The Second Exodus

Through the traditional foods and modern addenda to the Pessah story, the Egyptian-Jewish community tries to hold on to its cultural identity.

seder 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
seder 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
‘How come we’re still here if we’re saying ‘thank God we left Egypt?’” Ada Aharoni remembers asking her family at age seven, when they were a prosperous family living among the Jewish aristocracy of Cairo in the 1940s.
Every year at the Seder her grandmother would provide the answer.
El Dios es padroso manoez un vidozo non tarde,” she would reply in Ladino. “God is sometimes late, but He never forgets,” her grandmother would say. “And He will not forget to take us out of Egypt.”
The Exodus was always particularly salient for Egyptian Jews. They tried to reconcile the history with their current success as a flourishing and prosperous community. Every year – until Ada Aharoni was 16, when the Jews were expelled from Egypt – the family would drink another cup of wine when her grandmother uttered her famous line.
“We were hoping one day to take our money and go to Israel. Our father had land in Herzliya,” Aharoni explains. “But in a dignified fashion, not like paupers and thieves, and banished so cruelly.”
Aharoni, who now lives in Nesher, is the founder and president of the World Congress of Jews from Egypt. As part of her abundant research, including 27 published books, she coined the term “the Second Exodus,” referring to the forced expulsion of Jews from Arab lands such as Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia following the establishment of the State of Israel.
Today, 28 Jews remain in Egypt, compared to 100,000 in 1948.
In today’s Seders, Aharoni adapts the traditional story found in the Haggada to include the Second Exodus.
“All Egyptian Jews teach their children there was a Second Exodus, of their parents and grandparents. They tell the story, how it happened, and how it’s a repeat of the biblical account in our own lives... It’s a part of their history. It’s enlarging the Haggada and making it modern for the children to understand.”
The family’s last Seder in Cairo took place after they knew they would soon be expelled. Aharoni describes that Seder night in her book From the Nile to the Jordan.
“The first time around Pharaoh didn’t want the Jews to leave, but here, we were just kicked out with nothing,” she says.
Many Egyptian Jews also read excerpts written by three pillars of Judaism, all famous Egyptian Jews, during the Seder: Philo the Alexandrian, who harmonized Greek philosophy and Jewish thought; Sa’adia Gaon, who translated the bible into Arabic and was considered the bridge between Arabic and Jewish cultures; and Maimonides, who lived in Cairo after leaving Cordoba.
“The three pillars of Judaism have imbued us with a love of wisdom, rationality and a desire to learn about other cultures and make bridges between the cultures,” Aharoni says. 
“We recount how there was a community over 2,000 years old, very prosperous, and the people were very educated,” she adds.
Because the stories of Pessah and the Second Exodus are such essential elements in Egyptian-Jewish identity, Aharoni spends extra time to make sure the oral history of her community will not be forgotten.
Other traditions from Egypt continue in the Seder today: Egyptian haroset is made with dates nuts and a bit of wine, instead of an apple base.
“It’s the original haroset,” Aharoni insists. “If we were in the desert they probably would have dates, not apples.”
Maina, layers of matza filled with minced meat, onions, nuts and spices, is another Egyptian Pessah staple.
“Every family brings its own maina to the table, and at the end of thenight you have to choose the tastiest version,” Aharoni explains.
Through the traditional foods and modern addenda to the Pessah story,the Egyptian-Jewish community tries to hold on to a cultural identitythat is vanishing with the loss of the older generation, whichexperienced the Second Exodus.
“The Pessah traditions of Egyptian Jews are closely linked with theirown history,” says Aharoni. “They see it as a repeat story. And it isdisappearing from history.”