Carmen Weinstein, last grande dame of a bygone era

She will be remembered as the last survivor of a community which did so much for Egypt and was so badly rewarded.

Carmen Weinstein 370 (photo credit: Egyptian Jewish website Bassatine News)
Carmen Weinstein 370
(photo credit: Egyptian Jewish website Bassatine News)
Carmen Weinstein, president of the Jewish community of Cairo, will be laid to rest on Thursday between her father and her mother in the Bassatine cemetery.
I was fortunate in counting her as my friend since our first meeting more than 30 years ago.
Carmen was born to a well-to-do family in 1931, the last of the golden days of Egyptian Jewry. A graduate of the American University of Cairo, she was fluent in French and English – and of course Arabic.
Blessed with sharp intelligence and a ready wit, she was looking to a bright future writing plays and being part of the cultural scene of her country. Fate decreed otherwise.
When the Jews of Egypt were forced into exile, she stubbornly refused to leave, and despite years of hardship and the loss of many of her family’s assets, she managed to retain the printing shop founded by her father and to turn it into a going concern.
When her mother, Esther, was elected president of the community in 1996 at the age of 86, it was Carmen who actually took care of things. She became president in 2004 when Esther passed away.
By that time there were fewer and fewer Jews in Cairo, all of them elderly. Soon there were no men left.
For years, Carmen battled to save what could be saved of the heritage of a once vibrant community.
She took care of her aging flock though she was barely younger. She fought to preserve the ancient Bassatine cemetery, threatened by encroaching neighbors, vandalism and urban expansion.
She was instrumental in bringing about the restoration of the Sha’ar Hashama’im synagogue and more recently, of the Rambam synagogue in what had once been Cairo’s Jewish quarter.
When she passed away last week, she was eulogized by the press in Egypt, which does not, as a rule, have anything good to say about Jews. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who famously called Jews “sons of pigs and monkeys,” published a communiqué praising “a dedicated Egyptian who worked tirelessly to preserve Egyptian Jewish heritage.”
The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as France’s Le Figaro, all wrote lengthy obituaries. This may not be too little, but it is certainly too late.
For years Carmen had battled alone in an increasingly hostile environment. Virulent anti-Semitic articles were published in the press, and she herself was not immune to attack.
Sadly, some Jewish organizations abroad have condemned her for not releasing records and documents concerning her community, but she could not do so because of opposition from the Egyptian government.
In recent years, her failing health made her work increasingly difficult. The tributes now heaped on her would have been most welcome then, and would have made her task so much easier.
Fortunately, she did have good friends, both in Egypt and abroad, people who comforted her in difficult times and rejoiced with her when things got better.
She will be remembered as the last grande dame of a bygone era, the last survivor of a community which did so much for Egypt and was so badly rewarded.
The writer is the wife of Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. She is the author of The Ambassador’s Wife, a personal account of the eight years she spent in Cairo with her husband.