In Egypt, a Once-venerable Community Is Now a People Let Go
At its height, the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt totaled 80,000 individuals, men and women of diverse backgrounds and nationalities: In addition to Arab Jews, there were also Jews of British, French, Greek and Italian origin. In this fertile environment, the Eliyahu Ha-Nabi Synagogue on al-Nabi Street thrived, housing the headquarters for the Chief Rabbinate of Alexandria and operating a Jewish day school and nursing home.
These days, however, the synagogue serves only the occasional spiritual need. Its community, once one of the most venerable in the world, has dwindled to 23 people – three men and 20 women – and features only one fully Jewish couple. The synagogue hasn’t had a rabbi since 1986, nor has it had regular Saturday morning services in over a decade.
Indeed, the sacrifices made by the Jews of Alexandria to stay in Egypt, especially in light of recent circumstances, are overwhelming. Beyond the difficulty of maintaining a shrinking Jewish community, there is the concern of security. During a recent holiday, the synagogue was heavily fortified: armed security agents, outnumbering worshippers, patrolled the complex grounds; two small convoys of Egyptian soldiers sat in security trucks on the streets surrounding the synagogue; and the entrances were patrolled by soldiers in full riot gear and helmets, with machine guns loaded and ready to fire. And in the area surrounding the synagogue, the Arabic translation of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” is available on virtually every street corner newsstand (“Hitler’s a hero,” one book merchant said to me).
And yet, the community seems relatively unfazed.
“We’re only 23 people, and we’re old,” said community member Victor Balassiano, 68. “Who’s going to waste their time bothering us?”
It was a lesson brought home this past Rosh Hashanah, which I was fortunate enough to spend at the synagogue. In the hours before sunset, the community’s spirit was inspiring. When I arrived in the afternoon, the synagogue’s kitchen was bustling with activity; aided by a number of local women, Balassiano’s wife, Denise, was cooking for more than 20 people and setting a table fit for a banquet.
Meanwhile, the custodial staff overseen by Abd el-Naby – an Alexandrian Muslim who, out of respect for the Jewish community, taught himself Hebrew to impressive fluency – was preparing the sanctuary for the holiday and locating the shofar and prayer books. When the frail, 90-year-old community president arrived with his nurse just before services, each member greeted him with a kiss on each cheek. Shortly after services began, a tenth male – a French Jewish tourist with Egyptian roots who had come to Alexandria to locate his deceased father’s records – arrived, forming the first Rosh Hashanah evening minyan in many years; the excitement was palpable.
Following evening services, the festive community dinner included a wide assortment of traditional Middle Eastern Jewish dishes: fish heads, symbolizing the head of the year; pomegranate seeds, representing sweetness and plenty; and onion leaves, signifying life and prosperity, among other delicacies. The community’s accountant, a Muslim, stopped by to wish his friends a happy new year.
“Everyone knows these people when they walk on the street,” he said, “And everyone respects and likes them.” For an evening, at least, Alexandria’s Jewish community seemed alive.
But reality finally set in when only five men – including two Israeli tourists and myself – and four women arrived for services on the first morning.
The origins of the Elihayu Ha-Nabi synagogue community are not precisely known. A plaque in the synagogue notes that its existence was first referenced in the diary of Obadiah di Bertinoro, a rabbi who visited Alexandria while traveling from Italy to Jerusalem in 1487. Napoleon’s naval bombardments destroyed the synagogue, which lies two blocks off of the Mediterranean, during the short-lived French conquest of Egypt, but the community rebuilt it magnificently in 1880.
The succession of Arab-Israeli wars, from 1948 until 1973, however, brought new pressures to bear on the Jews of Alexandria, who inevitably fell prey to the charge that they were conspiring in Israel’s favor. Due to Egypt’s citizenship laws, which require that one’s father be Egyptian to obtain citizenship for those born after 1913, many of Alexandria’s Jews didn’t hold Egyptian citizenship and were subsequently deported. Many others held dual citizenship and, according to community members, were imprisoned and “given the choice” of staying or leaving; few chose to stay. Still, others converted to Islam. Most of those men who remained held Egyptian citizenship exclusively, while the remaining female community members were mostly spared difficulty through their marriages to Muslims and Christians. One woman told me that, for protection, she frequently went by a nickname rather than by her real name, Rachel.
Within a few decades, hundreds of years of Alexandrian Jewish communal life were virtually erased. Alexandria’s Jews left en masse for Europe, the United States and Israel. The Jewish day school closed in 1970, when its enrollment fell to seven students. The building was sold to the Egyptian government and still stands today just beyond the synagogue gates, housing the Alexandria Secondary School; a Hebrew sign reading “The Schools of the Jewish Tribe” still adorns the façade;. When the last rabbi passed away in 1986, his wife immigrated to Israel to join her children, who had left many years prior. The nursing home closed in 1992. The synagogue still operates, albeit on a smaller scale of activity, thanks to international donations and Balassiano’s efforts.
Indeed, Balassiano is the rock of the community and, perhaps more than he would like to acknowledge, its relic. His first job was as secretary at the Jewish day school and, after it closed, he worked at the nursing home before settling into his present job as the community’s administrator.Balassiano particularly stands out because, with his wife, he raised the last Jewish family in all of Egypt; his two daughters recently graduated from Boston schools and work in the United States, while his son is currently studying in Israel. With his children living abroad and the Jewish community in such staggering decline, why would he stay?
Balassiano was taken aback by this question: “I see the way you’re looking at me,” he said. “This is my country.”
As I walked around the synagogue in the final minutes before sunset fell and Rosh Hashanah began, I observed plaques adorning many of the seats, bearing the names of, presumably, former community members. I asked Balassiano where his plaque was. “Mine won’t be put up until after I die,” he said. My thoughts naturally turned to the somber conclusion that such a plaque will likely never be affixed: Victor Balassiano currently stands as the final bearer of a once-great community.