|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|
As we settle down to talk, she offers a gentle smile as her dog Kimo starts to bark. "Kimo! You're not part of this interview, so you'd better go away." It's a gentle reproof.
Securing this interview with Weinstein was no easy feat. As the head of the Jewish Community of Cairo, our host turns down far more requests than she grants. The problem, she explains, is that so many people paint "black pictures" of the community, often presenting pure fiction masquerading as fact.
It's bad enough that every time she hears about a new book or newspaper story about her community, her first reaction is a kind of "Please, God, don't let it be another disaster." The last book to have gained her approval was Dr. Mohammed Abu El-Ghar's Yehud Misr: Min Al-Izdihar lil Shatat (The Jews of Egypt: From Prosperity to Dispersion, 2004), which she describes as "fairly good and informative."
You get the same sinking feeling in your stomach heading into an interview with Weinstein as students have on exam mornings, but her soothing smile easily takes your mind off how you might write the story.
That sweetness, though, comes packaged with an undeniable toughness. Perhaps she was born with it, or maybe it's a requirement of the job: As the gatekeeper for the Jewish community in Cairo and custodian of its priceless heritage, she faces a daunting array of daily challenges, not least of which is dealing with the Supreme Council for Antiquities. She is only the second woman to hold her current post, following in the footsteps of her mother, Esther Weinstein, who in 1996 was the first woman elected to head the community board in the century since it was formally established.
Carmen, a sprightly, energetic woman in her 70s, was elected head after her mother died late last year at the age of 93.
Some, particularly a group of Jews of Egyptian descent who now live in America, have no faith in Carmen Weinstein, let alone in her mission, claiming the Jewish community of Cairo is for all intents and purposes extinct. As she badgers the nation's antiquity authorities, organizes social activities for the women of her community and tends to her popular website (index, it's a claim she dismisses as insignificant. As she sees it, the community will endure, in one form or another.
Weinstein begins the interview quoting Jacques Hassoun, who died in Paris at age 63 in 1999 after a long battle with a brain tumor. A renowned psychiatrist who founded Le cerle Freudien in 1981 with four colleagues, Hassoun was also a champion of preserving the heritage of Egypt's Jews and the author of the respected 1990 book Histoire des Juifs du Nil, covering the first half of the last century.
Born in Alexandria in 1936, Hassoun settled in France in 1954, where he founded the Paris-based Association pour la préservation du patrimoine culturel Juif d'Egypte and was a champion of Weinstein's drive to preserve Bassatine Jewish Cemetery southeast of Cairo.
"Whenever I would be down and out, ready to throw in the towel regarding efforts to save Cairo's Jewish cemetery, he would call from Paris and spark me up. He was confident the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world would enter its third millennium," Weinstein would later write of her friend and supporter of nearly 20 years.
Herewith, excerpts from our discussion:
I'll start with an interesting quote I once heard from Dr. Jacques Hassoun, a man who always thought of himself as an Egyptian nothing else but Egyptian even though he became a French national. He summed up his observations with these words: "The Jewish presence in Egypt is like the ebb and flow of the waves sometimes more, sometimes less."
And I couldn't agree more. It's simple: There have been Jews in Egypt since Biblical times, the time of Moses, and I don't see why there shouldn't be Jews here until the end of time sometimes less in number, sometimes more.
At one point, the Jewish community numbered around 300,000. There was a synagogue, a cemetery and a religious school in almost every governorate. Cairo alone was home to 70,000 Jews at the turn of the twentieth century, while Alexandria had the second-largest population.
Today, we have dwindled to something in the three digits in the 100s. Yet if we're going through a period of contraction today, it's simply part of that recurrent cycle.
Exactly how many Egyptian Jews are left is a point Weinstein, scholars and other activists sharply debate. The figures range from Weinstein's assertion as head of the community that the number is in the 100s to a low of 20 claimed by an Israeli scholar who says there are eight in Alexandria and 12 in Cairo.
While the community here presents what it says are accurate figures with a view to showing it is still active despite dwindling numbers, detractors have a political interest in pegging the figure as low as possible as they argue that the community's patrimony should be shipped elsewhere for preservation. We'll discuss all of that in a moment.
Either way, it is not a young population: Victor Balassiano, a member of the Alexandria community, has declared himself the "youngest Jew in Egypt." He's 65. Weinstein claims there are some in Cairo who are younger.
The most important document attesting to early Jewish life in Egypt comes from the papers found in the Geniza; it is the earliest written work documenting a large congregation of Jews in Egypt. There were papers in the Geniza that revealed the presence of a company of Jewish soldiers on Elephantine Island. They wrote to Cambise complaining that the soldiers of Darrius had destroyed their temple.
They had one God and called Him Yahweh. With Moses, the name of God became Jehovah.
What is the Geniza? Geniza is derived from the Arabic word ganaza, which means funeral. It's a place where any documents or books bearing the name of God are buried, for it is forbidden in our religion to tear or burn anything that bears His name. A large trove of documents was found by chance in the late 1800s in one of the chambers of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, one of the oldest synagogues known in the world, having been built some 300 years before Christ [in the district that today is known as Fustat, or Old Cairo].
Two English ladies visiting the synagogue bought bits of paper from the attendant. Later, they gave them to Dr. Solomon Shechter, a scholar [and expert on Talmudic and Rabbinic literature] at Cambridge University. He was amazed to find that it was a page from a book written by a very famous Rabbi, Ibn Sira,that was supposed to have been completely lost. Shechter contacted Queen Victoria and obtained permission to open the room in Ben Ezra containing the Geniza; he went on to unearth documents dating from the Middle Ages that gave an account of Jewish and Egyptian life from that time until the 19th century.
There, scholars have found letters written in the hand of Moses Maimonides himself. Today, the majority of the documents can be found at Cambridge University, and many books have been published on the subject.
The Bible states that the Jews began coming to Egypt with Abraham. He was the first to come, followed by Joseph and Jacob. They all came to Egypt some stayed, others left. Judaism itself came out of the womb of Egypt with Moses. First, they were called Hebrews; when Moses led them out and went to the land of Canaan, they began to be called Jews. It was later on the way that Moses ascended Mount Sinai and was handed the Ten Commandments, which established the [basic] rules of the Jewish religion.
Egypt's Jews flourished in the period from the late 19th century, when they joined the economic boom caused by the cotton trade and the opening of the Suez Canal, until the middle of the 20th century. It's very important to note that the Jews of Egypt were very much assimilated into society and have been an integral part of it. They have always thought of themselves as Egyptians, even when they didn't hold Egyptian citizenship.
[In 1948, only 10,000 or so held citizenship, while some 40,000 were legally stateless and another 30,000 were foreign nationals, according to scholars.]
They were people like [Youssef Aslan] Cattaui [also spelled Qattawi] Pasha, who served in Cabinet as minister of finance and later minister of transportation [and was a leading architect of the Egyptian constitution of 1923 and subsequently a head of the Jewish Community of Cairo], and the Mosseri and Suares families, who were members of Parliament, bankers, film producers and founders of the Maadi suburb. Today's Midan Suares in Maadi, before the bridge over the Metro tracks, is named for the family.
The Jewish community was influential in matters of commerce, trade and finance. They had shares in Misr Bank, Helwan Railways and the cotton trade, among many others.
I still remember my visit to Nagaa Hamadi in Upper Egypt, home to the sugar refinery Cattaui founded with Talaat Harb. I was amazed to find a village there called Cattaui, which shows the family was indeed influential there. Shortly afterward, I received an interesting e-mail from someone who wrote me as follows: "Look! My great grandfather was called Cattaui. Does this mean he was Jewish?" I said, "Not necessarily. It's more likely he was born in this village, where people used to give its name to their newborns." [She smiles.]
We have pictures of Cattaui Pasha dressed in the long robes Egyptians used to wear at the end of the 19th century. You couldn't tell him apart from a Muslim of the same era.
The cosmopolitan Jews of Cairo and Alexandria found themselves in a privileged situation. They had become the commercial and cultural link between East and West. The Jewish community expanded and flourished as they participated in all aspects of life, economic and political.
Now, although there are no more Jewish businesses, Jewish trade names still linger on the façades of their famous department stores: Cicurel, Benzion, Hannaux, Chemla, Ades, Pontremoli and Gattegno, all of them nationalized companies.
As the State of Israel was born in 1948 and war broke out between Israel and the Arab nations, Egypt's Jewish population began to contract. The interim period following the 1956 Tripartite Invasion and the birth of an era of hectic socialism triggered subsequent waves of emigration ahead of a final exodus that took place after the 1967 war. Statistics show that between 1949 and 1950, some 20,000 Jews left Egypt. By 1961, fewer than 10,000 remained.
It was during the Revolution that many left, especially those who were French or British. The economic situation forced many to leave, since they couldn't find work to earn a living. Yet there were many of us who decided to stay.
To me, there was and there is no other country or place but Egypt. It's my love. My father was educated in Egyptian schools and he applied for Egyptian citizenship immediately. But even those who didn't apply at the time never thought they would need a paper to prove they're Egyptian; paper meant nothing to them. For them, it was who they were. We were lucky to have our own business; we had the printing press and the stationary business for which we have been rather well known. I studied at the Egyptian University, earning my BA in English literature, and got my master's at the American University in Cairo.
People who were rooted to the land and had their own businesses or means of support those who weren't obliged for one reason or another to leave stayed. But if you couldn't find work or if it was difficult to maintain your business, you may have had no other choice but to leave.
It's true that there was a time when Jewish property was sequestered, but this didn't last. When Sadat came, he strongly encouraged Egyptian Jews to come back home, reclaim their property and resettle, yet it wasn't an easy task. First of all, you were coming home to a different country, not the one you left. Second, you had more or less established another life. Even Muslim and Christian Egyptians who left found it difficult to come back and stay.
Those who live here identify themselves as Egyptians, even if they're Italian or French and don't have an Egyptian passport. If they had felt differently, they wouldn't have stayed.
To this day, I get many e-mails and comments from people who left 50 years ago and say they still feel they're Egyptian.
If Carmen wants to be remembered for one thing, it's her continuous struggle to preserve her community's patrimony whether synagogues, cemeteries, records or priceless Torahs for the next generation. As she sees it, the Jewish community's cultural heritage is also part and parcel of Egypt's. It is a shame, she says, that more people don't see it that way.
Her biggest challenge: Convincing Egyptian authorities and Egyptian Jews abroad to help preserve the nation's fallen synagogues. Of more than 30 believed to have existed in the Cairo of the 1970s, only 12 survive today.
First, let's give people an idea about the most important sects of Jews. The Sephardic contingent [descendents of the Spanish Diaspora], who made up the majority of the community, came from the trading posts of Izmir, Livorno, Aleppo and Baghdad. By the end of the 19th century, Mediterranean and Levantine Jewish settlers were supplemented by industrious Ashkenazim [Eastern European Jews], some fleeing Russian pogroms, others economic recession, who were less in number than the Sephardim, but no less important.
Then we have the Karaites [of whom there were only 5,000 in 1948], who had lived for centuries in the protected commune of Haret El-Yahud. It's worth mentioning the Karaites pray differently than other sects, mostly on the floor, using carpets like Muslims. They follow the teaching of the Torah word-for-word in their daily lives.
When Nelly Kodsy, the last president of the Karaites, died a few years ago, we were asked by the Egyptian government to take over [the management of their religious sites] so as not to lose the impact of this important sect. Today, there are only two Karaite women left, so we're taking care of their synagogue, called Moussa Al-Dar'i, in Abassiya; we have a library there, and the synagogue is in good shape.
The Ashkenazim have only one synagogue left, the Ashkenazi Synagogue in Attaba, and it needs to be touched up. Then the rest of the synagogues are all Sephardic. In fact, the Sephardim and Ashkenazim used to pray together, and many of the Ashkenazim took part in building the Sephardic synagogue, Chaar Hachamayim, on Adly Street and made donations for that purpose.
When the last of the Ashkenazi community board left the country I'm one of the last remaining, by the way they gave all their assets to the Sephardim for safekeeping. Their synagogue is in a very commercial center, in Darb El-Barabra, but we keep it up as well as possible.
It's sad, but the president of the Jewish Community of Cairo before my mother took over, Emil Russo, wanted to sell most of the synagogues. In fact, he wanted to sell the Ashkenazi synagogue and the garden and annex of the Maadi Meyer Biton Synagogue [named after the famed Maadi landscaper], but I stopped him. Still, he managed to sell a very large synagogue we used to have in Port Said, allegedly for the sum of $132,000; the buyer was developing it as a shopping center.
We made every effort for a whole year to stop it, but we failed. It shouldn't come as a surprise, though. Since 1980, the presidents of the Jewish community have been selling all the small synagogues in Haret El-Yahud there were about 12 synagogues there under the claim there are no more Jews left and so the money should go to what remained of the community.
Imagine! Maybe, we should sell the Pyramids because there are no more Pharaohs. What a preposterous argument!
After the president of the community sold the synagogue in Port Said, the disappointed members of the board decided to get rid of him. There were men at the time, but they were reluctant to assume the presidency. After all, it's a tough job. So late in 1996, due to the higher preponderance of female Jews in Cairo, they decided for the first time in the council's century-old existence to elect a female president, my mother, Esther Weinstein, who had been active and involved in many Egyptian benevolent societies.
My mother was decorated by the Vatican for her 30 years of charitable social work with Caritas. Nobody turned down our help because we're Jews.
I would like you to write about the synagogues in Haret El-Yehud. If you find them in neglected condition, don't blame us, blame the antiquities department [as Weinstein refers to the Supreme Council for Antiquities]. There are only two synagogues left in the alley the Maimonides Synagogue and the Haim Kapucci, both of which are registered as monuments with the Supreme Council for Antiquities. The department has promised to repair the Maimonides Synagogue, which is very precious to all the Jews of Egypt, and despite having completed architectural surveys over the past two years, nothing ismaterializing.
In fact, most Jewish tourists are particularly interested in visiting the Maimonides Synagogue for its special place in our faith. It's where Moses Ben Maimon, as Maimonides was also known regarded as the most illustrious figure in Judaism in the post-Talmudic era, the man who was Sultan Salah El-Din Al-Ayoubi's personal physician used to teach religion. People used to come from all over Egypt to visit the synagogue and sleep there, seeking help for their health problems in the hope that Maimonides would come to them in a dream and tell them what to do.
As it is said, many people were cured. Even today, we have people coming from abroad who pledged to Maimonides that they would visit his synagogue if he would help them with their medical problems. It's a pledge they like to honor.
Despite the importance of the Maimonides Synagogue, the antiquities department has adopted an indifferent attitude. Their excuse is that they have to look into the underground water problem from which the whole area suffers and about which they are doing nothing. The American Research Center in Egypt got into the act, telling us they're not going to help restore the synagogue unless the water problem is solved.
But who's going to solve it? Not us, despite our efforts. We tried to put a pump in to draw the water out as much as we could to keep it standing, but that's not enough; it would be a great shame if it collapsed.
On the other hand, the Haim Kapucci is the only synagogue built in the Italian style. It's very important from an architectural point of view. Instead of the normal long and narrow design, here we have the people sitting on the right and the left, then we have the pulpit, the place where the rabbi prays, and the ekhal, the place where we keep our sefer Torah, facing one another. Unfortunately, it is in dilapidated condition.
The list of the suffering synagogues is long, and some suffer more than others. We have 10 other synagogues that we're trying to keep up as best as we can. Five of them need immediate repairs, and we keep telling that to the antiquities department but to no avail.
Take, for example, the one in Ghamra called Etz Haim, now known as Hanan after the name of the man who took care of it. It has a religious school [yeshiva] and is unique for including the mikvah, which is the ritual bath in which a woman must be purified before marriage. This, too, is falling down due to environmental problems, and even though two years ago, after our call for help, the antiquities department sent a group of 13 people to make a report, nothing has been heard ever since.
All the synagogues have been classified as monuments, but with the exception of Ben Ezra, we're not being given a hand to maintain them. We also have a synagogue in Mahalla El-Kobra, which, despite its importance, is falling into ruins after being hit by the 1992 earthquake.
It's worth mentioning that all the synagogues, even the big one on Adly Street, Chaar Hachamayim, which was renovated in the 1980s by the World Sephardic Federation, were damaged by the earthquake and need some repairs. It's very important that we put Chaar Hachamayim back into shape at least its façade because we're celebrating its centenary this year. It was built in 1905, and we intend to have a great celebration on his occasion.
Even though we have volunteered to restore the granite front and rear at our own expense, it took the antiquities department a year and a half to give us the permission to do so. Can you believe it? If it weren't for Dr. Zahi Hawass, whom I approached to sign the papers, we would still be waiting. They should look after these synagogues and do something about their upkeep; they're a very important part of Egypt's history.
What's more, they're another means of boosting tourism, and if antiquities officials would bother to send a request to Jewish or even non-Jewish communities abroad to help restore them, I'm pretty sure they would respond, but unfortunately they're not doing anything.
The only synagogue that's well kept is Ben Ezra, which was restored by Mrs. Phyllis Lambert, president of the Canadian Center for Architecture, with funding from her brother, Edgar Bronfman, who is president of the World Jewish Congress [with the support of then-Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali]. The work took almost 10 years.
Restoration demands money, but where is it? And even when you find a sponsor, that's not necessarily a happy ending to the story. We are faced with a lot of red tape that leaves us frustrated and drives sponsors away. Sometimes, we feel it's useless to raise funds, because even if you get a pledge, the challenges don't stop there. It's just the beginning. You have to present a request to the antiquities department, which sends 12 or 15 people to study the cost and timeline a process that can take up to one year. And by the end of the year, the donor will probably have changed his mind and left.
Believe me! It's a matter of getting people in the antiquities department interested, of convincing them that it is truly part of this country's heritage.
I'm interested in building a Jewish museum in Old Cairo, where we have a large plot of land that belongs to the community. I want the museum to exhibit all the artifacts that were found in the different synagogues to give an idea about the life of Jews and reflect the religious tolerance that has characterized Egypt since ancient times. But you have to arrange proper funding for such an undertaking.
Just as the synagogues occupy a special place in the patrimony, so do the cemeteries.
There were many precious papers from the Geniza in the Bassatine Cemetery, and we were keeping them in Ben Ezra's basement. Then, one day, people from the Book Authority came and took them all away.
There were 60 or 67 big bags full of papers. I wonder where they are. Are they doing anything with them? Are they studying them? Nobody tells us.
Maybe I'm not pushy enough. Maybe I should have been a journalist. The Geniza is very important because it gives you an idea about all the dealings and contracts, the way people lived for centuries. I wrote to the minister of culture that all this has been taken and I want to know where it's gone, but he never answered. And when I meet him at public exhibitions, he is always very cordial and even suggested that I make an appointment through his secretary unfortunately, it has yet to be granted.
I've been taking care of El-Bassatine Cemetery since 1975. It has been a significant battle, between working to evict the squatters living there and mapping the graves; it has been a challenge to determine who is buried where, because all the marble in the cemetery was stolen after '67. I had some American students who got caught up in the problem. For two months, they made maps of all the graves that remained.
All of the problems we have with El-Bassatine are because the cemetery has never been encircled by a wall. Blame it on Sultan Ahmed Ibn Touloun, who gave the Jewish community the cemetery in the 9th century and, in good faith, advised them not to wall it in so they could take as much land as they needed. It turned out to be a very bad idea: The cemetery's land attracted many squatters, and it is quite difficult to stop them from desecrating it.
We won a decree from the government to evict them and reclaim the cemetery, and it wasn't an easy feat. The police came to help us, but warned that we should build a wall or they would never stay out.
Frankly, I can't remember the number of times I got fed up and demoralized, and said, "I'm done with it." But every time I did, something miraculously happened and things started moving again. You can say I learned patience from the dead. I had been asking for money since 1975 to build a wall around the 60-feddan cemetery; the estimated cost at the time was only LE 20,000, but Jews wanted to come up with the sum.
I went to America and met people there, who told me, "We give money to the living, not to the dead." I gave up. Then, all of a sudden, I had a group from France, headed by Dr. Jacques Hassoun, which offered very much appreciated help in the form of $6,000. At the time, the dollar was worth 3 pounds, and the first wall I built cost LE 18,000.
Then came the Ring Road, which caused a number of problems, and all of a sudden, many Jewish religious groups became interested in the cemetery when 300 graves were suddenly threatened by the construction of a small section of the 80-meter-wide road. I had 13 rabbis come from all over the world, saying, "We knew nothing about this." I told them, "Well, now you know."
But they gave us nothing. As we continued to complete the wall, it was the World Sephardic Federation in Switzerland that donated the money to build. I used to send them the accounts, and they gave us the required funds. And this is how I built the 2,000-meter wall and managed to retrieve about two-thirds of the cemetery. It's worth mentioning that when I started to save the cemetery in '75, and even though there were many more Jews here then than there are today, it was mostly Christians and Muslims who were helping with money and advice, not to mention the help the state gave us by providing security.
For the last three years, I've been planting flowers and trees to make it look more like a decent cemetery that receives visitors. And we get many requests from people who want to visit the cemetery, which is very important to Jews since it's the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in the world. Interestingly, it's said that on the day of resurrection, the dead of the Mount of Olives Cemetery will go up first, followed by the dead from our cemetery. [She smiles.]
Unfortunately, some people come and see squatters around and get the wrong impression. We truly don't want them to think that it's the government's mistake, because it's not. The Jewish community before us didn't take proper care of El-Bassatine. We have squatters on the non-protected side despite the help of the police and efforts to recover some of the enclosures and other important vaults, including those of Haim Kapucci, Mosseiri, Cattaui, Ades, Cicurel all of them are examples of unique architecture.
It's not good or healthy to have people living in a cemetery. Unlike in Muslim cemeteries, we don't have a vault and a room, so people are building on top of the graves. And no religion would approve of violating the sanctuary of the dead.
Sadly, the opposition press played a negative role during the cemetery debate, trying to create problems and misinform the public. Al-Shaab [the organ of the Islamist-leaning Labour Party] in particular started to attack me, claiming that I came from Israel to take land from the poor in order to bury Jewish dead! They failed to mention, of course, that I'm an Egyptian Jew, not Israeli, and that this is a millennium-old Jewish cemetery that has been illegally squatted in. Strangely enough, Al-Shaab was closed shortly afterwards. Blame it on the dead of the cemetery. [She smiles.]
When it comes to the media, you have both the credible and the yellow press. We try to approach reliable people to correct the false images and misconceptions. Did you know some Egyptians know nothing about the Jews? Even Jews who come from abroad tell us, "We didn't know there was still a Jewish community in Cairo."
It's frustrating to learn that people think of all Jews as Israelis, which isn't the case. "Israeli" is a nationality and "Jewish" is a religion. Our primary and only contact with the Israeli community is when we need their help for prayers. We no longer have a rabbi, and in our religion, you must have at least 10 men, called a minyan, for prayers. Women alone aren't good enough. [Another smile.] You know, there are women nowadays who study to be rabbis, but they're mostly liberals. Orthodox Jews think the notion is unethical and unacceptable. I know you have the same problems with women imams. What about the Christians? Do they have the same debate? I bet they have.
The previous Grand Rabbi, Haim Nahum Effendi, was a revered scholar and a very important figure who was fully integrated into Egyptian society and government. He spoke 13 languages and edited innumerable books. When he died in 1960, his funeral was attended by many important people in Egypt; unfortunately, his vault has become a squat, even though it was maintained by the National Book Organization (Rabetet El-Ketab). It even had marble on it, but it was removed by the squatters.
But as Weinstein works to preserve the community's heritage, she is disheartened by the lack of support from the Diaspora. Many, she says, are not only not helping, but are contributing in a negative way.
Chief among them, she says, is the New York-based Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, which has petitioned the US Congress to make future US aid to Egypt contingent on the government "transferring our Jewish religious artifacts and copies of our community records to an institution in the United States." In its 2002 petition, the group claims "Mrs. Esther Weinstein and her daughter, Miss Carmen Weinstein are unable to run the affairs of a rapidly dwindling and aging community numbering no more than a dozen souls, let alone fulfill requests from abroad. we also do not believe they speak freely they only echo government policy and provide propaganda value."
It's a charge Weinstein, who speaks her mind very freely throughout our interview, hotly denies.
There's a group in New York who call themselves the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, who actually have nothing to do with today's Egypt, its cultural history or anything else, for that matter. Their aim is clear: All they want is to take everything Jewish out of Egypt. But what is the real purpose behind their vicious campaign?
A large group of them came here in 1997 and tried to transfer to New York all the artifacts from the Cairo and Alex communities. They also wanted to take the sefarim [prayer books] and religious books with the excuse that those were donated to the various synagogues by their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers.
If you say you want the sefers your father donated, fine which isn't really fine, since we' re not giving them back but when you say that you also want all the silver plates, all the silver ornaments, all the books, that's going overboard. Did your father donate them, as well?
To cut it short, the members of the community had a meeting we were more numerous at the time and concluded that we won't give up anything. Naturally, the New York group was furious and has been trying to stir up trouble ever since.
They wrote the Egyptian ambassador, Presidents Clinton and Bush and even President Mubarak, who sent them a very sensible letter stating that these artifacts belong to the Jewish community in Egypt and they're the ones who should look after them. Now, they' re leading a propaganda campaign through their website defaming our communities in Cairo and Alex and urging Jews abroad not to make any donations.
They're saying we're a dying community and that in few years' time, we will all be dead.
How can you talk to people with such a defeatist mentality, for who knows who's going to die and who's going to live? We will be gone but, hopefully, there will be people interested in taking care of what we leave behind. Our community is indeed shrinking, but dying? I don't believe so I don't believe it will ever die.
One of the main objectives when my mother took over the presidency of our Cairo community was to improve the quality of life for those members who were physically and financially challenged, providing them with a monthly sum to help them lead a decent life. We offer them medical help and pay for hospital fees when needed. Moreover, I started a program to send the less favored of the community to Alex, Marsa Matrouh and Port Said for two weeks or a month each summer, all expenses paid by the community.
We also organize lunches and dinners to celebrate our high holidays to give our members some kind of social life.
True, there are no youths we're mostly elderly women. But I look at it differently, which shouldn't be shocking. When you read about young people trying to immigrate to Italy, some drowning in the process, you get to know more about the nature of youth. Part of that nature is the rush to experience different countries, different lives, not to be tied down. This happens everywhere, with all nationalities.
Young people are always looking above and across the borders. I still remember a very nice caricature by Salah Jahin, where he portrayed a young man, followed by a maid carrying his suitcase on her head, taking a flight to Europe for a job washing dishes. Why don't you stay here and wash dishes? That was the question.
As our meeting draws to an end, Weinstein says she just read an article by the poet Farouk Guweida, and she simply loves it.
Guweida wrote that his father named him after King Farouk, named one of his daughters after Queen Fareeda, and the last one after Queen Victoria. The fact that "Victoria" is a Christian name didn't stop him. In my time, nobody knew who was a Christian, who was a Jew and who was a Muslim. We were all one family, be it in school or at the club. The only difference was that we celebrated different holidays. Nobody insisted on knowing your religion or ancestry.
As for the tensions you ask about, this characterizes our world today, it's not exclusive to one community. Look at what happened in America after the September 11 terror attacks. Bad feelings started emerging against the Muslims. We have witnessed similar cases in France and elsewhere. It's sad and unfortunate, but maybe it has always existed.
The fact remains that Egypt is the only place in the world that has always been hospitableto all religions, no matter what. Take, for example, Maimonides, who was born in Spain, then left for Morocco, then Palestine until, finally, he settled in Egypt, where he lived the rest of his life.
Egypt has been a homeland that accepted everyone no matter what. It has always been like this, and I hope it will always remain so.
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C O N T A C TJewish Community Council (JCC) of Cairo
# 13 Sabil El Khazindar Street
Midan al-Geish, Abbassia, Cairo
tel: +20 2 2482-4613 - tel/fax +20 2 2736-9639
open daily 10:00 to 15:00
Friday 10:00 to 17:00
Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fostat (Old Cairo)
For visits to other Cairo synagogues or Bassatine Cemetery contact JCC
please note the Jewish Community Council of Alexandria is an independent entity separate from the Jewish Community Council of Cairo