Out of Egypt: Panelists Recall ‘Lost World’
Liliane Dammond had been away from Egypt a long time when she felt the need to reconnect. “When I retired from my career,” said Dammond – author of “The Lost World of the Egyptian Jews: First Person Accounts from Egypt’s Jewish Community in the Twentieth Century” – “I had the feeling that I wanted to go back to my roots.”
Dammond, who came to this country from Egypt in 1950, at the age of 25, set out to interview other Egyptian Jews who left the country around the same time she did. When she was finished, she had 50 oral histories. Twenty-eight appear in her book.
“I asked them about their lives – their education, languages, marriages,” she said, “not about politics or about what they did when they came here.” For the most part, she said, the interviews – gathered on two continents and over a period of five years – were conducted in French, which she later translated into English.
While many of the people she interviewed have since died, their stories will remain, said Dammond, who donated all her taped interviews to the archives of the Oral History Division of Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry in Jerusalem.
“They only had two oral interviews before this,” she said. One of them, she later learned, was with her father.
Dammond said she did not “correct” the transcribed interviews but rather let each of the individuals featured “tell their own story. It’s really one story after another,” she said.
On Sunday, Dec. 16, the author will read from “The Lost World” at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. She will be joined by a panel including several interviewees and children of interviewees. During the program, “Fifty Years Ago & Counting: Assessing Life in the Jewish Community of Egypt,” the speakers will recall happier days for the Jews in Egypt.
According to Dammond, the Jewish community flourished in Egypt for centuries, with Jews enjoying both wealth and comfort. She explained that one apartment building could house people of different religions on each floor, “and there was absolutely no problem.”
In the mid-1900s, several events caused the Jews to become unwelcome, and most members of the community were forced to leave. According to Dammond’s Website, www.lostworldofegyptianjews.com, “The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the Suez Crisis of 1956, and the 1967 Six Day War between Egypt and Israel, cumulatively, led to the eventual exodus of the majority of the 100,000 Jews who had lived peacefully and happily.” Today, the Jewish community in Cairo has some 30 or so members, most of them older women.
Hosting Sunday’s JCC event will be Englewood resident Adina Gordon, who, together with her husband Yitz, endowed the center’s Adina & Yitz Gordon-Rachel Gindi Sephardic Culture Fund. With a master’s degree in Egyptology, as well as a doctorate from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, Gordon, herself an author and lecturer, said her interest in Sephardic culture “stems from deep roots.” Not only does she have many Egyptian and Syrian friends, she noted, but she and her husband traveled extensively in Egypt in 1974 and 1983.
In 1948, Gordon – then a member of a U.S.-based kibbutz group awaiting the chance to make aliyah – was asked by that group to help Palmach member Raphael Recanati ship arms to Israel in preparation for the War of Independence. She was soon joined in that effort by her (now) husband Yitz. After the war, Recanati founded the Israel-America Shipping Line, which Gordon described as “Israel’s flagship commercial and passenger line.”
Yitz Gordon remained in the shipping industry after the war and, said his wife, the couple “developed lifelong friendships with the people who gathered around Recanati,” many of them Egyptian. One of those people was Liliane Dammond.
“I want people attending Sunday’s program to know what a rich background life in Egypt gave the Jews, preparing them for life in exile,” said Adina Gordon.
Gordon said in choosing panelists she focused on “people who live here in northern Bergen County. I felt it would be more interesting for people who know them but might not know their background.” Included in the group are Nicole Romano Gans, who is speaking on behalf of her father, the late Joe Romano of Tenafly, and Dr. Ralph Hallac, whose mother, featured in the book, is too ill to attend. Also on the panel are Albert Guetta and Esie Chalem.