s deep mistrust of anyone carrying a camera or claiming to be a journalist, and I wasn’t expecting much cooperation from her during our tour of the sites. However, I was pleasantly surprised when upon our first meeting she was very comfortable discussing the pictures that she wanted me to take. Her suspicion and aloofness resulted from being used time and again by opportunists, including journalists, religious figures, politicians and even down right crooks, who had their own agenda.  As a result, Carmen had to remain vigilant, only trusting those closest to her. Fortunately for me, Samir’s recommendation was good enough to make me part of that circle of trust.

    Carmen, who recently turned 80, has spent the better part of her adult life fighting against the odds to preserve what little is left of Egypt’s Jewish identity.  She has worked tirelessly to protect Jewish artifacts such as the sacred Torah scrolls, ancient manuscripts, and other relics from being smuggled out of the country.  After the Jewish exodus from Egypt, which started in 1948, Judaic artifacts fell prey to a wave of pillaging. Carmen has dedicated herself to protecting whatever is left. Her other mission is to restore many of the city’s old synagogues that are in complete ruin. One of her most successful campaigns was to stop the encroachment of Cairo’s housing boom onto the Bassatine Cemetery, Cairo’s largest and most famous Jewish cemetery. In spite of Carmen’s passionate devotion to preserving Egypt’s Jewish heritage, many feel that her efforts are futile because the only people left to appreciate her struggles are the last of a dying community, numbering less than one hundred.

    First Lady, Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea visiting Ben Ezra Synagogue with Carmen Weinstein, the current President of Egypt's Jewish Community, in March 1999. (Photo by Norbert Schiller)

    From the very start Carmen was determined to get as much out of me as possible in the shortest amount of time, an obvious clue to how important it was for her to record all that was left. Her first assignment for me was to photograph the newly restored Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo so that she could print postcards for visiting tourists. But before I had even begun to work on that project, she already had another task lined up for me. She requested that I accompany her on a tour of the dilapidated synagogues in Cairo to take detailed photos of the damage. She intended to use the pictures to raise awareness and money for the restoration of the temples. Carmen was also very keen on documenting all the Jewish holidays that the community celebrated, an obvious public relations attempt at proving that Egypt still had a vibrant Jewish presence. She often expressed her frustration with me when I was clueless about an upcoming celebration. Whenever I forgot to show up at an event, she scolded me as a mother would reprimand her son for a similar offence. But the most revealing anecdote about Carmen was when first lady Hilary Clinton visited the Ben Ezra synagogue and I had to negotiate to have my pictures published in the press. It was never easy dealing with Carmen, though I have to admit that I admired her determination.

    In the latest edition of the Bassitine News, the Egyptian Jewish community newsletter that Samir and Carmen founded, there was an unusual announcement that followed yet another obituary:

    “We are looking for the relatives of the late Jeanette Mosseri, born MERCADES ANNA SOLOMON or SALOMON. Please contact the Jewish Community of Cairo.”

    Jeanette leaves behind a beautiful villa in Cairo’s ritzy Zamalek neighborhood. Unfortunately, she has no known heir or heiress to inherit her villa. I can’t recall if I ever met Jeanette at one of the religious celebrations that I covered, but that really doesn’t make much of difference. The sad fact is that her death is a reminder that this once vibrant community will no longer exist in a matter of years.

    A part of Egyptian history was made every time Egypt’s aging Jewish population would gather together to celebrate one of the many religious holidays like Purim, Passover, Yom Kippur or Sukkot. At every religious celebration the same group of elderly women and men would show up to the Synagogue in their finest attire, that usually looked out of another era. On some of the occasions, other, much younger Jews would show up, some even with their families. But unfortunately these were not a new generation of Egyptian Jews, rather they were usually expatriates living and working in Cairo or diplomats from the Israeli Embassy. I couldn’t help but wonder what these elderly Egyptians thought as they watched all the activity unfold before their very eyes. Undoubtedly, it must have brought back memories to much happier times when Egypt’s many varied communities lived together in relative harmony.

    There was a time, prior to the 1952 military coup that overthrew the king, when Egypt was a melting pot.  It attracted expatriates from Greece, Italy, France and England, as well as Arabs from the Levant. Among these minorities was a thriving Jewish community that, at its height, numbered over one hundred thousand. The first sign of trouble for Egyptian Jews came with the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, and the subsequent defeat of Egypt’s well organized army against a ragtag Israeli militia using unconventional tactics. This was when many Jews decided to emigrate from Egypt. The second and largest exodus followed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. This sparked the 1956 Suez War and the consequent Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula. The conflict turned public opinion against the Jews and they began to leave Egypt in droves. Another wave followed in 1961, when Nasser nationalized many of country’s private businesses.  In addition to the Jewish exodus, there was a mass emigration by European and Levantine Arab expatriates who had made Egypt their home.

    Robert Nahman standing beside the Bimah (podium) watching the children play during a Jewish celebration at Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, in the center of Cairo, Egypt, in the mid 1990s. (Photo by Norbert Schiller)

    The final nail in the coffin for the Jews who remained was Egypt’s humiliating defeat to Israel in the 1967 War. Those who stayed behind afterwards were either too old to travel, they were married to Egyptian Muslims or Coptic Christians, or they were convinced that the situation couldn’t get any graver.

    One of the last events I photographed for Carmen before I left was the funeral of Robert Nahman in October 1999. I had met Robert at many of the celebrations that I photographed, and he struck me as a genuine and warm individual who did not harbor any resentment towards his community’s fate in Egypt. He was there at every celebration, even when it was obvious that his health was failing him. It was never hard to spot Robert, for he never sat in the pews, but preferred to stand beside the Bimah (podium) in the middle of all the action.

    Robert’s Funeral, at Bassetine Cemetery, was attended by a small gathering of close friends from the community and a few Israeli diplomats. When Robert was asked, in an interview with Bassatine News, shortly before he died, why he never emigrated from Egypt, he replied:

    “Je suis ici par amour pour l’Egypte ou j’ai vecu comme un roi. Plusieurs generations de Nahmans reposent au cemetiere de Bassatine. Je les rejoindrais au moment voulus.”

    (I am here for the love of Egypt, where I have lived like a king. Several generations of Nahmans now rest in the cemetery of Bassatine. I will join them when it is time.)

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