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Posted on Wed, Apr. 12, 2006

A modern-day Exodus

Joe Pessah and Wife

Joe Pessah and his wife, Remy Pessah, attend a gathering at Jewish Community High School in San Francisco.


By Lisa Fernandez

Mercury News

Joe and Remy Pessah grew up a few hours' drive from the pyramids in Egypt and swam where the Nile kissed the Mediterranean Sea. Then their country turned against them.

Because he's Jewish, Joe Pessah was imprisoned when Israel went to war with Egypt in 1967. He tells of being beaten and tortured. Remy Gazzar waited for three years for her fiance to be set free. Then, like the rest of the Egyptian Jewish community, the Pessahs were whisked to Cairo's airport with a one-way ticket away from their home.

So when the Mountain View couple sit down to tell the story of Passover tonight -- on the first night of the Jewish holiday -- they won't recite their prayers with an impatient eye on the barbecued lamb and homemade matzo to come. The biblical Exodus mirrors the bittersweet story of their lives.

``I feel it more than anybody,'' said Joe Pessah, whose surname passed on through the generations coincidentally means Passover in Hebrew. ``I feel happiness, anger, sadness -- all that makes up a salad. Though I am free, the emotions have left a scar.''

Today, the Pessahs (pronounced Peh-SAH) lead comfortable Silicon Valley lives, among about 2,000 other Middle Eastern and North African Jews who call the Bay Area home. But with freedom come nagging fears that it could be taken away.

Joe Pessah, 61, an electrical engineer in Milpitas, co-founded a synagogue for Egyptian Jews called Bnei Yisrael in Daly City. Remy Pessah, 58, a textile artist, volunteers with a Jewish women's group. And three years ago, both Pessahs began sharing their story, hoping this little-known slice of Jewish history won't be lost.

It's not easy. Joe Pessah said he has nightmares, at times so intense that he wakes up believing he's behind bars. His wife lowers her voice at a neighborhood coffeehouse while describing anti-Semitic times in Egypt.

This duality has even shaped their parenting. They raised their sons, David, 30, and Jacob, 27, to be independent.

Ready for anything

Remy Pessah taught her boys to cook, clean and type at an early age -- so they could stand on their own. Her husband pushed the boys to excel in school -- so that if there were ever a crackdown on Jewish liberties, their talents would be indispensable.

Norman Stillman, professor of Judaic and Middle Eastern history at the University of Oklahoma, said those reactions are expected.

``Egyptian Jews were the upper and middle class,'' he said. ``You're rich one day, you lose everything the next. There's this feeling that there is no real stability in this world.''

The biblical story of Passover took place in ancient Egypt. The Israelites were slaves under the pharaoh for 200 years. Moses begged the pharaoh to free his people. The pharaoh refused. Then, with God's help and a series of miracles, Moses and the Jews escaped, and they wandered the desert for 40 years before entering the land of Israel. For Jews, it's the quintessential story of persecution and redemption.

For the Pessahs, it is the most relevant Jewish holiday.

During the traditional Seder meal, Remy Pessah thinks deeply about her life. She studied engineering in Cairo when Joe Pessah was imprisoned and married him while he was still behind bars in 1970. She also reflects on her modern-day journey in Silicon Valley. With a $50 loan from a French Jewish agency, the Pessahs joined an uncle in San Francisco. They both attended San Jose State University, earning engineering degrees.

Remy Pessah landed her first job in 1974 at Fairchild Semiconductor. Joe Pessah took a job at Raytheon Semiconductor. Now, he works for Credence in Milpitas, and Remy Pessah has changed careers, studying how to dye fabric and create artistry from fabric.

Remy Pessah has told her story at least a dozen times as part of a San Francisco agency called Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. At least 1 million Jewish refugees fled countries such as Yemen, Iran and Iraq during the past half-century, said JIMENA's executive director, Emily Blanck.

``My experiences in Egypt shaped me,'' Remy Pessah said. ``My story has never left me; it's as if it happened yesterday.''

Joe Pessah is still finding his way. Passover brings up an ugly part of his past that he finds difficult to discuss.

``It's too painful,'' said Pessah, whose name is listed among those imprisoned in Egypt, according to the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt. ``Even my family know only bits and pieces.''

Pessah was imprisoned at 22 while a student at Cairo University. Guards shaved his head. He slept on the bare floor, head to toe with the others.

Sheltered lives

But Pessah also remembers happy times for Jews in Egypt. The community was at least 75,000 strong when he was born. Joe and Remy Pessah attended elite French-run schools. And their parents protected them from much of the Arab nationalism, which grew during the rise of Nazism and the birth of the state of Israel.

Then the Six-Day War broke out in 1967 between Israel and Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser believed that Jews threatened his country and imprisoned hundreds of Jewish men.

When they were freed in 1970, most Jews left the country.

``It was in a time of war. People were dealt with in improper ways,'' said San Francisco-based Egyptian Consul spokesman Attiya Shakran. ``But since 1979, the Jewish community is welcome in Egypt.''

About a dozen elderly Jews live there now. And because there are only about 300 Egyptian Jewish families in the Bay Area, Pessah tells his story, though it terrifies him.

Three years ago, he went public for the first time at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. He almost backed out. But he realized he had to face his past.

``I felt a little better,'' Pessah said. ``I felt relief and scared. I suffered injustices and it didn't need to be this way. But the only thing you can do now is work for peace.''


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