21, 2005 Nisan 12, 5765
The Holy Ark in the Maimonides
The Star of David atop the ark is hanging on by a thread. (Uri Lenz)
end of the Exodus from Egypt
By Amiram Barkat
Outside it looks like a ruin, but after the guard opens the door to admit
visitors, it turns out that there once was a synagogue here. Behind a small
courtyard covered with building debris stands a Holy Ark. Its
doors are broken, and from its top dangles a Star of David, hanging by a
thread. The guard explains that the ceiling of the building collapsed in 1992,
and the pile of debris was never cleared away.
It looks like just another Cairo synagogue that has come to a sad end.
At least 20 such synagogues have been destroyed since the 1970s, and most of
them were larger and more magnificent than the small Maimonides
synagogue in Harat al-Yahud,
the medieval Jewish quarter of Cairo.
But this synagogue is not just any synagogue; it is one of the most important
Jewish sites in Egypt
and in the entire world.
Last year, special events were held all over the world to mark
the 800th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Moses ben
Maimon, the Rambam (Maimonides). He died in 1204 in Cairo, and according to the accepted
tradition, his bones were transferred to Tiberias for
burial. But the Jews of Egypt believe his bones never left the country.
According to Egyptian tradition, the body of Maimonides
was first brought to the small beit midrash (study hall) where he taught,
and afterward was buried at an unknown Egyptian location; one of the traditions
has it that he is buried today in the small niche in the wall of the ruined
synagogue's study hall.
evidence has been found for any of these traditions, but even historians say
that the synagogue and the yeshiva named for Maimonides
is one of the oldest synagogues in the world, almost 800 years old. That is why
the Jewish community in Cairo
allows only rare visits to the place. After many pleas, they agreed to open its
gates to a journalist and a photographer, on the eve of Pesach.
Although not much more remains of the synagogue itself than its
four walls, the other parts of the building are still standing. For hundreds of
years, the Jews of Egypt used to come on pilgrimages to this place, which is
located in the heart of the neighborhood's maze of ancient alleyways. People
with incurable diseases believed that they would be cured if they remained to
sleep near Maimonides' grave. Today the chances are
that not only would they not be cured, they would catch another disease,
judging by the stench from the toilets.
Above the entrance to the study hall, in splendid isolation,
hangs the portrait of Maimonides, who, according to a
popular saying, was the greatest Jew since Moses. In a small hall behind the
entrance, benches and other furniture float in what looks like a sewer. The
place is flooded with water, almost to the height of the ceiling. One can view
the niche of Maimonides' "grave" today only
by diving. "What's there, in a word, is a cesspool," says Prof.
Michael Lasker of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on Egyptian Jewry.
He says that he tried in vain to help the president of the Cairo Jewish community, Carmen Weinstein,
find a donor to restore the place. "The large Jewish organizations said
it's not in their area of responsibility, and Jews of Egyptian origin have
never been very cooperative," he says.
synagogue of the Karaites in Cairo, in the Abbassieh
neighborhood, also is usually closed to visitors. The guard there agrees to let
us in on condition that we don't take pictures. The reason becomes clear
immediately: The overall appearance of the synagogue resembles a haunted castle
in an (Egyptian) horror film. The building is reminiscent of a huge altar
standing entirely deserted, only the sound of the wind banging on the remaining
unbroken window panes interrupts the silence. The only visitors are the flock
of pigeons that has come to live in the space, so that on the way to the prayer
hall, visitors' shoes sink into a thick layer of guano. Two Art Deco chandeliers
made of bronze and crystal are the last vestiges of the days of glory. Other
chains remain dangling, testimony to additional chandeliers that once hung
Up until just a few years ago, this synagogue, named after
Moshe Deri, was full of valuable Judaica
that was brought to it in part from other Karaite
synagogues, before they were destroyed. In his book about Jewish sites in
Cairo, written in the mid-1990s, Dr. Yoram Meital of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, an expert on
the Middle East, mentions that on the floor of the synagogue were rugs and mats
on which the Karaites prayed, that the synagogue
building contained about 2,000 books, and that in the Holy Ark there were still
valuable Torah scrolls, made of parchment. No trace of any of these exists
today. All that remains is one bookcase, a pile of crates sunk in dust and
several empty cabinets for Torah scrolls.
believes local Jews were involved in the looting. Already in the early 1990s,
when he visited the place to gather material for writing a book, he noticed
that around him were "people who were very displeased about the fact that
I was documenting the items. At one stage they forbade me to continue." Yosef Dvir, a spokesman for the Karaites in Israel,
says they are well-aware of the fact that "the property in Cairo was not properly
maintained," but they are unable to help. "We barely have enough
money to maintain the community in Israel," he says.
Testimony and stories of Israelis who have visited other sites
belonging to the Cairo
community paint a similar picture of neglect. In the city's only Ashkenazi
synagogue, in the center of the city, old books and documents are strewn on the
floor in a layer of dust and filth. The huge Jewish cemetery in the Bassatine neighborhood serves as an improvised quarry for
removing marble, stone and metals from the graves, and hardly a single
headstone remains undamaged.
the situation is better. In the compound of the Jewish community on Nebi Daniel Street
stands the Synagogue of Elijah the Prophet, the community office building where
the rabbinical court sits, and another building that served as the Jewish
school and today is leased to a Muslim educational institution. The beautiful
historic buildings are surrounding by manicured gardens and are well
The synagogue, which is considered the largest in the Middle East, is an impressive building; a broad white
marble staircase leads to the entrance, which is surrounded by a decorative
stone fence. The huge space inside, which until the mid-20th century held 1,000
worshipers, is illuminated by the light of dozens of seven-branched candelabra,
with the addition of sunlight that streams through the stained-glass windows.
The stone arches and pinkish Italian Carrara marble
columns, with white Greek capitals, lend the place the appearance of a
cathedral. The backs of the seats still bear pewter disks with the names of the
owners. But the overall feeling is one of emptiness, of a bustling place that
has become a museum.
The community building in Alexandria
contains a huge archive that preserves the past of the community: birth and
death certificates, addresses, and a melange of old
books and documents. In one of the locked cupboards are the cups won by the Maccabi Alexandria basketball team, the Egyptian champion
in the 1930s. Life is gradually disappearing from here as well. On an abandoned
reception desk in the corridor the sign "civilian documents" is still
posted in Hebrew and in French, opposite is the deserted hall of the rabbinical
"Like lonely shadows, a few short elderly men and women
wander in the empty Jewish complex surrounding the synagogue," wrote
Israeli author Haim Be'er
16 years ago, in an article about Alexandria,
and nothing seems to have changed except for the number of the elderly, which
has decreased. The president of the Alexandria
community, dentist Dr. Max Salame, recently
celebrated his 90th birthday. Lina Mattatia, the synagogue's legendary tour guide, is over 80.
The head of the community, Victor Balassiano, who
claims the title of "the youngest Jew in Egypt," is 65 years old.
The central synagogue of the Cairo community is Sha'ar
Shamayim in the city center, on Adli Street.
The magnificent building, which was completed in 1905, is decorated with symbols
of the Pharaonic lotus and the palm tree, the symbol
of the Jewish community in the city. In the 1980s, the synagogue was renovated
with funds provided by millionaire Nissim Gaon, and became revitalized for several years. Dr. Meital still remembers hundreds of Israeli tourists who
used to attend the synagogue on festivals. Currently, no regular prayers are
held there. The facade of the building that faces the main street is guarded by
a unit of Egyptian soldiers, armed with rifles, who stand behind protected
shelters. On the other side of the road, permanent signs condemn Israel. For
has been trying to persuade the Egyptian government to remove the signs. The
subject even came up during the most recent talks held by Israeli Foreign
Minister Silvan Shalom last week in Cairo.
The synagogue itself is dark and deserted, with a depressing
atmosphere. In the entrance, next to a large charity box, sits an elderly
Jewish woman who has trouble being pleasant to visitors. She doesn't allow
visits to the women's section, and she agreed to allow us to photograph the
synagogue from inside only after we pleaded with her, "but only one
The second Exodus
memorial plaque attached to one of the columns of the synagogue on Adli Street
takes the visitor back 60 years, to the golden age of Egypt's Jewish community. The sign
is in memory of Yusuf Aslan
Qattawi, a former Egyptian government minister and
one of the authors of the 1923 Egyptian constitution, who served as community
president from 1924-1942. The Qattawis were members
of the Cairo Jewry's moneyed aristocracy. They made their fortune in the sugar
industry, and were among the founders of Bank Misr
(the Egyptian national bank). The bank's board of directors at the time
included other Jewish families such as de Menasce, Rollo, Suares and Cicurel, owners of one of the largest department store
chain in the country.
In those years, 40,000 Jews lived in Cairo,
with a similar number in Alexandria.
Many Jews, from Europe as well as Turkey
and the Arab countries, immigrated to Egypt
at the end of the 19th century, drawn by the economic prosperity that came with
the opening of the Suez Canal in 1896. Only a
few thousand had Egyptian citizenship, but they felt welcome in society. The
Jews of Alexandria lived in a city where one-third of the population
were members of various national minorities, and they felt no special
need to learn Arabic.
The situation took a turn for the worse in the late 1930s, as
pan-Arab and Islamic sentiments spread through Egyptian society. American
scholar Joel Beinin of Stanford University mentions
in one of his articles on the subject that not only did the Jews suffer, but so
did other minority groups - the Syrian Christians, the Italians, the Greeks and
the Armenians - all of which had increasing difficulty maintaining their
cosmopolitan-Levantine identity. But the problem that began in 1948 was unique
to the Jews.
The establishment of the State of Israel and the War of
Independence heralded the beginning of the end of Egyptian Jewry. "The
second Exodus" began in 1948, and within two years, one-third of the
country's Jews had left. The others, who had hoped that the end of the war
would bring them back into favor with the Egyptians, soon discovered their mistake.
The Egyptian government, which had outlawed Zionism, had promised protection to
the Jews who remained loyal Egyptians, but they didn't always keep their
promise. On January 26, 1952, for example, the police refrained from
intervening in riots in Cairo,
during which dozens of Jews were murdered, and Shepheard's
Hotel, the Metro cinema and dozens of other Jewish-owned businesses were burned
Two years later, in 1954, Israel provided Egypt with an
excellent excuse for continuing with the same policy, with the exposure of a
unit of Egyptian Jews who had carried out attacks in Alexandria and Cairo at
the instructions of Israeli military intelligence, in what came to be known in
Israel as the "stinking affair." Even avowed Egyptian patriots,
including the leaders of the Jewish community in Cairo, began to feel unwanted. The Karaites, the "Arab Jews" of Egypt, who for
hundreds of years had dressed and spoken like Egyptians, found themselves in
the same boat as their Western brothers.
The two final blows to strike the Jews of Egypt - the Sinai
Campaign in 1956 and the Six-Day War in 1967 - left only a few hundred Jews in
the country; from one-third to one-half of Egypt's Jews immigrated to Israel,
and the others went to Western countries - France, Canada, Australia and, of
course, the United States. The many businesses were sold to Egyptians or
nationalized. The dozens of luxurious villas built by the wealthy Jews along
the banks of the Nile and in the center of the
city today serve as embassies, upscale residences, museums and libraries.
Torah scrolls at the airport
property of the Egyptian Jews, on the other hand, remained for the most part in
Jewish hands. The synagogues, the religious objects, the ancient books and the
rare Torah scrolls were a treasure whose value was estimated at tens of
millions of dollars. According to Egyptian law, the sale of items that are over
100 years old is forbidden, but the underground clearance sale of the
community's assets did not cease, and reached a peak in the 1980s.
Michael Dana, the son of Youssef
Dana, who headed the community in those years, told Ronen
Bergman in this magazine (January 29, 1996) about Jewish Judaica
thieves from the United States who entered the synagogues as tourists, antique
dealers who tried to bribe the guards, and many Israelis who turned to his
father and offered him a great deal of money for rare items. In some cases, the
Egyptian authorities caught the smugglers and confiscated their loot. Several
dozen ancient scrolls are still being held in the Cairo airport.
The Israeli ambassador to Egypt
at the time, Moshe Sasson, told Bergman that when he
arrived in Cairo
in 1981, there were 32 synagogues, and when he left, six years later, only 12
remained. Several of the community leaders did not withstand the temptation,
and began to sell assets. "They saw that there was no next generation, and
that the property would go to Egypt,
so they decided to capitalize on it," says an Israeli Middle Eastern
scholar. "They said the money would go to the community, but in effect
almost everything went into their own pockets."
One of the only bodies that acted to rescue the heritage of
Egyptian Jews was the Israel Academic Center
in Cairo, which belongs to the National Academy
of Sciences (under whose sponsorship our visit to Egypt took place). "We
discovered huge quantities of books in the synagogues," says the founder
of the center, and its director during those years, Prof. Shimon Shamir. "We discovered that a large percentage of the
books came from private collections that Egyptian Jews had thrown out for fear
that `propaganda material' in Hebrew would be seized in their homes."
In the early 1990s, the books, about 15,000 of them, were
stored in three libraries belonging to the Jewish community, which are located
adjacent to the Sha'ar Hashamayim
synagogue on Adli
Street, the Ezra synagogue in the Fostat quarter and the Karaite
synagogue. Most of the books are from recent centuries, but among them are also
three rare religious books from the early 16th century. But the project for
collection and preservation was not completed - for budgetary reasons, they say
at the center. To date, not all the books have been catalogued, and they are
being stored in less than ideal conditions. The present director of the center,
Dr. Sariel Shalev, says
that he tried to raise about $5,000 from one of the large Jewish organizations
for the purpose of completing the catalogue, but he received no response.
The Ezra synagogue in Fostat, the
quarter from which Cairo began to develop in the
seventh century CE, is the only synagogue in Cairo that has been fortunate. Originally,
the synagogue was a Coptic church, which was sold to the Jews in 882 CE. The
synagogue was rebuilt a number of times, the last time in 1890. During that construction
work, the Cairo Geniza was discovered in the attic,
containing hundreds of thousands of documents written by the Jews of Cairo over
a period of almost 1,000 years.
The Ezra synagogue also suffered from neglect for many years,
but in 1980, in the wake of the peace agreement, it was chosen as a project
that would serve as a symbol of historical coexistence among Jews, Christians
and Muslims. The Egyptian foreign minister at the time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali,
and the president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, agreed to
preserve the synagogue. The preservation work, which was done under the
supervision of Bronfman's sister, Canadian architect Phyllis Lambert, was
concluded in the early 1990s, and today the synagogue enjoys a large number of
visitors, most of them non-Jewish tourists.
In recent years, the Egyptians have even evacuated the
residents from the entire area, in an attempt to turn it into a tourist
compound in which the visitors can view the oldest synagogues, churches and
mosques in Cairo.
Dr. Meital says that with all due respect to the
preservation work, he is disturbed by the fact that the place will never again
be a synagogue, but will remain as "a kind of interreligious
The leadership of the Weinstein women
It is hard to
know how many Jews are living in Egypt today. Prof. Ada Aharoni of Haifa, a
researcher of Egyptian Jewry, who is active in organizations of former
Egyptians, estimates their number at 20: eight in Alexandria
and 12 in Cairo.
However, from a legal point of view at least, the Jewish communities in the two
cities are still alive and active, and they administer quite a few assets. The
community in Alexandria holds the compound of
buildings in Nebi Daniel, the community in Cairo has about 10
synagogues, some of them of great historical value, as we have mentioned, the huge cemetery in Bassatine
and an office building and a school in the Abbassieh
The president of the community is Carmen Weinstein, a
businesswoman of about 70, who replaced her mother, Esther Weinstein, who died
last year at the age of 93. For years, the Jewish women in Cairo were mentioned
only if they married famous husbands, like the wives of Chaim
Herzog (Aura Ambache), Abba Eban
(her sister, Suzy Ambache), Boutros-Ghali (Leah
Nadler) and the French prime minister Pierre Mendes-France (Lili
Cicurel). The expert on Jewish sites in Cairo, Dr. Meital, still remembers how surprised he was when he read
of Esther Weinstein's election to the position. "In a community that since
about the year 700 has been dominated by men, that was a genuine feminist
revolution. I remember that in Alexandria
they didn't know what to make of it."
The bulletin board in the entrance to the synagogue in Adli Street
is covered with the pictures of the Weinstein women, mother and daughter,
together with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, who visited the community in 1999.
Some former Egyptian Jews accuse Carmen Weinstein of serving the interests of Egypt rather
than those of the Jewish community. Her supporters say that she works
tirelessly to protect the assets that remain in the community's hands. Prof. Shamir says that Carmen made "supreme efforts" to
prevent the destruction of the Jewish cemetery in Bassatine,
when the Egyptian authorities wanted to pave an expressway over it. She also
built a wall round the cemetery and managed to remove the squatters who had
come to live there. (Weinstein refused to meet with us. One of her associates
explained that she doesn't meet with Israeli journalists, and doesn't conduct
business relations with Israeli groups).
But Weinstein's efforts on the Egyptian front seem to pale when
compared to her struggles with her fellow Jews. Her acquaintances say that she
is angry at the Israelis living in Cairo,
because they stay away from the community's synagogues. In recent years, she
has repeatedly turned to wealthy former Egyptians who live in the West, in
attempts to raise money to restore the Jewish sites, but without success.
"It was quite embarrassing," says Prof. Shamir,
who has helped her on a number of occasions. "They said they didn't want
to hear about Egypt,
that for them it's a closed file. I have no doubt that Egyptian Jewry could do
much more to preserve its past."
About 20 organizations of former Egyptian Jews are active today
in the world, and many of them have been at odds with one another for years. In
recent years, after decades of indifference and neglect, there has been an
awakening. Next year, the first World Congress of Jews from Egypt will be held in Haifa. Prof. Aharoni,
one of the initiators of the congress, says that the idea is to "unite
forces" in an attempt to preserve the Jewish heritage in Egypt. The
initiative that is taking shape, she says, is to transfer the books and the
papers of the Jewish communities to a special wing of the new library in Alexandria. "We have
received very positive responses to the proposal from the Egyptian
authorities," she says.
However, the idea arouses determined opposition in the
Historical Society of Jews from Egypt,
a group that was founded in 1996 in the United States. Since its
establishment, the organization has been conducting a campaign to remove all
the communal property from Egypt,
not only sacred books and religious objects, but the community archives in Cairo and Alexandria
as well. "For us these aren't archives, they're living documents,"
explains the organization's president, Desire Sakkal.
"People want their birth certificates, their ketubot
[Jewish marriage contracts]."
The heads of the organization have already managed to have
articles on the subject appear in the American press, to sign on members of
Congress, and to turn to President George W. Bush. In 2001, the State
Department announced that a comprehensive study on the subject found no reason
to intervene at this stage, since Weinstein, the community president, is
opposed to taking the items out of the community's hands. Sakkal
refuses to give up. Recently, he says, he received a letter "from a very
high-ranking Israeli official" expressing his willingness to help.
Prof. Shamir is not enthusiastic
about Sakkal's plans. Underlying the demands to take
the items out of Egypt,
he believes, are often "shady motives." Prof. Aharoni
agrees: "With all due respect to Sakkal's
activity, many former Egyptians throughout the world think that he is too
extreme, that this activity is damaging and that it is simply
organization has already announced that it will not participate in the upcoming
congress, after his demands to take a belligerent line against Egypt were
rejected. In an interview with him, Sakal levels
sharp criticism at the congress, and calls it "the best attorney that Egypt could
have found. If they want to do belly dances with the Egyptians and to eat ful and falafel with them, let them live and be well. We
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