Egypt’s Jewish Heritage is Disappearing

Egypt’s Jewish Heritage is Disappearing.

Ronen Bergman,

"The Chase After The Nile Treasure",

Musaf Haaretz, 26.1.96, pp. 18-24. [Hebrew]

This very important article deals with the state of the property, synagogues, libraries, artifacts, geniza scrolls, graves, and cemeteries of the Jewish community in Egypt at present. During the communal presidential of Yusuf Dane in Cairo until his death in 1988 many synagogues were sold. Presently, his successor Emile Russo has sold a synagogue in Port Said, and has tried to sell other synagogues. The question of what he has done with the money has been raised. Currently there are libraries of the Jewish community's books in Cairo and Alexandria. In Cairo there are two libraries belonging to the main Jewish community and one belonging to the Karaites. The Alexandrian library (within the main synagogue complex) is currently under questionable hands and there is a need to ascertain that this library be protected by the Egyptian government.

Recently, Prof. Yosef Ginat, former head of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo, was refused entry there and only allowed to enter when he threatened to call the police. Many foreign artdealers, collectors of Judaica, rare book traders, and swindlers have tried to take items out of the country in the last 20 years. Some succeeded and others were caught. Anything over 100 years old is supposed to be under the supervision of the Jewish department of the Department of Antiquities, but in reality there are many exceptions.

Emil Russo maintains that he has full control over the community, but he never adjourns the communal council or calls for reelection as the communal constitution states. he claims he sold synagogues wit rabbinical permission from Israeli Sephardic Rabbi Bachtschi Doron and former French Chief Rabbi Rene Sirat. Both deny giving such permission and note that according to Jewish law, if a synagogue is sold to non-Jews, another must be built in its place. Much of the communal valuables have been stored in a "safe room" in the Jewish community, but no one besides the presidents has ever seen the contents. There is no control over these valuable items and no assurance that their contents have not disappeared and been sold abroad.

Yoram Mitel of Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, who recently wrote a book about the Egyptian Jewish monuments and neighborhoods of Cairo, thinks the best solution would be for all of the Jewish sites to come under the Antiquities Department of the Egyptian government.

The government sealed off the Mosseri tomb after old geniza scrolls were stolen from there and valuable scrolls are currently rotting away there. The article ends with this pessimistic statement: "Until someone will intervene for the benefit of science and academic research of the Jewish world, maybe there will be nothing left to research".

I highly urge our readers, many of whom research Egyptian Jewry, or deal with theme as librarians or even reside in Egypt to help use their influence to ensure that the property and books are protected and come under some sort of supervision and control. Y.K.

"Catalogue of the Jack Mosseri Collection". Edited by the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts with the collaboration of numerous specialists.

(Jerusalem: The Jewish National and University Library in collaboration with the Manfred and Anne Lehmann Foundation, 1990). Available at The Jewish National and University Library, Hebrew University, Givat Ram, POB 503, Jerusalem. TEL;02-6585039, Room 19. Price - 50 NIS ($25). [Hebrew]

For the first time a catalogue was made describing an entire collection of Geniza documents and fragments. In total this 430 page publication indexes 5,600 Geniza fragments. Every item in this geniza collection is described in Hebrew. The collection has quite a pit of piyyutim, and poetry; as well as amulets, Biblical commentary, Talmudic interpretations, prayers, communal records, letters appealing for charity, and more. There are fragments from the classic medieval Jewish poetry of Ibn Gavirol, Saadia Gaon, Shmuel Hanagid, Yehuda Halevi, Moshe Ibn Ezra and Ben Labrat; as well as excerpts of the writings of the Rambam, Alfasi, Benghiat, and others. One can find fragments from the post-Spanish expulsion period; such as songs written by Yisrael Nagara. Unlike at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, or at the Cambridge University Library (England), no geniza fragments in Greek are listed in the above Mosseri collection, but there documents in Ladino, Persian, English, and possibly in Italian. There are also documents written in Coptic and Latin script. Most of the documents in this collection are in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. At the end there are indexes of authors, places, dates, languages, piyyutim and poetry, incipits of the piyyutim and poems, copyists and persons mentioned, and melody indications. The dates of the fragments range from 951 CE to 1910! There is a concordance of call numbers, which may be helpful to prepare for use of the microfilms in Jerusalem, or for ordering. I foresee the day when the documents will be available via e-mail.

This publication is highly recommended for researchers of the Sephardim in the middle ages, and research libraries; as well as researchers of Egyptian Jewry. This is also a particularly valuable guide for students and researchers of poetry, prayer, and Jewish thought.

Reprinted from Sefarad, the Sephardic Newsletter Jan 1996 Vol5, No 1

Newsletter may be obtained through E-mail Mskerem@pluto.mscc.huji.il

Kerem@israel.nysernet.org.