Few Jews Left in Egypt to Mark First Exodus

c. 2003 Religion News Service

    CAIRO, Egypt -- The 98-year old synagogue, Shaar Hashamayim, in downtown Cairo stands empty and out of place amid a bustling street crammed with shops and cafes. Its iron gates are closed.

    A jeep full of soldiers is parked in front of the synagogue all day, every day incase of any attacks. People walk past the building but pay little attention to its presence.

    The only synagogue in Egypt with regular services will not hold any special ones for the week of Passover -- a commemoration of when Jews fled ancient Egypt. There are almost no "modern" Egyptian Jews left in this predominantly Muslim country.

    They, too, like their predecessors, left.

    "Passover does have a very special personal meaning and memory for the Jews from Egypt, and it recalls to each of us the reverberations of the biblical Exodus -- and when we ourselves had to leave everything behind and to flee," said Ada Aharoni, poet and writer, who left Egypt in 1949 when she was 16 and eventually settled in Israel.

    Aharoni is one of thousands of Egyptian Jews who left or were expelled from Egypt starting in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel. Between 50,000 and 100,000 Egyptian Jews left, according to unofficial estimates. Nationalist feelings swept through the country during that time and anti-Jewish sentiment ran high as Egypt went to war with Israel four times until 1973. Many Jews were accused of participating in Zionist activities and arrested. Some left the country and went to Israel and others went to Europe or North America.

    Today, what remains of what was once one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the Middle East, are less than 100 Egyptian Jews in a population of 69 million. Most are elderly women. There are no rabbis. They are unable to form a prayer group which requires at least 10 Jewish men.

    There are about a dozen synagogues in Cairo today, 18 less than in previous decades. The other one that is open to the public besides the downtown synagogue is Ben Ezra -- the second oldest Jewish temple in the world. Caretakers there say only tourists have been coming through the synagogue. Several key holy sites have been restored through efforts of the Jewish Community Council of Cairo and donations from international Jewish organizations.

    Most Jews living in Egypt keep a low profile and are wary of the media. Surviving members do not want to bring attention to their tiny community amid the continuing tense Arab-Israeli relations.

    "I don't talk about politics," said Carmen Weinstein, president of the Jewish Community Council of Cairo. In her 60s, Weinstein lives in Cairo with her mother and runs a stationary store. The council also publishes a monthly newsletter called Bassatine News.

    Egyptian Jews living abroad are more vocal about their opinions and have conflicting views about their identities -- a reflection of the turbulent and complex circumstances most of them lived through.

    "I never had a strong Zionist commitment and view Israel as a social experiment which became the tragedy of two people who are embattled and should not be," said Liliane Dammond, 78, who was born in Cairo and left for New York in 1950.

    Her departure was not as emotional as that of many others because she did not think it was final. Although she lived 25 years in Egypt and describes them as being "marvelous and comfortable," Dammond considers herself American.

    "I have no conflict with my identity. I am an American with a baggage of European education and experience of having lived in Egypt," she said.

    Aharoni, on the other hand, said she found her home in Israel and identified with the culture. She said it was difficult for her growing up and considering herself Egyptian because her family was never given Egyptian citizenship. The anti-Jewish backlash after 1948 made it hard for her family to remain in Egypt.

    But Aharoni said she has fond memories of Egypt. She was a member of a Jewish youth movement, sang in the choir at Shaar Hashamayin and said her family had no problem buying kosher meat or food.

    "In Passover we had special matzo baked at the various Jewish bakeries and all the traditional Passover cakes and biscuits. I have to say that their delicious taste still lingers in my palate, and their aroma and taste were much better than the ones we have today."

    Both women have returned to Egypt for short visits but said they would never return to live there.

    At the other end of the spectrum, Emile Rosseau, 70, chose to stay in Egypt through the hard times and was not asked to leave. He said Egypt is his country and the only home he ever knew. Unlike Aharoni, he had an Egyptian identity card and said he was never considered anything but an Egyptian citizen.

    "Egypt bestowed on me many good things," said Rosseau, former bank employee and former president of the Jewish Community Council.