By: Levana Zamir
After her unexpected passing - Carmen Weinstein, 82, had been President of the tiny Jewish Community of Cairo for more than 15 years - Jews from Egypt all over the world are worried: Who will maintain the remaining synagogues? Who will tend the Bassatine Cemetery - or what is left from it - and preserve the many Jewish buildings still belonging to the community? Who will organize the next High Holiday services at Cairo’s Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue? Who will take care of the 10 or 20 Jewish widows still living in Cairo?
As she was both devoted and indefatigable, during her presidency Carmen saved the last 20 synagogues of Egypt from being sold. They were salvaged from among the 60 abandoned in the mid-20th century, when most of Egypt''s 100,000 Jews were deported or compelled to leave. But Carmen Weinstein - "the Iron Lady" - was a domineering figure too. She was the one to solve all problems, the tiny and everyday ones as well as the serious ones. But after she was charged with fraud in an Egyptian court, undergoing much suffering until her final acquittal lately, the Haroun sisters - Magda and Nadia - became closer to Carmen and began partaking in all Carmen''s activities.
Nadia and Magda Haroun, aged in their 50s and 60s, are Cairo Jews born and bred. One or the other will be elected to replace Carmen Weinstein in the next few days as President of the Jewish Community of Cairo. This is a tiny community, but still a very significant one. The job will involve much responsibility concerning the preservation of Jewish religious and cultural heritage, as well as undertaking the restoration of synagogues in Cairo in desperate need of repair.
As Magda Haroun is a renowned and very busy Cairo lawyer, it seems that Nadia will be chosen as President. However, the outcome is open: it will be one or the other. The sisters'' late father, Mr Haroun, was among those Jews arrested in June 1967, following the Six-Day War, and forced to serve a long term in prison. When the time came for him to be released - on condition he left Egypt and directly boarded a ship out of the country - he refused to leave. He said: "I am Egyptian, and I want to stay and carry on living in Egypt until my dying day."
In an interview on Egyptian TV a few weeks ago, Magda even recalled that when her elder sister, then six years-old, was very ill in the early 1960s, doctors said that she could be cured only in Europe. But in order to be able to take her out of Egypt, her father was asked to give up his Egyptian identity - as all Jews were then asked to do. His Egyptian passport would be stamped with the notorious ALLER SANS RETOUR stamp: this would not allow him to return to Egypt after his daughter was cured. So Mr. Haroun decided not to leave Egypt and not to give up his Egyptian identity. He stayed with his daughter in Cairo. She died from her illness some months later.
Since Pharaonic times thousands of years ago, Jews had always lived in Egypt, as waves of successive rulers ebbed and flowed in the land of the Nile. The Jewish presence was sometimes glorious - as in Hellenistic times, 2000 years ago: there were one million Jews in Alexandria. Sometimes, as today, only a few survive in Cairo and Alexandria. But Jews have always been faithful, always there.
Carmen Weinstein used to warmly welcome Jews from Egypt living in Europe or the United States coming to visit their synagogues in Egypt. But she was somewhat frosty towards Egyptian Jews living in Israel. She used to say that these are Zionists who betrayed Egypt by making Aliyah, and that she had nothing to do with Israel. Before becoming President and since, Carmen used to come to Israel to visit friends, and to have special orthopedic surgery done on her knees. But when she did so it was in secret, for fear that the Egyptian authorities would accuse her of ''normalization''.
The funeral for Carmen Weinstein will take place on Thursday April 18th 2013 in Cairo, to allow her sister Glorice from Switzerland and friends from abroad to come and pay their last respects.
May her soul rest in Peace.
Levana Zamir is President of the Jews from Egypt Association in Israel, and author of the book
"The Golden Era of the Jews of Egypt in Modern Times".