The Exodus revisited

The Jewish community of Cairo has dwindled in the wake of the mass exodus of the twentieth century.

egypt 88 (photo credit: )
egypt 88
(photo credit: )
The gates of the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue in downtown Cairo are padlocked shut. Twenty black-clad Egyptian soldiers carrying machine guns guard this imposing building decorated with ancient Egyptian motifs, evidence of the once vibrant Jewish community that lived in this Arab capital. Today, that community has dwindled, with the soldiers guarding the building outnumbering the regular worshippers. There are about a dozen Jewish women left in Cairo according to Geoffrey Hanson, an Egyptian-born Israeli cantor who was praying in the synagogue last month. "All the men have left, and the women who remained because of intermarriage are all over 80 years old." This has left the synagogue without a minyan. On Saturdays, the caretaker of the synagogue throws open the doors for Shabbat in the hope that someone might come by to pray, but few ever do. Nevertheless, Shaar Hashamaim is now the only remaining synagogue in Cairo that has services for the local community, down from the dozens that existed before the mass exodus of Jews during the twentieth century. According to the Bible, Joseph and his brothers went down to Egypt to escape the famine and poverty of their homeland. Likewise, from the Middle Ages up until the creation of Israel, Jews escaped the hardship and oppression of Europe and headed for the prosperity and tolerance of the Nile. But in time "there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph." (Exodus 1:8) And as the children of Israel finally fled Egypt in the Book of Exodus, so too were the Jews exiled in the twentieth century. Tradition holds that four-fifths of the children of Israel chose to stay in the Pharoah's kingdom rather than follow Moses into the desert. To the dismay of the remaining Egyptian community, this story was not repeated in the second Exodus from the land of Egypt. What is left of the rich history of the Jews in Egypt remains only in the memories of those who lived it and in the fading buildings dwarfed by a giant metropolis, buildings which provide the last physical proof of a society that no longer exists. A vibrant history The Ben Ezra Synagogue is located in historic Old Cairo, just a few stops on the Metro south of downtown. Renovated as part of the 1979 Camp David accords between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, the synagogue is a tangible symbol of peace, with marble floors shining below the intricate wooden designs of the women's gallery above. Ben Ezra is no longer an active center of worship for the Jews of Cairo, but a constant flow of tour groups circulates through the synagogue every day. It houses the mikva where, according to Egyptian tradition, Moses was pulled from the reeds of the Nile by Pharoah's daughter and Mary stopped to rest and bathe the infant Jesus. It was in this synagogue that the famous Cairo Geniza was found in 1896 by Solomon Schecter, Rabbinic scholar at Cambridge University and founder of the American Conservative Jewish movement. A geniza is the storeroom within a synagogue for worn out texts that contain the name of God, which may not be destroyed according to Jewish law but must be respectfully buried. Genizas have been found wherever Jews have lived, but none compares to the discovery in Cairo, which describes Jewish life in the Muslim world from as early as 870 A.D. and as late as 1880. Important documents were found written by the hand of Moses Maimonides, the famous Medieval rabbi, scholar and physician, as well as the long lost Hebrew text of the second-century B.C.E. book, The Greek Ecclesiasticus. In his multi-volume study of the Cairo Geniza, Shelomo Dov Goitein, late professor of Jewish life in the Middle Ages at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote that the Jews under Fatimid and Ayyubid rule were integrated into contemporary society, buying, selling and renting property from their neighbors and practicing the same trades. Many of the documents found were written in Judeo-Arabic, a form of medieval Arabic written with Hebrew letters, indicative of the Jewish integration within the greater Arabic-speaking community. "Christians, Muslims and Jews have always had a close relationship in Egypt," says Abdel Kamed Osman, resident scholar of the Ben Ezra synagogue, who received his bachelor's degree in Hebrew from Cairo University and his master's at Tel Aviv University. "During medieval times, the Jews were attacked in Europe. But life was easier in Middle Eastern countries then, so we see a huge migration from Europe and a corresponding proliferation of synagogues and Jewish scientists," says Osman. This includes Maimonides, who settled in Egypt after he was forced out of Spain, later becoming the personal physician of Salah al-Din, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty and famous for retaking Jerusalem from the Crusaders. The good life By the 19th century, the Jews in Egypt had established important cultural and economic ties between the West and East. Ottoman ruler Mehmet Ali, founder of modern Egypt, recognized the potential of the Jews as catalysts for economic growth and enlisted their help. "Many of the Jews became businessmen and worked with money. Major families like the Qattawis, Musseris, and Suares owned factories, stores, and importing companies that lined the streets of Cairo," says Osman. Even today, the grand facades of old department stores bear the names of Jewish businesses: Hannaux, Cicurel and Pontremoli, all later nationalized by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Khan al-Khalili, the popular market opposite the al-Azhar mosque and university, was historically a Jewish neighborhood, where the Jews owned a large number of jewelry shops and worshiped in the synagogue of Maimonides. During the halcyon years before the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, both Jews and Europeans came to Cairo to make their fortune in a cosmopolitan and economically booming city. "Life was very different there," says Albert Bahar, an Egyptian-born Israeli who visited Egypt for the first time in 50 years with Geoffrey Hanson last month. "My father was born in Jerusalem, where in the 1920s there was a cholera epidemic and struggles between the Ottomans, the English, and the French. But at the same time, Egypt seemed like Los Angeles or Hollywood because it was very easy to live there. It was la dolce vita. So my father and his sister left for Alexandria." Downtown Cairo between Tahrir Square, the American University, and Talaat Harb Square was European Cairo, where French was more likely to be heard on the streets than Arabic. Alexandria became a popular vacation spot to escape the summer heat in Cairo, and also an important relay point for trade and European immigration. By World War II, the Jewish community had flourished, and their numbers swelled to 80,000. "There were no poor Jews in Egypt," claims Lucy Calamaro, who was born in 1944 in Baab al-Louq, a neighborhood in European Cairo. "There were only the rich and the less rich because the community would not accept that anyone needed something. We all took care of each other, no matter what." Through all this time, relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims remained cordial. "When I left Egypt I was 12 years old and my best friend was a Muslim girl," says Levana Zamir in Tel Aviv, who grew up in a small town near Cairo named Helwan, which has today been incorporated into Cairo's urban sprawl. "We grew up together since our first day in school. She was from an aristocratic family, and it was okay, it was perfectly natural. As my mother said, there was a full harmony between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and together we built Helwan." Exile "After 1948, when Egypt attacked Israel, it was the first time we felt vulnerable," says Bahar. "During this period we had to be careful. My father was very clear to us: 'You are foreigners, you are here temporarily,' so we didn't need a passport or citizenship." Of the 80,000 Jews living in Egypt at the time, only 5,000 to 10,000 held Egyptian citizenship, 40,000 were stateless and 30,000 were foreign nationals from Italy, France, Britain and others, even though most of the latter had also been born in Egypt. Levana Zamir's Mosseri family, for example, immigrated from Italy 300 years before they were forced out of Egypt, yet Zamir was never granted Egyptian citizenship and she retains her Italian passport to this day. As the situation between Israel and the Arab world worsened, life got steadily more difficult for the Jews in Egypt. The period between 1948 and the revolutionary coup of July 23, 1952 marked the first wave of emigration of Jews out of Egypt, when 25,000 Jews left Cairo alone. "I remember it was between Friday and Saturday, the 18th of May, 1948," recalls Zamir, "at midnight, Egyptian police came into our house and they opened everything, they took everything. In the morning, I went to school and my teacher told me they had taken my uncle to prison. 'They say we are Zionists,' my mother explained." After almost two years of struggle, the Italian embassy succeeded in freeing Zamir's uncle, and he was brought to a ship leaving for France in handcuffs. In 1950, Zamir and her family left Egypt for good, but "all our money was finished and we left for France with nothing." Abraham Matalon, a well-known lawyer in Jerusalem, now retired, recalls in his Tel Aviv apartment how he was imprisoned by Egyptian police in 1948: "It was the Friday night after the declaration of the state of Israel when I was arrested and brought to internment in Abu Kir, near the Mediterranean shore. I stayed there for a year and a half and was liberated only after Egypt's defeat. There was never a formal accusation, but we knew we were imprisoned for being Zionists." Yet even amidst all this political turmoil, every day relations between Muslims and Jews were still possible. Matalon describes his encounter in the Abu Kir internment camp with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria, who had also been imprisoned: "At first I didn't know he was a member. We embraced, and we started meeting every day. He said me he wanted to learn Hebrew, and I wanted to learn Koran, so this is how we spent our time." Matalon continues: "I wanted to have a dialogue with the Muslims, and they loved me for it! I did the call to prayer in the camp and the soldiers admired it, they even answered me. And they knew I was a Zionist, but they did not manifest any attitudes against me. They said we are friends in life. When you come to talk to your enemy, you see that he is a different person, you can see his human side." Nevertheless, politics in Egypt and the Middle East moved grudgingly forward, despite the personal relationship many Jews had with local Egyptians. On January 26, 1952, a mob incensed over British rule set fire to European Cairo, destroying many Jewish businesses. On July 23, 1952, the Free Officer Movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser took control of Egypt's government in a bloodless coup, forcing King Farouk to leave on a ship from Alexandria. Recalls Lucy Calamaro, "I remember the revolution because the Muslims burned all of the Jewish shops and stole what was inside. I remember it so well because for a whole week we did not leave the apartment." By the time of the Lavon affair in 1954, when Israeli officials plotted to attack American and British targets in Cairo to keep them from withdrawing from Egypt, "the Jews proved that we were enemies," according to Albert Bahar, "and it gave reason for us to be treated as enemies. Before 1954, the Jews were accepted and life went on despite Israel; we even had the Maccabi Basketball team in Alexandria. But after 1954 was particularly difficult." After the Sinai campaign in 1956, when France, Great Britain and Israel cooperated to take control of the Suez Canal, Nasser deported all the remaining Jews with British and French passports. "We were forced to leave in 24 hours with only one bag, and we left all our shops, stores, and cars behind," says Calamaro. "The Egyptians took all our businesses and money for themselves, and we signed on this, we had no choice." The Six Day War of 1967 dealt the final blow to the community in Egypt, when Nasser threw many Jewish men and youths in jail. Afterwards, and upon their release, most of Egypt's Jews left for Israel, Europe, or the United States, leaving only a few hundred behind. Perspectives on loss "My parents couldn't take anything from Egypt," recalls Levana Zamir. "My mother sewed her jewelry into the hem of her coat, and by a miracle she got on the boat, but it was nothing to build a new life with. When new immigrants came to Israel, they put us in tents. It was very difficult for my parents, and I remember my mother crying every night." But the Jews in Egypt had always given great importance to education, building their own high schools and providing private schooling for the poor. Within a few years, most families had pulled themselves out of poverty through hard work and established themselves in their new homes in Israel. Any bitterness Zamir might have harbored vanished when she visited Egypt for the first time in 1982. "I went back because I was curious what kind of place it is and I wanted to remember what I had left. And when I was in Egypt, I found my place. After so many years, I thought I was an Israeli, but I am not. I was exiled from Egypt: we had to leave, though we did not want to." Taking a different perspective, Lucy Calamaro claims she "will never again put my foot in Egypt because I remember the bad days. I do not miss it at all. We had a good life, but it was like being a bird in a cage. I prefer to live poorly in Israel." Yet despite being an adamant Zionist, Calamaro has never become an Israeli citizen. "I am convinced that one day the Italian embassy will get my money back from Egypt. When we left, the Egyptians made us leave everything behind, but they gave us papers signed by the government and Nasser himself saying we are owed half-a-million dollars. For this we agreed never to return to Egypt." An uncertain future When Geoffrey Hanson returned to his native city of Alexandria in 1980 to see the synagogue of his youth, Eliahou Hanabi, he heard rumors of the Egyptian government's desire to take over the synagogue and to convert it into something else. On Friday, the Muslim holy day, thousands flooded the mosques, filling them past capacity and forcing the pious to pray on small rugs in the middle of the street. Walking around Alexandria, Hanson concluded that it was only a matter of time before the Muslims called for the conversion of Eliahou Hanabi, the biggest synagogue in the Arab world, capable of holding 1,500 people. "In fact, an Egyptian office was opened in the compound, reporting monthly on the situation at the synagogue," Hanson says. And without regular attendance or religious services "it is only natural that the government wants to close the synagogue down, it is not a question of being anti-Jewish." And so Hanson, who retired in 2000, started traveling all over the world on a "holy mission" to save Eliahou Hanabi and the Jewish buildings in all of Egypt. "[I am] asking for moral support from Jewish communities and advising them of the importance of regular visits," he says. Hanson believes that when the Egyptian authorities see these temples are active places of worship, they will be "afraid to go against people from all over the world." Nevertheless, Shabbat at the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue in Cairo last month was a subdued affair. Hanson had succeeded in luring from abroad only Albert Bahar, and none of the few remaining local Jews attended. "I think Geoff's idea is a mission impossible," Bahar says. "Even after many years of peace, I myself had no desire to go back to Cairo. Our family felt like foreigners. My friends visited and told me their impressions, which synagogues were destroyed. I preferred to keep my childhood as it is," Bahar says. There are, however, still occasions to celebrate for Hanson. Writing in his annual report on the state of Jewish affairs in Egypt, he describes when a group of French tourists arrived in Alexandria for Simchat Torah last year: "We sang and danced holding the Torah scrolls with attendance of 10 men, with a full service of seven times around the synagogue, according to Jewish tradition. The local residents of Alexandria were crying for joy, not remembering a day like this in over 50 years."