A forgotten heritage

Excerpts from Cairo-based journalist Mark Lavie’s ‘Broken Spring’ chronicle the demise of Cairo’s Jewish community.

Mark Lavie has been covering the Middle East since 1972. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mark Lavie has been covering the Middle East since 1972.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Veteran Middle East correspondent Mark Lavie’s book provides a vivid, in-depth, hands-on view of Egypt’s society Lavie is an American-Israeli journalist who has been covering the Middle East since 1972. For most of his career, he was based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He served as radio broadcaster, print wire reporter and editor for the Associated Press, and broadcast for radio networks including NPR, NBC and CBC. He has covered conflicts, starting with the 1973 Yom Kippur Mideast war, and peace efforts like the Israeli- Palestinian partial peace accords, for which he won the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award for Best Radio Interpretation of Foreign Affairs. After reporting on two Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Lavie transferred to Egypt on a two-year assignment in 2011, in time for all the major events of Arab Spring.
In Broken Spring, veteran Middle East correspondent Mark Lavie provides a vivid, indepth, hands-on view of Egypt’s society and the turmoil it is undergoing. He examines its people, its politics and its Islamic orientation, and explains how and why the West gets so many things wrong in the Middle East.
Lavie walks readers through everyday life in Egypt, meeting people and sharing their moods and hardships. He explains why democracy doesn’t work in Egypt, why the economy is in shambles – and what it would take to fix it.
From his post in Cairo, Lavie evaluates similar and parallel developments all over the region, and Western responses. Building on decades of reporting in Israel and the Palestinian areas, he assesses Israel’s role in Arab Spring and its own perception of the events.
He watches as the once proud and prominent Egyptian Jewish community withers and dies, literally, with the passing of its leader.
Below are some excerpts.
Chapter 28: It’s over for the Jews The demise of Cairo’s fabled Jewish community came despite its public identification with the Morsi regime and its purposeful distancing from Israel. It was just a matter of time.
Two elderly ladies dressed in black, one behind large, dark sunglasses, sat quietly in the front row of chairs set up in the courtyard of Cairo’s downtown synagogue.
The coffin of Carmen Weinstein, their leader for the last nine years, the force behind the tiny Jewish community of Cairo, had just been carried past them on its way to burial at the cemetery she had worked so hard to preserve.
Carrying Carmen Weinstein’s coffin The two old ladies, part of the community and symbols of its demise, appeared to realize what this meant. They spoke to no one, not even to each other. What could they say? Their new leader had the courage to express what most people do not want to think about – more than two thousand years of continuous Jewish life in Egypt is coming to an end. Magda Haroun herself is “only” sixty, one of the youngest of the forty or so remaining Jews of Egypt.
No Egyptian Jewish men attended the funeral.
There may not be any left in Cairo.
Likewise, no children.
Where Carmen Weinstein’s quest was to preserve Jewish life in Egypt dating back to the Bible, Magda Haroun stated a different goal.
Magda Haroun “I promise to take care of you until God receives us,” she told the two old ladies and the rest of the two hundred people, almost all of them non-Jewish guests, seated in the courtyard, as she starkly acknowledged the dim future of this “unfortunately dying community.”
The battle is over what will be left behind.
Carmen Weinstein, who died in her Cairo home at age eighty-two on April 13, 2013, was a fighter. She fought Egyptian governments to restore ancient synagogues and won. She fought for restoration of the ninth-century Bassatine Cemetery south of downtown and won that fight, too, until Egypt defeated her.
Now the cemetery is overrun by seeping sewage, garbage and squatters.
Her mother is buried there, but years ago she stopped trying to take care of the grave. Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, who went around the city from site to site with her for twenty years, visited the grave at the deteriorating cemetery with Mrs. Weinstein a month before she died. “I don’t come here anymore,” she told him.
Egypt overwhelmed her and her community and her cemetery. Most recently the population explosion, collapse of the economy and absence of effective government undermined her quest to preserve the place where Jews have been buried for 1,300 years.
But not even the cruelest of Egypt’s often ruthless rulers over the last twenty centuries managed to defeat the Jews of Egypt the way that one modern leader did.
Gamal Abdel Nasser drove Egypt’s Jews into exile in the 1950s. Part of the context was the creation of the State of Israel and Egypt’s wars – its humiliating defeat at the hands of the new and poor Jewish state in 1949 and Israel’s participation in the ill-conceived French and British attack aimed at restoring the Suez Canal to foreign control in 1956.
In a whirl of nationalist xenophobia, Nasser responded by expelling foreigners from Egypt. British, French, others – and 65,000 Jews. The difference was – the Jews were Egyptians. They were there before Islam was born, long before modern Egypt was created.
Today there are Egyptians who mark the start of the slow but steady deterioration of their nation with Nasser’s expulsion of the Jews. For twenty centuries, leaders of all persuasions had incorporated Jews into their governments and economies, and they benefited. Nasser threw them out, and the cosmopolitan, quasi-European cultural element of a crucial partof Egyptian society exited with them.
Author Lucette Lagnado describes pre-Nasser Cairo in an autobiographical book that centers on her father, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (HarperCollins, 2007). She writes of a vibrant downtown, with glittering cafés and upscale hotels catering to the literati, both Egyptian and foreign.
Some of the places she mentions still survive today, like Groppi’s café, but without the glitz, without the class.
Groppi’s café is still there The Europeans are gone. The Jews are gone.
A few hundred, perhaps a few thousand, managed to stay behind despite Nasser, but not enough to form a critical mass.
The yeshiva named for its teacher, the great twelfth-century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, deteriorated into a roofless ruin. The Ben Ezra synagogue, home of the unique Geniza repository, with its documents describing Jewish life in Egypt for more than a thousand years, suffered from neglect.
And the cemetery, already in use for three hundred years when Maimonides moved to Cairo from his native Spain, began to disappear under the weight of slums, thieves and unregulated urban sprawl.
Carmen Weinstein set out on a rearguard, last-ditch campaign to preserve Jewish heritage in Egypt.
Though she never admitted it, the abrasive, aggressive yet cultured leader must have known that her quest was only to guard the physical remnants of a Jewish life that was slowly disappearing.
She had the synagogues and cemetery restored. She battled organizations of Egyptian Jews in the U.S. and France who wanted to “rescue” the sacred books and ornaments of the Egyptian Jewish community by taking them out of there. She adamantly refused.
Magda Haroun promised to carry on that battle, while admitting that it’s a fight over things, not over life itself.
“I pledge to take care of Jewish heritage and turn it over to the Egyptian people,” she said, with Carmen Weinstein’s coffin lying in the synagogue behind her. “It is their heritage.
They need to remember that Jewish people were involved in all aspects of Egyptian life.”
The message was clear to the two old ladies in the front row. It was clear to everyone.
It’s over.