In Egypt, Remnant Carries on Rich Fabric of Jewish Tradition
During this year’s Rosh Hashanah evening service at the grand Eliahou Hanabi Synagogue, a short walk from the Mediterranean Sea here, all eyes turn toward the three foreign visitors who are making their way quietly to the front. Word spreads quickly in the women’s half of the synagogue: “We have a minyan,” a couple of elegantly dressed ladies whisper excitedly to one another.
Here in this coastal city known for its cosmopolitan flair, where only four Jewish men and 27 Jewish women remain, the prospect of having 10 males at a New Year’s service is always a reason to celebrate. The Jewish population is “getting lower and lower,” said Max Salame, the 90-year-old president of Alexandria’s Jewish community and a retired dentist, as he shared a festive New Year’s meal of beans, fried fish and pomegranates with community members. “There aren’t any more Jews.”
A Cairo-born Israeli who happened to be visiting his native country over the holiday, Salame led last Friday night’s service, which was attended by 10 Egyptian Jews, five tourists from France, three more Israelis and an American student living in Cairo. Another Israeli man, who makes the trip each year to lead the High Holiday services for the community, had to cancel after falling ill.
Following the wars with Israel in 1948, 1956 and 1973, many of Egypt’s Jews were expelled by the government or left on their own because of an increasingly difficult political situation.
Today, Egypt’s Jewish community numbers fewer than 100, some of whom are reluctant to discuss the political situation. Their names and the languages they speak – including French, Greek, Italian and Ladino – reflect a rich and diverse heritage that stems from various waves of immigration to the country over the years.
In Alexandria, the Eliahou Hanabi Synagogue – estimated to have been built between 1836 and 1850 by Italian architects – is testament to a once-vibrant Jewish community that boasted 16 synagogues and 35,000 to 40,000 Jews around 1950. Today, members say the youngest Egyptian Jew in the city is a single male in his 30s; most Jews here are older than 65.
Lina Mattatia, 82, who has recorded births, marriages and deaths for the community for three decades, remembers when the cathedral-like synagogue was full of upscale Egyptian Jews – the women high above on a second level and the men far below. “Sometimes there were marriages inside the synagogue,” said the blue-eyed, fair-skinned and very petite Mattatia in slow, careful English. “Then, they were coming out, nice ladies, very chic, full of jewels.”
Despite the obstacles, many Jews in Egypt made a name for themselves in business. Ben Gaon, the vice president of the Jewish community in Alexandria, says his father once served as the tailor for Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. “When they kicked out the Jews in 1956 and in 1967 and in 1973, he was always in good hands,” said Gaon, 53, who wears a dark mustache and has a large portrait of Mubarak over his office desk. “Everyone liked him. They knew he was not in politics.”
Mattatia, whose parents were born in Greece, said she has remained in Egypt because her second husband, a Jewish paper salesman 23 years her senior, became ill and that made it difficult to leave the country. But her heart has always been firmly planted in this coastal city.
“I love Alexandria. I was born here and it’s my country,” said Mattatia, who speaks five languages but is most comfortable in French. “And I love Egyptian people. I love them.”
The two daughters of Victor Balassiano, 67, and his wife, Denise, left for America in 2001 at the urging of a Jewish professor at Northeastern University in Boston who visited the synagogue. Today, both daughters, 27 and 25, are graduates of Northeastern and the eldest has obtained a green card. They also have a 23-year-old son, who left the country before his sisters and is living and working in Jerusalem. “It’s very difficult to find work, for marrying”? in Egypt, said Victor Balassiano, the accountant for the community in Alexandria. “The Jewish became very few. There is no future for the Jewish here.”
On a noisy street in downtown Cairo at the Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue, the armed security forces outside the synagogue outnumber the attendees by about three to one on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Among the six visitors who have come to pray Saturday, only two are Egyptian Jews. A larger crowd of mostly elderly Egyptian women, foreign visitors and members of the Israeli diplomatic corps in the country had commemorated the holiday the previous evening with a kosher meal from Israel.
During Saturday’s service led by a French visitor, the ark was opened and an elderly Egyptian woman, who appeared to be in her 70s, made her way slowly to the front to touch the Torah.
A man with a Muslim name, who said he worked for the government to keep the synagogue secure, questioned extensively this reporter about the article she was writing and whether she thought that Egyptian Jews are being treated well. If someone has said there are problems with the community, “tell me and I will resolve it,” said the man, who asked not to be identified.
On Sunday morning, the second day of the Jewish New Year, six Egyptian Jewish women came to the synagogue to hear the shofar. Among them was Celine Curial, 75, who says that even though she is fighting to reclaim property sequestered from her wealthy husband’s family by Nasser – a policy that affected all wealthy Egyptians – she loves Egypt and would never leave the country. “My pupils used to love me, to tell me, ‘You are our mother,’ ” the high school teacher of 35 years said.
If there are few Jews remaining in Egypt, Albert Arie may be the last of a dying breed: he is believed to be the only Jewish-born Communist left in the country. The 76-year-old Arie was imprisoned from 1953 to 1961 because of his political activism in the country’s largest Communist organization. Arie was sentenced to eight years hard labor at Turah Prison in Cairo, but he and other Communist prisoners refused to work.
After nine months in prison, he was taken to a detention camp at an oasis hundreds of kilometers south of Cairo. When Arie’s sentence was up, he was taken to Cairo’s Interior Ministry office to be released. After officials tried to convince him to leave the country because he was a Communist and “especially because he was Jewish,” he refused.
As a result, Arie was sent back to the detention camp for three more years, and was finally released in 1964.
Arie, who became a Communist at age 15 and was obliged to convert to Islam to marry the woman of his choice four decades ago, said he doesn’t practice any faith other than to share in Muslim feasts as a cultural event. Although he officially converted to Islam, his two sons have had occasional difficulties in relationships with other Egyptians because of their Jewish origins. But why, Arie wonders, would anyone be interested in the Jews of Egypt today?
“It is archaeology or sociology. It’s like people are digging for Pharaonic tombs,” Arie said from the office of his fruit and vegetable export business. “The Jews are the same. It’s the past.”