Keeping the Light On
Celebrating Hannukah with the last Jews in Egypt.
CAIRO — There were fewer attendees than usual at Thursday night’s Hannukah celebration in the Egyptian capital, perhaps due to the political unrest that has gripped the city — or maybe just because of the cold weather. The tiny Jewish community of Cairo consists almost entirely of elderly women, and they have weathered the current period of national crisis just as they survived hardships decades ago.
As the wax dripped from the candles on the Menorah at the downtown Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, protesters continued to mass outside the presidential palace across town and blocked off Tahrir Square, only a short walk away. The first round of voting in a contentious constitutional referendum took place Saturday, the penultimate day of Hannukah.
Not that the ladies really needed reminding. Ever since popular protests unseated President Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago, the resulting rise of Islamist lawmakers and continued sectarian tension have worried Egypt’s minorities. The country’s Coptic Christians — about 10 percent of the population — have been the most vocal in their opposition to the new order, following an increased number of blasphemy cases, and sectarian clashes, but a variety of other small groups, from Bahais and Shiite Muslims to the tiny Jewish community have found themselves caught up in Egypt’s unstable and uncertain future.
Despite the concerns, not much has changed for Egypt’s Jews so far. There is continued anti-Semitism that manifests itself in subtle ways — conspiracy-minded news reports sometimes allude to Jewish and Freemason plots, and swastikas can occasionally be seen gracing walls throughout Cairo — but this is often related to the uneasy relations between Egypt and Israel. The few remaining Jews have mostly assimilated into the general population. Most try as best they can to avoid politics.
"We hope to have no more problems," Cairo Jewish community leader Carmen Weinstein told me on Thursday. "Let’s hope."
About 50 Jews have registered with Weinstein and a similarly small group lives in Egypt’s second largest city, Alexandria. There are likely hundreds more who have Jewish lineage but do not associate with the communities, cut off by generations of intermarriage and drifting away from the faith. Weinstein says they sometimes come out of the woodwork at a very old age, seeking burial in the capital’s Jewish cemetery.
The one or two dozen elderly Jews who regularly come to holiday celebrations with some children and grandchildren in tow are a far cry from the vibrant community of 80,000 that lived in Egypt during the first half of the 20th century.
Thousands of Jews had migrated over the centuries from Europe, across the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere to live and work in the country, and they played a prominent role in Egyptian society. Jews owned large stores and lived among their Muslim and Christian neighbors, or sometimes in a bustling area in Cairo called the Alley of the Jews. A popular movie in 1954 featured a Jewish protagonist named Cohen, alongside Christian and Muslim characters. A Cairo Jewish community leader, Yusuf Aslan Qattawi Pasha, was a titan of the Egyptian sugar industry and served as a minister and senator in the 1920s and 1930s, while the owners of the fashionable Cicurel department stores were members of a Jewish family, one of whom captained Egypt’s 1928 Olympic fencing team.
All that changed with Israel’s founding in 1948 and the Suez crisis of 1956. Egyptian Jews were increasingly ostracized, with many forcibly expelled and their property nationalized under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Many ended up in Israel, Europe, and the Americas, often allowed to leave with just a few suitcases. The 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars brought more trouble for the Jews who remained behind, and by the end of the 20th century, the Jewish population of Egypt was a shell of its former self. A 2008 remake of the 1954 film dropped the Jewish character. Many Egyptians now use the words "Jewish" and "Israeli" interchangeably, and animosity toward the neighboring state is high despite Egypt’s 33 year-old peace treaty with Israel.
But there have been sparks of interest in the coexistence that once was. Amir Ramses, an acclaimed Egyptian filmmaker, directed a documentary about the cosmopolitan Jewish community of yesteryear that premiered in Egypt in October. Ramses made the film, which features interviews with Egyptian Jews both here and abroad, with the intention of disentangling Egyptians’ impressions of Jews from their intense hatred of Zionism. The film was a hit among the middle- to upper-class Cairenes who came to see it: the only scheduled showing quickly sold out, shocking Ramses and forcing organizers to quickly throw together two more viewings.
"Egypt is changing, with people becoming less tolerant of one another especially under the current regime," Ramses said. Many Egyptian viewers of his film, he said, identified with the loss of acceptance for Egypt’s Jews as they reminisced about the country’s multicultural past.
As for Egypt’s current Jews, the future does not look promising. The elderly women who have stayed behind are mostly married to Muslim or Christian men and are spread across the city, under the radar of most Egyptians who are surprised to hear Jews still live here. Some of their children identify as Jewish, but many have taken their fathers’ faith. Blending in may have allowed the remnants of the communities to remain so long.
Over the last two and a half years, I have frequently attended celebrations and services with the Cairene Jews. Most have taken place at Shaar Hashamayim, a colossal, gray building with Stars of David carved into its concrete on a busy road in the heart of Cairo. (One Egypt guidebook describes it as resembling a set from the movie Tomb Raider.) Apartment blocks tower above its concealed courtyard. On holidays, a legion of Egyptian policemen sits watch outside, their numbers much higher than the synagogue’s usual gaggle of guards.
"The neighbors know this is Jewish and that the Jews come here for celebrations, but there are no problems at all," an Egyptian policeman who regularly oversees the synagogue’s security told me as we stood in the courtyard after the Hannukah celebration. During last year’s uprising, police withdrew from the streets and looters tried to gain entry to the synagogue, but local, non-Jewish building doormen fended them off. They only got away with a few bottles of wine, Weinstein said.
While security concerns tied to last year’s uprising have rarely been a major issue for the Jews, the storming of the Israeli embassy in September 2011 made some in the group jittery, and Weinstein moved Rosh Hashanah services three weeks later to a smaller, 1930s-era synagogue in a leafy, upscale neighborhood far from the city center.
Only two synagogues in Cairo and one in Alexandria are regularly used for holidays, though a couple more have been restored and are also open to the public. Renovating synagogues with taxpayer money can be controversial here; a major government-sponsored restoration of one Cairo synagogue a few years back brought international praise but then quick domestic condemnation. Several other synagogues and cemeteries have fallen into disrepair, although Cairo’s main Jewish cemetery has been cleaned up.
The Jewish community of Cairo relies on the steady support of overseas Jewish donors, as well as diplomats, students, and tourists in Egypt who bolster its numbers and, sometimes but not always, help them reach a minyan, the traditionally 10-man quorum needed for community prayer in Judaism. There haven’t been permanent rabbis in the synagogues for decades but in recent years, a French cantor has sometimes flown in to help out, and foreign Jewish students or diplomats often step in to lead services.
From Rosh Hashanah to Purim, the ladies sit in the pews of Shaar Hashamayim’s grand sanctuary, with its tall marble columns and gold stars and palm trees painted on its interior. Plaques with tributes to members long gone dot the walls of the building, which was completed in 1905.
Throughout the services I’ve attended, most of the local women have sat quietly in their seats, hardly mixed with their foreign visitors, and sometimes nodded off. The community is not particularly devout, and the Hebrew prayers fall largely on deaf ears. In a scene common in synagogues across the world, most of the women seem to look forward more to schmoozing with each other and indulging in the meal afterward — as do some of the out-of-town guests.
Moments of religious fervor do emerge from time to time, though. Last fall, during a service marking Simchat Torah, a holiday in which the Torah scrolls are paraded around the synagogue for all to see, the ladies leapt to their feet to kiss the scrolls’ outer coverings. In one case, a woman planted a big, bright-pink lipstick print on the parchment itself.
Weinstein, who regularly disburses funds to the women, allowed me to write about the Jewish community’s events on the condition that I avoid sharing details of individual community members. The group is too small and it could be a security risk to talk about certain people, she said. When I have tried to speak with women outside the celebrations, they have declined to speak on the record.
It is a multilingual group — most of them grew up in Egypt but some have foreign citizenship and family living abroad. Some come from an aristocratic background in Egypt and spoke French or Italian growing up here.
Foreign visitors usually outnumber these women at services. Diplomats occasionally come to show their support for a minority group, because they themselves are Jewish, or out of sheer curiosity. A motley crew of high-profile visitors has paid its dues in recent years.
Thursday’s celebration felt a bit like a U.S. embassy Hannukah party, with U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and her husband in attendance, chocolate cake in hand. The ambassador has attended before, including Rosh Hashanah services in 2011, at which attendees struggled to follow along with the only English prayer books they could find: 1941-edition siddurim produced for His Majesty’s Armed Forces.
Bringing along baked goods has become something of a tradition for U.S. ambassadors. Patterson’s predecessor, Margaret Scobey, stopped by the Passover Seder in 2010 with brownies in hand. The Israeli diplomat leading the meal — in Hebrew, French, and English — thanked her for the treats but warned everyone they were not strictly kosher. Attendees munched on them anyway.
The Austrian ambassador to Egypt regularly attends with his wife. Photographs of Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, from their 1999 visit to the little Ben Ezra Synagogue across town, are on display in a corner of Shaar Hashamayim’s sanctuary. According to legend, Ben Ezra, which dates from the 9th century, is built on the spot where baby Moses was found on the waters of the Nile.
Perhaps the most noticeable change for the Jewish community in this revolutionary time is the absence of Israelis at its events. Fewer Israeli tourists have come to Egypt in the past two years, and the Jewish state evacuated its diplomats from the country after the embassy attack last year. Their absence has led to a dearth of Hebrew speakers to lead prayers and has made it harder to make a minyan. The general drop in tourism since the uprising has hurt both attendance and donations and an initiative begun in the late Mubarak years to renovate Egypt’s remaining Jewish sites has been indefinitely halted.
For now, Weinstein fights to keep the community alive. Herself a senior, Weinstein said there is no clear candidate to replace her once she can no longer lead the Jews of Cairo. Weinstein has spent much of her adult life trying to keep Jewish relics within Egypt and preserve what is left, particularly Cairo’s Jewish cemetery; her mother previously headed the community.
The community has faced long odds before. Lucette Lagnado, an Egyptian-born American reporter who has authored two memoirs about her Jewish family’s expulsion from Cairo and move to the United States, said that on her most recent visit to Egypt in 2010, she marveled at how the women had survived as Jews throughout the years.
"It must have taken enormous wit, spunk, defiance — you name it what you like," she said.
But for all the focus on the resident of the presidential palace and the crowds on the street, for the aging congregants of Shaar Hashamayim, time may be the greatest enemy.