Gates to the Jewish cemetery in Port Said, Egypt. Many of Egypt’s historical Jewish sites are in need of preservation and repair. (Photograph by Maurice Chammah.)

by Maurice Chammah

At first I did a double take, seeing the word ‘Weinstein’ in simple block letters one story above street level in downtown Cairo. Most of the other signs in the area either light up in neon or are temporary and wooden, flicking off paint in the gritty wind. But this single name is immaculate, etched permanently into the side of a stone building. Contemporary Cairo is a disorienting mix of grand yet decaying edifices—more than a century old—and ramshackle street carts selling toys and vegetables. In this context, the ‘Weinstein’ is stubbornly out of place, neither grand nor decaying nor in any way ramshackle.

For years, I had been hearing about the Jews of Egypt. Several of their synagogues are easily accessible to the most casual tourist, kept up for sightseeing but seldom used for ritual. Others take a great deal more searching, and have fallen into disrepair. But the lone name on the side of a downtown building was a flicker of the possibility that Jewish people, and not just Jewish buildings, still resided in Egypt.

The Jewish presence in Egypt goes back, depending on your theology, to the protagonists of Exodus, though those Jews left no archaeological trace. The first Jews in the archaeological record came in small numbers during the Ptolemaic era (332 – 30 BCE) and stayed with varying degrees of protection and fragility throughout the many phases of Arab rule, from Saladin through the Mamelukes and Ottomans. During the Ottoman period, Jews (along with Copts and other non-Muslims) were classified as a separate juridical community. As Egypt grew into a modern nation-state, most elements of the Ottoman system were absorbed into the Egyptian legal-social scheme, and many Jews did not receive Egyptian citizenship. Their numbers swelled in the early twentieth century, as Europeans with names like ‘Weinstein’ escaped persecution in Poland, Russia, and elsewhere.

Learning more about Cairo’s contemporary Jews is not difficult once you make a few key discoveries. The first is Bassatine News, an online newsletter named after the main Jewish cemetery in Cairo, written by community leader Carmen Weinstein. Her missives read like an intra-family holiday letter, an hastily-sewn quilt of brief personal anecdotes, pleas for money, educative asides about Jewish ritual, snapshots of community events, genealogical discoveries, and innocuous messages to ‘you’, by which Weinstein likely means Jews outside Egypt, since she composes most of the newsletter in English. “Like you,” she wrote during the revolution, “we in Cairo have been anxiously following recent events live on our television sets.”

The other key discovery is that events held by the contemporary community are open to the public, or at least the public that finds information online and RSVP’s with Weinstein. She is the president of Cairo’s Jewish Community Council (JCC), which oversees the community’s many holdings, including synagogues and cemeteries.  The JCC also, as Carmen explained in a 2005 interview with Egypt Today, provides a “small monthly sum” for those of the community who need assistance with living or medical expenses.

Numerous young Americans have explored the community in this way, and many of them, Jews themselves, speak with confusion bordering on disapproval of a lack of ritual precision. A graduate student named Shane Minkin got to know many in the community and attended a funeral. She described the scene: “People were yelling, and there was a sense of disorder; it was unclear who was in charge…Cell phones rang in choruses, and the chief gravedigger answered his, walking away from the grave to take a call, putting a hold on the funeral proceedings.”

In Guernica magazine several years ago, writer Josh Weil observed Passover. “The Rabbi attempted to get the congregation to join him in prayer,” he observed. “But his encouraging smiles, his flapping arms, were all in vain. The Egyptian Jews – those who weren’t chatting or posing for pictures – stared back, mute. An old woman leaned in toward her friend and whispered, ‘What holiday is this again?’”

As a mostly secular Jewish American, I felt a kinship with these other observers. I wanted to learn more about the community too, and felt there must be a less impressionistic—more ethnographic, more reported–way to go about it. I slowly discovered that wouldn’t be so easy.

 

“All Together, No Problem”

This past spring, I emailed Weinstein to ask if I could attend Passover Seder, and headed out the door without waiting for confirmation. I did get a reply from her ten minutes before the start of the Seder (though I didn’t know this until later). When I arrived at the pristine, if slightly dusty Shaar Hashamayim synagogue downtown, a few blocks from where Weinstein’s name graces the side of the building, I showed my passport to five different guards, wrote down my address, and waited. On most days, at least ten guards stand in the sun and in a makeshift police station at the entrance, a measure taken by the Egyptian government in the wake of various acts of violence (including a bomb thrown at the building in 2010, which fortunately didn’t injure anyone). On holidays like this one, that number had increased to twenty, some in plain clothes and others in full riot gear. The entrance was unlit and eerie.

A guard escorted me around the side of the synagogue and across a courtyard, past a dry marble fountain, to a low-ceilinged boxy room in the back of the property. The walls were white and slightly grimy. A huge spread of food sat ready under aluminum foil near the entrance.  A crowd of roughly forty people chatted, seated and standing around plastic tables and chairs. I quickly surmised that most of them were not Egyptian Jews. A few women wore the hijabs popular among the Muslim majority. Many were American or French. The American ambassador, Anne Patterson, arrived in a sharp blue suit, adding a hint of glitz to the otherwise quiet affair.

The experience was as confusing as I’d been prepared for. Jews from different backgrounds often rely on ritual as the one thing they have in common even when language and cultures differ. Here, even the rituals were unique. The Rabbi asked us to dip parsley, which is usually dipped in salt water, in the date paste known as haroset. I was surprised, since this is never done anywhere else in the Jewish world. We ate and then washed our hands, also a nontraditional sequence.

When I tried to ask detailed questions of my fellows about was going on, I received shrugs and guesses—the mix of languages, some of which I don’t speak fluently, was a challenge as well. An American diplomat’s wife nervously questioned a man taking photographs who, it turned out, was Weinstein’s handyman. Weinstein chatted with a few diplomats and exchanged greetings with anyone who approached her, but she did not speak to the entire group. One Jewish-American woman had very dark skin and apparently didn’t look ‘obviously’ Jewish to Weinstein’s eye. Weinstein kept referring to her as ‘a journalist,’ even though she was not one, as if to keep track of who was an outsider, even though many non-Jews and non-Egyptians were attending.

A rabbi named Mark El Fassi had been flown in from Paris, since there are no males capable of leading a service left among the Egyptian community. El Fassi has the thick head of grey hair one associates superficially with distinguished Parisians. He is originally from Marrakesh, Morocco, and now leads an organization called Les Enfants d’Abraham (Children of Abraham), which promotes inter-religious dialogue and education in Paris. He delivered the story of Exodus and the various ritual instructions in a mixture of Arabic, French, Hebrew, and English, in roughly that order of frequency. He told the story of Exodus in a fairly traditional manner, ending with a gloss on Egypt and the Jews. “Now,” he said in broken English, translating from French, and then in Arabic, “Jews, Christians and Muslims all together, no problem. But back then, they did not like the Jews, so we had to leave.” All together—no problem. That assertion, it turns out, is at the center of the contemporary Egyptian Jewish narrative.

“Not Even Off-the-Record”

The next day, I wrote about the experience on my own blog. Hours later, Weinstein called me and asked if she could re-post what I had written in Bassatine News. She had a warm and friendly voice over the phone, with a slight accent of French and Arabic overtones.  Weinstein was sharp and critical towards me in print, though. She wrote in Bassatine News that my piece (I was a “young American blogger”) had made her “realize how people see us from the exterior and how mistaken this vision can sometimes be.” I had made two factual errors—the product of asking people who had guesses for answers—and she had used these as a springboard for discussing the community. Her main thematic objection was that I hadn’t noted their cosmopolitan, polyglot tendency to celebrate Jewish holidays with non-Jews in a “multi-babble” of languages. In her writings, Weinstein regularly refers to the cosmopolitan diversity of the Egyptian-Jewish past, in which little united the community except for religion.

A few days later, I met Weinstein in person at her office, in the building that bears her family name where she runs a small stationery shop, the Imprimerie Weinstein—a family legacy. She told me I should consider writing a novel, as if to suggest that I make things up better than I report them. She squinted a lot, nodding slowly when I spoke and leaned on her cane behind a big desk, piled high with documents.

Weinstein’s parents were both born in Egypt. Her father hailed from Romanian ancestry, and her mother, Esther, was elected president of the Jewish community of Cairo (JCC) in 1996.   The Egyptian Gazette called Weinstein’s election a ‘palace revolt’. The former president, a banker named Emile Rousseau, apparently faced “muffled accusations of asset-stripping” and  “cries that artifacts and other Judaica belonging to the abandoned synagogues were ‘disposed of’ without prior consultation.” Rousseau returned from an overseas trip to discover that Carmen Weinstein had convinced the JCC board to admit female members and to vote in her mother, Esther, as President.

Carmen took over as President of the community upon Esther’s death in 2004. She’s difficult to fit into a personality archetype, remote and slow to speak in person, yet quick and mentally nimble over the phone and in writing. She was again congenial as we spoke (except for the quip about my novel), telling me about the various synagogues left in Cairo. I offered to help her collect the experiences of other Jews in writing, but she declined and seemed eager to change the subject.

I found out that many other journalists had similarly confounding experiences. Jake Meth, an American journalist writing for the Cairo newspaper Egypt Independent, attended the same Seder as I and explained to Weinstein that he wanted to write about the community. She agreed, and promptly helped him with finding a synagogue in Alexandria. When he called to schedule the interview, she told him, “I can’t meet with you.” “Maybe in the future?” he asked. “I don’t know.” She hung up abruptly. “I felt like at that moment,” he later told me, “I had lost any possibility of talking with anyone in the community.”  Carmen did not return his follow-up calls. The historian Joel Beinin told him, “There’s nothing they can say that can be safe for them.” Another woman he had met at Passover grew more hostile to his calls. “Despite this journalist’s repeated attempts to contact members of the community,” he ended up writing, “all refused to speak on or even off the record.” The word ‘even’ is the only printed trace of his frustration.

A few weeks earlier, another foreign journalist, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, had interviewed two older women about their childhood as Egyptian Jews. “They were very happy to speak with someone like me,” he told me. “Everything was going smoothly.” As he stood to leave, he told the women that he would like to write an article about what he had learned, and they agreed on condition of anonymity. The next day, one of the women called him and angrily accused him. “You lied to me,” she said to him. He began to see a pattern, especially after speaking with Meth and me. “I talked to another member of the community and she was terrified of having anything written about her because she was scared of Carmen retaliating,” the journalist told me. It’s not clear what that retaliation might consist of, but within this small community, it appears that Carmen’s authority is formidable.

Between my own experiences and those of my fellow journalists, I looked for a pattern, but came away frustrated. Weinstein has spoken with reporters before, though as one for Egypt Today magazine admitted she “turns down far more requests than she grants.”

 

The Egyptian Gazette’s riposte to charges of persecution of Egyptian Jews, 1956. (Photograph by Maurice Chammah).

Between Narratives

I turned to researching the history of Egypt’s Jews as narrated in the press, spending time in the archives of The Egyptian Gazette. Egypt’s Jewish population once numbered in the tens of thousands, with some estimates reaching over a hundred thousand. They thrived as merchants in the late Ottoman period and were actively involved in anti-British nationalist movements. Many were opposed to Zionism and proudly considered themselves as Egyptian, even without citizenship. Then came the founding of Israel, the wars, the Palestinian expulsion, the implacable image of Arab vs. Jew. Because they were not citizens, Egyptian Jews suffered from the wave of anti-foreigner feeling that accompanied the dragging end of British control and the rise of Israel as a hostile neighbor. They became suspect, tainted by suspicion that they might be spying for Israel and doubts about their affinities—a dynamic that still persists, and to which Weinstein herself has been subjected.

The Jews of Egypt were caught between enemies and between narratives. Following the 1956 war with Israel, Britain, and France, the American and Israeli press published numerous accounts of widespread Jewish persecution in Egypt, including harassment by other Egyptians in the streets, police round-ups, property confiscation, and being held in jails without charge. “We were placed fifty to sixty in a room not larger than three yards by three yards, packed like sardines,” a former bartender named Joe Scialom told reporters at a press conference in April 1957. “That morning food was thrown at us, one bread, uneatable, and a tin of filthy white cheese with vermin in it.”

The Egyptian press counterattacked. “Persecution Charges Are Ridiculous,” read a headline on page 2 of The Egyptian Gazette on December 5th 1956. Although there were certainly propaganda motives for such stories, I was struck by their specificity. “Radia Elie Nakkah, a watchmaker…was visibly annoyed when asked by the reporter if he had ever been persecuted,” wrote an Egyptian journalist without byline. “Nakkab went on to say that he was proud of being an Egyptian and of having ‘drunk the water of the Nile.”

Since the 1950’s, Egypt has claimed that it protects the Jews while others vehemently dispute that claim. Many Jews did leave Egypt in those years (most estimates are around 20,000, half the Jewish population at the time), and the debate continues today about the forces aligned to fuel what some scholars call the “Forgotten Exodus.” The head of an organization called Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa said that Egyptian Jews were “ethnically cleansed” between 1948 and 1970.

Were they pushed out or pulled out, by Egyptians or Zionists? Did they leave of their own free will? Was it the inevitable result of Egyptian nationalism? Pan-Arab anti-Semitism? Were the emigrations also partly fueled by the Zionist politics of the times, the drive to establish Israel as a safe haven for persecuted Jews? As in many historical debates, one’s perspective is informed by one’s commitments and priorities, political and otherwise. Carmen’s perspective, at least as articulated in a 2005 interview with Egypt Today, is that the emigration of the 1950s was mostly driven by economic forces:

 It was during the Revolution [of 1952] 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…We were lucky to have our own business…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.

Yet as this quote reflects, ‘obliged to leave for one reason or another,’ hints at a more complicated mix of factors than simple economics, and many historians and activists have examined them in detail. “The security of the Egyptian Jewish community was irretrievably damaged by the outbreak of the Suez/Sinai War,” wrote historian Joel Beinin in his seminal book The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry. “In response to a British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt on October 29, 1956, Egypt took harsh measures against its Jewish community. About 1,000 Jews were detained, more than half of them Egyptian citizens.”

Since then, thousands upon thousands of Jews have left, leaving Weinstein few others with whom to preserve the counter-narrative to persecution. It is this context in which she writes Bassatine News, keeps journalists selectively frustrated, and challenges the few accounts of the community that diverge from her own, including descriptions of Jewish rituals as “unfamiliar” or confusing, like the one I wrote. Weinstein likes to tell a story about passing through customs in New York. She writes, “The employee checking my passport exclaimed laughingly, ‘Weinstein? I thought all Jews left with Moses.’ I replied in jest ‘Well, as you can see some of us decided to stay behind because we love Egypt no matter what!” Weinstein’s representation of the Jewish situation in Egypt focuses on their claim to Egyptian-ness “no matter” the persecution they face.

In this battle over narratives and the place of a dwindling, tiny community, she also confronts Egyptian Jews in the diaspora and their current Jewish alliances, who left Egypt decades ago. Significant blocs of those activists want the Egyptian Jewish community’s objects expatriated to Israel or New York. One of these groups is the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, and in 2002 they begged the U.S. Congress to make aid to Egypt contingent upon releasing artifacts and community records to the U.S. In 1996, the Israeli ambassador to Egypt suggested the remaining synagogues there be sold to raise money for a museum.

Weinstein has done a massive amount of work to raise money from international organizations for synagogue restoration of Egyptian Jewish sites, as well as to get the Egyptian government to declare the synagogues as antiquities, which would place the synagogues and all of the artifacts inside them under government protection. Carmen’s caught between Jewish diasporas who want to assume a caretaker role for the history of Egyptian Jews (regardless of what the remaining Jews in Egypt, or other Egyptians, might think), and the Egyptian government, with whom she must keep a good relationship if she is to succeed with her own goals of preservation and restoration. In this context, her descriptions of the community as ‘polyglot’ and cosmopolitan both push back against the expatriate persecution narrative and play a diplomatic role with Egyptian authorities. It’s a very difficult position, indeed.

I asked an Egyptian close to Weinstein about why she is so secretive. He told me that she is worried about the rise of Islamists in the country’s government, and the possibility that they will use her community as a scapegoat. “They’re scared. That’s all there is to it.” As recently as 2009, the Egyptian channel Al Mehwar TV aired a news report accusing Egyptian Jews of having given secrets to Egypt’s military enemies. Holocaust denials and copies of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ can still be bought from booksellers in downtown Cairo, tucked into rows under fluorescent lights. I never found myself singled out when I talked with Egyptians about my Jewish heritage, but others certainly have.

I ran the fear theory by one of the American journalists and he disagreed. “My theory is that it’s hard to tell how big the community is, they get money based on the size…and it doesn’t help for someone to say ‘There’s only twelve of them left.’” Indeed, Weinstein’s own estimates of the total number of Egypt’s Jews are regularly disputed, and though she releases the names of organizations that have financed restoration, like the World Sephardic Federation and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, there is little information on the rest of their financial situation. “Exactly how many Egyptian Jews are left is a point Weinstein, scholars and other activists sharply debate,” explained Egypt Today in 2005. “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.”

Perhaps for Weinstein the point is not secrecy, as her caution with journalists might suggest, but rather the control and framing of information. She is happy to allow personal, impressionistic accounts of the community to be published. But when it comes to newspapers, reporters, and facts, she wants to be the sole voice of Egypt’s Jews. This is not difficult in such a small community. Weinstein has the power, simply, because nobody else is looking for it and because she has a clear and heartfelt vision of the past and future of Egyptian Jews.

It is both understandable and unfortunate that the  specific stories of Egypt’s remaining Jews are kept under lock and key by Weinstein’s enigmatic personality and by the crush of forces surrounding them. Caution has become an integral part of Weinstein’s leadership and the community’s mode of operating. Unlike many journalistic subjects, who either have a story to sell or want to be totally outside the public eye, she occupies a strange, insoluble position in between, her desire for attention as clear and as furtive as the letters of her name on the stone edifice.

 

Maurice Chammah is a writer and musician in Austin, Texas who studied journalism in Egypt as a Fulbright student, 2011-2012. More about him at http://www.mauricechammah.com

With support from the Henry R. Luce initiative on Religion and International Affairs.