BASSATINE NEWS  the ONLY Jewish newsletter reporting directly from Egypt
A Community Chronicle put out by the Jewish Community Council (JCC) of Cairo since 1995




The 'Iron Lady' of Egypt's Jews: Carmen Weinstein, 1931-2013

Sarah El-Rashidi, Thursday 18 Apr 2013


Carmen Weinstein
photo by Samir W Raafat

Carmen Weinstein
Carmen's last message to samir Raafat sent 12 hours before her passing

Carmen Weinstein, the president of Cairo's small Jewish community, died Saturday 13 April aged 82. Weinstein who passed away in her Zamalek apartment was suffering from ill health for some time now.

"I saw Carmen shortly before she died. She suffered from knee problems and could hardly walk," explained her friend of 23 years, Egyptian historian Samir Raafat, who described Carmen's failing health as "terrible," during their last encounter.

In spite of a late January bronchitis and her deteriorating condition Weinstein remained active attending to official functions including Passover on 25 March. A day prior to her death, she was in Maadi inspecting renovation works on the Synagogue's annex.

"Ironically, it was her greatest joy that precipitated her sudden departure," suggests Raafat. He was alluding to the multiple deep scratches below Carmen's knees caused by Carmen's 12 endearing Griffon dogs. Infected wounds such as these could lead to a fatal blood clot warned Carmen's doctor repeatedly, especially since she suffered from poor blood circulation.

Weinstein will be buried Thursday in the Bassatine Cemetery. This is the same cemetery she had dedicated her time to preserving since the 1980s. It had become Carmen's raison d'etre. Through her hard work coupled with donations from the Franco-Egyptian Jews and other members of the Egyptian-Jewish diaspora she managed to save part of the cemetery grounds; the rest had become a slum, a waste disposal site and an area seized by entities interested in relics.

"She was a very courageous woman who fought to keep the Jewish heritage intact," said Magda Haroun the newly elected president of Cairo's Jewish community. "Her unwavering enthusiasm towards her Jewish faith and heritage did not affect her patriotism and loyalty to Egypt."

The proud patriot wrote in Bassatine News, the Cairo Jewish Community (JCC) online newsletter, how Jews who escaped European persecution were now resting in the Cairo cemetery evidencing Egypt's traditional hospitality. A number of Weinstein and Haroun's family members are also buried in Bassatine.

The proud Egyptian freely voiced her discontent with the current state of affairs in the country she so loved.

"I lived through two revolutions. They are not easy. Changes don't happen overnight. I worry if the much needed improvements don't come soon we'll start regretting the past once more" she often told Raafat. Notwithstanding her evident discontent with the political situation the ardent patriot refused to leave Egypt. To be noted Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi allegedly paid homage to the Jewish community leader upon announcement of her death.

Amongst her other campaigns Weinstein fought to ensure Jewish artifacts including the Synagogues' sacred Torah scrolls and ancient manuscripts remained in Egypt. It was Carmen Weinstein who convinced the Egyptian government to list them as Egyptian artifacts.

It was following the mass Jewish exodus from Egypt, which commenced in 1948, that Carmen devoted herself to protecting her heritage. Determined to restore Cairo's decrepit synagogues (of which 12 remain) and encouraging strong communal ties, she kept the spirit of the tiny community alive. Haroun, like many others, admiringly recounts Carmen's success at uniting the few remaining Egyptian Jews insisting they celebrate religious events at the Synagogue.

Following the creation of the State of Israel in 1947-8 it is often said approximately 65,000 Jews left Egypt to Israel and the West. Migration was instigated by heightening fear due to mounting nationalism (a byproduct of the Arab-Israeli wars) under former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

Today, Haroun says, only 40 Egyptian Jews remain between Cairo and Alexandria. Despite their small numbers, Carmen worked hard to ensure Egyptian Jews were remembered for their role in the country's economic and social spheres.

Carmen is said to have been married but was widowed early and never had children. For almost five decades she managed the print shop which still bears the family name on Sherif Pasha Street in downtown Cairo. She is survived by her younger sister Glorice, a psychologist residing in Geneva.

Like her local coreligionaires the late Jewish figurehead did not speak a word of Hebrew but was fluent in French, English and Arabic, having attended French and English schools. An English literature graduate from Cairo University she obtained a Master's degree at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Weinstein was said to often reminisce about her schooldays when one's religion was not a topic of interest or discussion.

Carmen's friend for more than two decades describes his initial encounter with her as "Quite hostile!" Weinstein's deep distrust of journalists was already common knowledge. However, she soon warmed to Raafat once the historian provided assurance of his intention to write a book about Maadi's various residents a large number of which were Jewish (now published as History and Society in the Cairo suburb; Maadi, 1904-62). He also promised to pay a LE 25.00 donation to the community, which Carmen later graciously declined and took several copies of the book instead.

Weinstein who was not adept at raising funds was sometimes obliged to pay out of her own pocket to bridge finance the community's needs and to cover maintenance and labor expenses. Donations were in effect symbolic and probably a way to aware the public of Jewish presence, explained Raafat.

With Carmen's blessings the historian later created the Jewish Community's website "Bassatine News" to ensure Weinstein's formidable work gained worldwide recognition.

A gifted playwright, a working woman and the leader of her small community, Carmen had no time for salon chit-chat. "She was a woman of substance, a mini homegrown version of the Iron Lady," says Raafat.

Raafat voices his good fortune for having known a side to Carmen Weinstein that other people did not necessarily see, referring to her congeniality and generosity towards the less fortunate.

"When she came to inspect the Maadi Synagogue I would sometimes visit her. We often sat under the mango trees where she debated this that and the other but not before routinely reprimanding me for my habit of not immediately responding to her calls. Otherwise we were great pals!"

It is with much affection and admiration that this singular lady will be remembered by the community she led for nearly 20 years and by her friends whom she liked to fondly reprimand from time to time.


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