Last month, on February 14, I had the honor of attending the hanukat habayit ceremony of the Eliyahu HaNavi synagogue, also known by the name of its street – Nebi Daniel in Alexandria, Egypt. Attending this inauguration with my mother, who was born in Alexandria, was a very emotional experience, and the closing a circle for me. Although I was born in the United States and have lived in Jerusalem for the last 20 years, the history of my whole family passes through Egypt.
In this article, I hope to try to give you a small window into the eight days and nights that I spent there on February 11 to 19 as part of an official delegation of Jews of Egyptian origin, who were invited there by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi. This article will mainly discuss the first four days of our trip when we stayed in Alexandria.
Historically, there was a large Jewish community living in Egypt in the late 19th and 20th centuries, attracted there as a result of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the consequent commercial-economic boom that occurred afterwards. According to Professor Yoram Meital of Ben Gurion University, an official Egyptian census taken in the years 1927, 1937 and 1947 showed that there were between 63,000 to 65,539 Jews living in Egypt. The actual numbers are likely closer to 80,000 to 100,000 Jews there by 1948. The Jewish community was split between the two main cities of Cairo and Alexandria as well as a few smaller communities, such as Port Said, Tanta and Helwan.
During this prosperous period, many people from all over the world including members of both sides of my family were drawn to Egypt. My mother’s family – the Ackers – were Ashkenazim, who fled from the Czars in Russia, and had traveled initially to Turkey before continuing to Jaffa, and finally settled in Egypt. They eventually opened an atelier in Alexandria where they made fashionable dresses for the high society, including the King of Egypt’s family. They had five children and one of these children. my grandfather, Isaac Acker, became a dentist and opened a dental practice in Alexandria in the late 1930s. He often treated the British and Allied soldiers that were stationed in Egypt during World War II.
My father’s family had been one of the original Jewish families living in Haifa and Zichron Ya’acov, but my great-grandfather Leon Bahbout decided to go down to Cairo, which was booming, to help support his family in Israel.
OUR TRIP, a massive undertaking, could not have been made possible without the assistance of Yves Fedida, from Paris, one of the heads of the Nebi Daniel organization www.nebidaniel.org. Yves helped organize a large French and European delegation of around 150 people, and was responsible for coordinating all the complicated logistics and security that this trip involved. Levana and Tuli Zamir headed the Israeli delegation of 15 people. Originally, there were supposed to be 35 to 40 people from Israel, but for some mysterious reason more than half of the Israelis, who were born in Egypt, were denied visas into Egypt. The Israelis who were denied visas were greatly disappointed not to be able to attend this in gathering. I was fortunate enough to travel into Egypt with my American passport and get a visa upon arrival. Ayala Geographical Tours was the Israeli tour operator for this trip to Egypt.
The inauguration of the Nebi Daniel synagogue was made possible following extensive renovation efforts led by Sisi to restore the synagogue in Alexandria at a cost of three million dollars, after its roof collapsed in 2016. In addition, Sisi has assisted in the protection of several other Jewish synagogues in Cairo and has overseen the clean-up efforts of the Jewish cemeteries both in Cairo and Alexandria.
The most moving day of our eight-day trip to Egypt was Friday, February 14, the visit to the two Jewish cemeteries of Alexandria, which are known as Chatby and Mazarita, and the rededication of the Nebi Daniel synagogue. On that Friday morning, buses and minivans shuttled all the visiting delegations to the two main Jewish cemeteries of Alexandria. An Arab family that lives in the Chatby cemetery, along with a team of other people, had worked relentlessly cleaning up the cemetery over the couple of weeks prior to our visit. Some 40 tons of garbage were removed from both of the Jewish cemeteries in Alexandria. This was also made possible by donations and financial assistance totaling $30,000 by members of the Egyptian Jewish community worldwide.
After the rubbish was cleared, the extent of the damage became apparent. Many graves are no longer recognizable; either they were smashed or marble was stolen so there are no names on the graves. Fortunately, Al Zahraa Adel Awed, a kind Egyptian tour guide, had volunteered to search the Alexandria Jewish cemeteries for the names that people emailed in before the delegations arrived. Al Zahraa, can be contacted through her email: firstname.lastname@example.org. She managed to locate one of my relatives, my mother’s father, Isaac Acker, who had passed away when my mom was only 15. It was moving for my mother, now 75, to find her father’s grave and light a candle and say kaddish there for him. More than 60 years had passed by without her having this opportunity.
THE FOLLOWING week we had a short visit to the Bassatine, the Jewish cemetery of Cairo, which is in even worse condition than Alexandria’s. Apparently the cemetery was being used as a garbage dump, and it took several hundred garbage trucks to clear out all the rubbish that had accumulated there over the last few decades. The Bassatine Cemetery is the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world, after the Mount of Olives. Only 1,200 graves remain there with partial names, which is only 25% of the original amount. Several years ago, the cemetery was mapped and names can be searched online at: http://bassatine.net/bassamap.php. Additional info can also be obtained my emailing: email@example.com.
After the cemetery visits, we shook off the dust and got ready for the dedication ceremony that kicked off at around 2:30 pm. First Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), who has been involved with restoring Jewish sites in Egypt for the past 10 years, started the official Nebi Daniel rededication ceremony by attaching a new mezuzah to the synagogue door. We then watched a procession of people dancing under a tallit with the 12 of the Torah scrolls remaining in the synagogue, only one of which is not pasul. Greetings were given in Italian and Arabic by Roberto Marini, the current President of the Alexandria Jewish Community. Then Alec Nacamuli said the Shehechyanu blessing. Nacamuli lives in England and told me later that the most moving part of his trip to Egypt was sitting in his family’s seats at the synagogue on Shabbat, and praying from his father’s old prayer book. This was the closing of a circle for him, too. Finally, Levana Zamir, president of the Union of the Jews from Egypt, based in Israel thanked Sisi during the ceremony and read a bracha in Hebrew for the State of Israel, which brought many participants to tears.
The rabbis who officiated at the ceremony included: Rabbi Yosef Nefoussi, son of the last chief rabbi of Alexandria, who currently lives in Jerusalem; and Rabbi Avraham Dayan, who is of Egyptian descent and currently is the chief rabbi of Livorno, who led the Torah reading on Shabbat. Rabbi Bueno, a hazan of Tunisian descent, came from Paris to move us all with his beautiful voice. Ariel Cohen, the director of the Israeli orchestra Firqat al Noor, played the classical Arabic violin and accompanied Bueno in some beautifully moving mizmorim (liturgical songs) before Shabbat.
The next day, during Shabbat lunch in the administrative building of the synagogue, an Israeli father and son, Ilan and Yotam from the community of Alon, stood staring at a poster of the chief rabbis of Egypt hanging on the wall. When Rabbi Nefoussi asked what they were doing, Ilan replied that he was looking at the picture of his great-grandfather Rabbi Eliyahu Hazan, one of the former chief rabbis of Alexandria from 120 years ago. Rabbi Nefoussi immediately called all the current Egyptian synagogue staff into the room to introduce them to Rabbi Hazan’s great-grandson Ilan and his great-great-grandson Yotam. This was a very special moment for everyone there.
ON NOVEMBER 30, 2019, Israeli UN Ambassador Danny Danon gave a speech in the UN where he discussed the plight of the Jewish refugees from Arab Lands, and his family’s personal story. Danon’s family, like my own, was originally from Alexandria, and they ran a bookstore and small library on the Rue Fouad. My mother told me that she used to go to their bookstore regularly. Since many of the wooden benches in the Nebi Daniel synagogue still have plaques on them with the names of the original donors, we decided to look at all of them in the chance of finding some of our relatives. My mother found two seats from her family – Oscar and Theodore Horowitz. Then, I also found two seats that still have the names of members of the Danon family on them – Armand and Herbert Danon.
In general, we had four days to explore Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, which stretches for 20 kilometers along the Mediterranean coast. Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, Alexandria grew and prospered, rivaling Rome, until it declined in the 4th century CE. Alexandria, like the rest of Egypt, was ruled by Mamluk sultans until it became part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 until 1798, when Napoleon occupied the country. Napoleon left Egypt in 1801 and during the 19th century, Pasha Mohammed Ali developed Egypt’s economy, reviving Alexandria and its port by linking it to the Nile River. This prosperity attracted many Europeans. Later the British arrived in 1882 and stayed until the mid-1950s, when they were forced out by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution.
The main square in downtown Alexandria is called “Saad Zaghloul” after the Egyptian statesman who served as prime minister in 1924. My mother and I stayed at the very pleasant Cecil Hotel, located on this square and across from the boardwalk or Corniche along the Mediterranean. First opened in 1929, the Cecil Hotel was used by the British secret service during WWII and hosted many famous British politicians and writers, such as Winston Churchill, General Montgomery, Agatha Christie and Lawrence Durrell, author of The Alexandria Quartet. Legend has it that this hotel was built on the site where Cleopatra VII committed suicide after her Egyptian fleet was defeated by Octavian in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Today the hotel is known as the Steigenberger Cecil Hotel. The staff was warm and helpful and I would highly recommend this hotel. The tram line that crisscrosses Alexandria also begins close to here, at the “Ramleh Station.”
European and other cultures have left their mark on Alexandria. Egyptian Jews spoke a variety of languages including Arabic, French, Italian, Greek, English, Ladino and Yiddish. Being multilingual helped Jews acclimate in their new countries when they were all forced to leave Egypt by Nasser. I always wondered why Egyptian Jews called their grandparents Nonna/Nonno, which is the Italian words for grandparents. I finally learned on this trip that a language known as “Franc-It,” a combination of French and Italian words, was used by Egyptian Jews. These Italian terms are still being used today whether in Europe, North America or Israel.
A CENTURY ago, the Greek population of Alexandria was as high as 10% of the city’s population, says Zahraa Adel Awed, local Alexandrian tour guide. You can see some evidence of this today. Popular spots include The Greek Yacht Club and other Greek cafes that still exist in Alexandria. Many Greek shipping companies have offices in Alexandria, as well. Another sign of the multicultural society that existed there in the past is that many shops in Alexandria still retain their old French or Italian names and some shop signs are displayed side by side with their Arabic names today. A jewelry shop that belonged to my family at 10 Salah Salem Street, still retains its original Jewish name of Horowitz along with that of the current Arab owners – Sabet Morsy Brothers.
This variety can be seen in the Alexandria Jewish community’s education system as well. There were many types of schools in Alexandria, such as the French schools – Lycee Francais and Ecole St. Marc – as well as several Jewish day schools with a French and Hebrew curriculum. There were also Italian, German and British schools in Alexandria, such as the prestigious Victoria College. This boarding school for boys from grades first to 12th grade was attended by such famous personalities as King Hussein of Jordan; Egyptian-British actor Omar Sharif; Edward Said, the orientalist who grew up in Egypt and who claims to be of Palestinian descent; and Egyptian Jewish author Andre Aciman.
There is a large café culture that existed in the colonial period and still exists in Alexandria today. Famous cafes include: Café Delice from 1922; Café Elite; Patisserie Fluckiger; and three Greek cafes and pastry shops called Athineos, Trianon and Pastroudis. Several international fast food chains are also present, such as: Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonalds, and even Starbucks and The Coffee Bean (where we stopped off at when driving on the Cairo-Alex desert road). Brazilian Coffee Stores is one of the most popular chains for coffee in Egypt.
Movies are a popular pastime as well in Egypt. Some of the famous cinemas built nearly 100 years ago are still operational, such as Cinema Metro, the Rio, Strand and the Amir are cinemas in Alexandria.
During the summer, to escape the heat, many people would pack up and spend their summers in Alexandria, where they would rent cabanas, summer houses or apartment near the famous Stanley Beach, named after famous British explorer Stanley Livingtone, and Sidi Bishr. Many people from Cairo would come to Alexandria or go to other resort places farther away, such as Ras El Bar. Other popular beaches include Miamy (spelled with a y and not an i) and Mamroura beaches. There were even Jewish summer camps for the kids such as the “Vacances de L’Enfance Heureuse,” which translates as the “Vacation of Happy Children” summer camp.
The Jewish hospital previously known as the Hôpital Israélite d’Alexandrie also played an important role in the life of the Jews of Alexandria. Among the many Jews born in this Jewish hospital were my mother and uncle. One of the members of our family, Dr. Maurice Urwand, was once the chief of surgery there. According to Levana Zamir, this small Jewish hospital used to be one of the most modern in the world at its time, and with one of the largest blood banks. Today this small hospital is a training facility for medical students.
Finally, the Ahmed Oraby Square or “Mancheya” neighborhood might be considered the hub of the old Jewish community of Alexandria. The root of its name “Mancheya” comes from the name of one of pillars of the Alexandria Jewish community, the Baron Menashe. In another interesting story, there was another popular neighborhood that was started by a Jewish businessman named Smouha. The area was originally a swamp given to him as a present of appreciation by King Farouk. Like Avraham Avinu with Maarot HaMachpela, Smouha insisted on paying for the land at full price, then drained the swamps, built apartments and villas as well as a sports club with a racetrack and made a fortune. The neighborhood known as Smouha City still retains its original Jewish family name today. When the Smouha family was forced to leave Egypt, the Egyptian government sequestered this entire neighborhood and nationalized it. Successive Egyptian Presidents have lived in the Smouha family home. The Smouha family, along many Egyptian Jews, are sill fighting today for compensation for their lost assets.
AS A tour guide myself in Israel and a tour leader abroad, I would recommend three to four days to visit Alexandria. We visited the impressive Library of Alexandria or Bibliotheca Alexandrina, founded in the third century BCE, the greatest library in the ancient world until it was burned down accidentally by Julius Caesar. In 2002, the library was re-opened, and currently has four million volumes on display. The site also has a planetarium and bookstore. It houses four small museums, one of which is the Anwar Sadat Museum, where one can find an exhibition on Sadat’s life. It was interesting to see his peace efforts with Israel from the Egyptian perspective. There are several photos of Sadat’s historic visit to Israel, along with signed gifts from Menahem Begin, Moshe Dayan and Teddy Kollek. This year marks the 41st anniversary of the signing of the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979. Other interesting archeological sites in Alexandria that we visited include the National Museum of Alexandria, the Roman Amptheatre – Kom al-Dikka, Pompeii’s Pillar, the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa, and more. Any trip to Alexandria would not be complete without a stop at the Montazah Palace and gardens, the former residence of King Farouk. The Montazah Palace is located at the very end of the boardwalk or Corniche. The left tower of the palace is a replica of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The palace is currently being renovated, but one can have a relaxing stroll in the gardens overlooking the sea and lots of young couples and honeymooners can be seen there. I especially enjoyed the quaint Turkish part of town known as Anfushi, which also includes the Ottoman Fortress Qaitbey, built in 1480 on the remains of ancient lighthouse of Alexandria.
During second part of our trip, February 15 to 18, we visited a few of the remaining Jewish sites in Cairo. The period from the mid 19th to 20th century is known as the Golden Age of the Jews of Egypt. There were some 50 to 60 synagogues in Cairo alone; today only about a dozen remain. During our three days in Cairo, we visited the synagogue and yeshiva of the Rambam (Moses ben Maimon), which is 800 years old. The Shaar Shamayim, also known as the Adly Street synagogue, is the main synagogue of the Jews of Cairo, and where all the Jews were required to get married by the Chief Rabbi of Egypt. We also visited the beautiful Ben Ezra synagogue, which was the location of the Cairo geniza. Other important synagogues include the Grand Temple Karaite of Cairo, and the beautiful Meir Einayim or Meir Biton synagogue in the exclusive upscale neighborhood of Me’adi. The neighborhood once had villas of some of the richest Egyptian Jewish families, such as the Cattoui family and the Mosseiri family, who built the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. We visited the Hanan Synagogue, also known as Etz HaHaim founded in 1900 and once led by Rabbi Dwek, who eventually settled in the Syrian section of Brooklyn. In Cairo, one can find the important gravesite of Rabbi Haim Kafusi from 500 years ago, who was a famous kabbalist and a student of Rabbi Isaac Luria (“the Arizal”) of Safed as well as the Bassatine Jewish Cemetery, the second oldest in the Jewish world. Finally, our trip to Egypt would not be complete without a day trip to see the pyramids at Giza and Saqqara and to see the Sphinx at Memphis.
I will not get into all the details of the last four days of our trip (I hope to write a follow up article on Cairo), but it would not have been possible without the assistance of Magda Haroun, the leader of the Cairo Jewish community, and the work of the “Drop of Milk” organization led by Sami Ibrahim (www.dropofmilkeg.com), which devotes itself to the preservation of the Jewish historical sites in Cairo. In general, we felt very secure with the Egyptian police and security services constantly guarding our buses, with special thanks to Ahmed Tareq, who was in charge of the security of the Israeli minbus. Shukran Gemila!
The trip to Egypt was truly unforgettable. It gave me a window into the life of my family from before the 1948, 1956 and 1967 wars with Israel, when most of the Jews were forced to flee Egypt at short notice, leaving their property and possessions behind. Jews who were in prison were released and taken almost straight to the docks and told get on a ship or a plane. Jews who left Egypt were required to give up their passports and received a laissez passer card, a one-way visa out of Egypt. The Jews of Egypt all became officially stateless Jewish refugees from Arab lands. Most people around the world seem to focus only on the narrative of Palestinian refugees in 1948, but in all fairness their story cannot be told without the context of the almost one million Jewish refugees from Arab lands.
FAST FORWARD to 2020. The Jewish sites of Egypt still need our support and attention. Please contact the author if you would like to get involved or donate to this cause. Most of the synagogues in Cairo are in desperate need of repair, including the Rambam’s synagogue and yeshiva from 800 years ago. All synagogues lack siddurim and humashim. We discovered that the only Humash in the Nebi Daniel street synagogue was in Hebrew, but had the New Testament as well! Fortunately, I had brought a print-out of that week’s parsha – Parashat Yitro– with the ten commandments. I printed 40 copies in my hotel to bring to the synagogue, so most people were able to follow along the Torah reading of Parashat Yitro and the Ten Commandments for this momentous Shabbat.
Looking back on the trip, I found most of the Egyptians that I came across to be friendly. When I was taking pictures, they stopped, smiled and waved. Other times, Egyptians videoed us Jews/Israelis with their cellphones (since there was an official Egyptian media blackout). They filmed us singing piyyutim in the synagogue, belly dancing on a Nile cruise and drinking Turkish coffee in shuk Khan el Khalil. Apparently, there is a great interest in things that are Jewish in Egypt. A few thousand students study Hebrew in Egypt’s universities, but there is no one left to teach them about the Jewish religion and customs. I hope that now, more than 40 years after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, tourism between our countries may be a key step in normalizing relations between our two countries.
As they say in Arabic, Maa Salaama Egypt – it was nice to finally meet you in person. Hope to see you more often in the future – In Sh’allah.
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