By; Lori Setton
About the author:
Ms. Lori Setton a teenager born in the United States of Egyptian born parents, resides today in the state of Florida. She wrote the following report for her history class, and forwarded to the HSJE by her uncle for comments.
He wrote, I thought you might enjoy reading this report that my 16 year old niece wrote for her Jewish history class. Her name is Lori Setton from Hollywood Florida and she is a very bright young girl. Please give us your feedback and feel free to post this on your website Historical Society of Jews From Egypt. I am very proud of her.
By; Lori Setton
My grandmother was born in Egypt, a place colorful with Jewish history tracing back to the settlement of Egypt’s first seventy Jews and the story of Passover. Prior to the Babylonian exile, Jews have lived in Egypt ever since the establishment of Elephantine, a small island located in Upper Egypt. Many came following the conquest of Judea by Alexander the Great in 322 bce.
The next major historical period was during the declining Mameluke Empire in 1517, when Ottoman forces under Sultan Seim invaded Egypt from Syria and competed for power with the Mamelukes. In 1798, the French, led by Napoleon Bonaparte ,invaded Egypt. In the Battle of the Pyramids, the French defeated the Mamelukes. Muhammed Ali, an officer in the Ottoman army, drove the French out of Egypt in 1801. Determined to modernize the land, he soon gained power in Egypt. Muhammed organized a new army, trade, irrigation, industrialization, and education. In 1841, the United Kingdom, fearing the arrival of a strong state in an important part of the Mediterranean, forced Muhammed to accept a decree limiting the troops of his army. Muhammed Ali’s successor, Said Pasha, began the construction of the Suez Canal, linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. Ismail, Said's nephew, ruled Egypt from1863 to 1879. By 1875, the King’s lavish spending forced him to sell part oft the Suez Canal Company to the British government. In 1882, British forces eventually defeated Egypt in the battle of At-Tall al Kabir while giving Ismail’s son, Tawkfiq, power. During the late 1800’s, a series of powerful British administrators directed Egypt’s affairs. As British started modernizing the country, Egyptian nationalism started to develop. During WWI, after the Ottomans allied with Germany, the British declared Egypt a British protectorate in an effort to protect the Suez Canal and gain more power over Egypt. From1919 to 1922, Saad Haglul led a nationalist movement in an effort to demand independence from the British. The British exiled Haglul, causing a revolt .Revolts got so severe that the government started to break down. Finally, in1922, Egypt was granted its independence. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1936 further broadened Egypt’s independence.
Many Jews arrived from Middle Eastern countries, the Balkans, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Italy. They then established prosperous communities by the Nile Delta, Cairo, Alexandria, Tantah, Port Said, Mansura, Mahalla al-Kubra, and Ismailiyya. By 1948, there were 80,000 Jews settled in Egypt. Although Jews were just a minority of the 19million Egyptians living in Egypt, they helped a great deal in economically modernizing the land. Because of the Montreux Convention of 1937, these Jews were considered stateless. During the Arab’s struggle to fight for Palestine ’s borders, anti-Semitism grew in Egypt. Facsists, Palestinian Arabs, and Egyptian nationalists shared their common hatred for the Jews. By 1938, anti-Jewish demonstrations not controlled by government broke out all over Cairo. In the1940’s, with the promotions of the Jewish Agency, the Histadrut, and the Mossad Le’aliyah, Zionism spread throughout Egypt. The Egyptian reaction to Zionism was bloody and cruel. On November 2, 1945, the 28thanniversary of the Balfour Declaration, anti-Zionists destroyed synagogues, Jewish soup kitchens, Jewish hospitals, and other Jewish public buildings. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 only made the Jews more of a target. On May 30, 1948, the Egyptian government issued Proclamation N26, stating that any business enterprises, assets, and property owned by people that are interned in Egypt (Jews) will be seized by the Egyptian government. King Farouk, the current leader of that time, made a disastrous decision of sending military into the newly established state of Israel. In an effort to take over the West Bank rather than confront the Israeli army, the Egyptian military troops failed to defeat Israel. In December of 1948, Prime Minister Nuqrashi of the Saadist party was assassinated. Replacing him, Ibrahim al-Hadi Pasha was appointed premiere. In February of1949, the Israeli-Egyptian Armistice Agreement was signed reducing some Jewish oppression in Egypt. For example, prior to the agreement, only holders of foreign passports were allowed to leave Egypt. However, after the agreement, emigration was permitted to both the stateless and the Jewish-Egyptian citizens. This marked the beginning of Jewish emigration from Egypt. 1952 was a turning point in Egypt when Gamal Abdel Nasser of the Free Officers’ party overthrew King Farouk. Under Nasser, industry and agriculture production became fast growing aspects of the Egyptian economy. In 1961, he nationalized banks, insurance companies, and other firms. Despite border tension between the Israelis and the Arabs, the condition of the Egyptian Jewry was secure. However, on October 29, 1956, Israeli military entered the Sinai Peninsula. Britain and France bombed Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said. Although they were not involved, measures were taken against the Egyptian Jews within 72 hours. During the Regime of Sequestraion, the Sinai Campaign punished the Jews with police detention, sequestration of all business and property, expulsion, and deprivation of citizenships. (Denaturalization) These four punishments affected the rights, status, safety, and very existence of the Jews in Egypt. In fact, in Article 1 of the 1956 law, the Egyptian Government states flat out that “No request for the delivery of a certificate of Egyptian nationality will be accepted from persons known as Zionists. In 1956, despite the anti-Semitism, no serious violence existed against the Jews in Cairo and Alexandria. For this reason, many Jews did not aspire to leave their homeland anytime soon. Towards 1960, the Nasser regime continued to deprive Jews. Jews were stereotyped as Zionists, and practically became enemies of their own country. Thousands of Jews were ordered to leave the country and forced to sign declarations “donating” their property to the Egyptian government. Many refugees went to Latin America, France, Netherlands, Greece, and Italy. With the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, other Jews were able to immigrate to the United States, Canada, and Australia. Many other committees such as the ICEM, (intergovernmental Community for European Migration) UNHCR, (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and the AJDC (American Joint Distribution Committee) helped Jews escape out of Egypt, transfer their assets, and find homes. In 1961, the anti-Israeli propaganda worsened under the Nasser regime. Nasser created the Arab Socialist Union. In 1967, the Six-Day war between the Arabs and Israelis marked a failure for Egypt’s air force and army. Little by little, more and more Jews left Egypt. Where a thriving Jewish community of 80,000 once existed in 1948, only300 Jews remained in 1970. At present, less than 100 Jews remain in Egypt. They are all elderly. They have no local kosher butcher, much less a rabbi. However, they are free to practice Judaism without any harassment.
My grandmother, my mother, and I – three generations of Sephardic Orthodox women sit down and explore our Jewish history. My grandmother recalls, my mother retells, and I just listen. As we sit around the table drinking authentic Egyptian style coffee, I look into my grandmother’s eyes and see a pride of her culture, background, and obstacles in her life that have made her the woman of substance that she is today.
Nonna, which means grandmother in Italian, was born in Egypt. Her father was born in Syria, and her mother was born in Palestine. Nissim Hadida traveled to Egypt following the Great Depression. Known as “Said Hadida Betayel Sullafaine,” (the seller of fancy papers) Nissim found wealth in Egypt as the merchant of various paper products for most of Cairo. Julia Hadida was a homemaker who came from a familyof Orthodox rabbis. In Cairo, Egypt, my great-grandparents raised three girls and two boys. As our custom holds, Pauline, Fortune, Esther (my grandmother), Chaim, and Jack were all named after their grandparents. The family grew up ina mixed community of Jews, Italians, Greeks, and Muslims. However, they madesure to hold tight to their close-knit Jewish community. For example, Nissim and Julia Hadida sent their children to a private Jewish school and sheltered them from neighboring non-Jewish communities. In such private Jewish schools, rabbis taught young boys much about the Jewish religion. In these same schools, young girls readied themselves to become homemakers by learning how to sew, embroider, and crochet. Both boys and girls learned a great deal about culture, the arts, and languages such as French, Arabic, English, and Hebrew. After the age of bar-mitzvah, boys continued their religious education. On the other hand, religious education for girls was not considered mandatory. Children’s uniforms, consisted of pleated navy blue skirts or pants and collared shirts, were similar to most of our uniforms today. Most children walked to school, but some took buses. Teachers were diverse Europeans who spoke Hebrew and/or French. After school, children enjoyed playing basketball and soccer (foot-ball) in a center for Jewish sports called Macabi. They also played chess, cards, and backgammon, in which my grandmother refers to as sheshbesh. Jewish parents made sure that their children never played outside alone or in Arab sectors in fear that they would be beaten up or even kidnapped.
Fortunately, my grandmother never experienced a real threat of anti- Semitism as a young child. Her generation was tremendously sheltered from the Holocaust. To them, it was something that they knew was happening but that they never talked about. Furthermore, Egypt had a limited means of communication and media with the outside world. Very little was known about what was happening to their fellow Jews across the country. However, Nonna’s earliest recollection of anti-Semitism was during World War II. At the age of 13, Nonna recalls looking out of her window and seeing a bomb explode in a water pipe. Germans were working hard to capture Egypt, and luckily, they were being weakened by other powers. WWII ended before the Germans could even dent Egypt. Jewish Egyptians always knew that their freedom of religion was limited. Therefore, they lived humble and simple lives and never traveled outside of their Jewish sectors, despite their wealth.
Being surrounded by many non-Jewish influences, my grandmother, her sisters, brothers, cousins, and acquaintances all stuck together as a small group of friends. In fact, my grandmother Esther was especially close to her sister Fortune, and many thought they were twins. Although their small Jewish community was surrounded by Italians, Greeks, and Arabs, they were discouraged from associating with these neighboring communities out of fear of intermarriage. During the hot summers, my grandmother and her friends enjoyed their times in resorts by the sea. The extremely close-knit group of friends would also enjoy simple pleasures such as mingling at the park or the zoo.
Many Egyptian Jews enjoyed both their culture and the culture of others. Both teenagers and adults enjoyed going to the theaters, where they saw American movies, ballets, operas, and concerts. Seamstresses sewed all of their clothing from only the finest Italian wools, cottons, and linens. Children were taught embroidery, sewing, and painting in the finest schools. Up until today, the Jews of Egypt hold a reputation of being the most educated and cultured of the mid-upper class society.
My nonna, Esther recalls Shabbat being a beautiful ritual in her household. Every Friday afternoon, my nonna’s mother would bathe the children and change them into fresh new clothes. Her mother then cooked authentic Egyptian food such as sofrito, (meat and potatoes) machshi, (stuffed squash) and fasulia. (string beans) The whole family respectfully stood up while my great-grandfather recited the kiddush. Asper the old custom, the children would kiss the hands of their parents, wait for their blessing, and drink the wine. Following dinner, the family drank mint tea, and ate pantispana (a fluffy sponge cake) with fruit. On Shabbat mornings, the men went to shul. Being in the middle of an Arab country, the shool was low key. Despite its humbleness, the shool was rich with culture and religious artifacts. As the men returned from praying, the house would smell of slow cooked hamin, a dish with chick peas, meat, eggs, and potatoes. Most Jewish peoples’ favorite Shabbat afternoon pastime was sitting on their balconies and conversing over a large tray of assorted nuts, leb (seeds), kaak, and baticha. (watermelon) Shabbat was the time to enjoy family, delicious food, and a good simple lifestyle.
Jewish holidays were also always a special time to bond with family and friends as they gathered around a table filled with dalaha, (veal) and medias. (artichoke) As opposed to Eastern European Jews, the Egyptian Jews ate rice and string beans on Passover. Instead of apples and cinnamon, Egyptian style charoset was made with dates. My grandmother Esther always remembers helping her mother in the kitchen and making every holiday perfect. In addition, Egyptian religious events differ very much from today. For example, weddings and bar-mitzvahs were religious rituals not consisting of elaborate celebrations. Instead of money, newly married couples always received household gifts, and bar-mitzvah boys always received brand new talit and tefillin from their fathers. Although many older traditions have been discontinued, customs like this one still exist today.
Generally, Jews in Egypt were very educated. Aside from language and religion, Jews educated themselves in math, finance, commerce, and pharmaceuticals. Some became doctors, lawyers, and dentists, while most others became architects and engineers. In Egypt, Jews were considered the most intelligent and the wealthiest. As soon as the Jews leave Egypt, the good economy goes with them. Currently, now that there is no Jewish presence in Egypt, the land is filled with poverty. As Esther grew up, she became one of the few women who studied at the American Mission where she learned English. With her language knowledge and her secretarial skills, she earned a job at the “Shell Butagas Co.” where she was an administrator. Her knowledge of the English language also became very useful when she immigrated to America.
At the age of twenty-two, Esther got married to a handsome young artist named Joseph Balassiano. My grandparents met at a Jewish social function where they were introduced by a mutual acquaintance. They went out for a year and married in1952. This was during a culture in which couples were never encouraged to go out alone due to physical safety and reputation. Although he was eleven years older than her, large age differences were socially accepted. In Egypt, dating was strictly for the intention of marriage. From the moment my grandfather saw my grandmother, he knew she was her destined partner in life. Together they would share both the good times and challenging obstacles that life had to offer.
Married life was extremely difficult for my grandmother. Esther moved to Heliopolous, Cairo, a large town located an hour away from her family. Her husband, Joseph, became successful as an architect for many of Egypt’s buildings and movie theaters. My grandmother moved in with my grandfather Joseph, (whom I call Nonno) and his elderly father and uncle. Although Nonno was not the oldest of his brothers, he and my grand mother took full responsibility of taking care of his dependant father and uncle. Unfortunately, this took a toll on their married life. As a young woman, newly married life was a disappointment to my grandmother. In fact, it was just opposite from the fairy tale dream that she thought it would be. After a short two month period of being married, my grandmother got pregnant. She gave birth to their first daughter, my mother, Rachel, in April 1953. She later went on to have Julie in June of 1954 and Marline in December of 1955. They were all placed in Italian school. Having to take care of three little children, a husband, and two elderly men at the tender age of twenty-five was more than she bargained for, but she persevered. In 1958, her first son Mark was born. By this point in life, my grandparent’s lives seemed to be settling down. Esther was finally happy where she lived, and she finally learned how to stabilize and adjust to her time-consuming schedule.
With a lack of telephones and transportation, communication with her family back home was especially complicated. Later in the marriage when missing family was unbearable, Esther would visit her parents. This was a place that she and her children especially enjoyed. My mom recalls Heliopolous being big and isolated, while her grandmother’s house was loving and cozy.
In Egypt, young Jewish kids did not have much of a social life. A lot of their time was spent at home, where they would remain out of sight of dangerous Arabs. Some of my mother’s fondest memories were sitting on the swing set that her father had built for her and taking trips to the zoo.
In 1957, the current leader of Egypt, King Faruk, was overpowered. In his place was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who took steps towards nationalizing the country. Jews were given visas to leave the country, and their property was being taken away. Some, recognizing the deep anti-semitism that was spreading around, left sooner than others. Years of preparation was spent making clothes for the steadily growing kids, quickly liquidating their assets by selling off property for undervalued prices, and gathering paperwork that was essential for leaving Egypt. Jews were forced to leave everything they possessed, others smuggled their money out of the country. Leaving the country caused a split in my grandmother’s family. Because she was born in Palestine, Nonna’s mother and the rest of her family were automatically destined for Israel. My grand parents decided to immigrate to the United States. Generally, the older and more Zionistic generation moved to Israel while the younger and more aspiring generation immigrated to the United States, the land of opportunity. Nonno and Nonna were forced to leave their ninety-two year old uncle in an old age home, where they never heard from him again. Few Egyptian Jews, my family included, left right when the disease of anti-Semitism was spreading. Because of this, these Jews did not feel retribution or malice from the Egyptians at that time. However, in 1966-67, Jewish Egyptians still living in Egypt were arrested and drowned in hatred. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) worked hard to get the Jewish immigrants through an extremely difficult journey in a humane and civilized way. At thirty-two years old, Esther left the only place she had ever known. My grandmother also left her beloved family, whom she did not know if she would ever see again. In April of 1962, with only what they could carry out of the country, my grandparents and their children started off on their journey to the land of opportunity. Although everyone was sad and scared of what would be, this was only another chapter in the lives of my grandparents.
Leaving Egypt was the hardest part of my grandparent’s lives. First, the family went to the port of Alexandria. After a last minute checkup in which the Egyptian workers took my grandmother’s gold bracelets and her daughters’ gold earrings, they boarded an Italian ship and set sail for the New World. After seven difficult and seasick days, the family arrived to the port of Greece. Esther remembers sitting on the dock of Peraisin Greece eating Italian ices with her husband and children and contemplating on what their new life would be like. They spent two nights in Greece. They then traveled to Marseilles, France. From there, they took a train to Brussels, Belgium and then finally to Paris. Being short of life’s necessities, this was a very hard trip for Esther and her family. They lived in Paris for one year in great anticipation to receive their Visas. At one point in her life, my grandmother remembers being stranded helplessly on the street with suitcases and four children, being offered money from strangers out of pity while her husband hastily searched for a hotel to stay in. my grandparents were scared of what their future would hold. Little did they know, the next chapter of their lives would be very complicated. When Joseph’s father turned ill, the family was unable to receive Visas. As a result, they survived in filthy hotels for over a year. These hotels lacked eating and bathing facilities. Luckily, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)sponsored community dining rooms and public shower houses for Jewish immigrants.
While they were in Paris, my grandfather enjoyed gathering the family to sightsee. My grandmother remembers enjoying her exploration of Champs Elysees, many museums, the Arc de Triumph, and the Eiffel tower. Winter came hard on the Balassiano family. They were usually accustomed to a warm climate in Egypt, and were therefore unprepared. As a result, my grandfather ’s already ill father developed pneumonia and passed away. Because of this, the family now waited for their Visas to get through in great anticipation.
The following Passover, exactly a year since their relocation to Paris, was a bittersweet time for the Balassiano family. During their HIAS sponsored seder, the family recounted the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Their ancestors too, had escaped oppression and moved onto bigger and better things in life. And just like the former slaves in Egypt, the Balassiano family was passing yet another chapter in their lives, unaware of what it might bring. Joseph, Esther, and their four children each received their visa papers during Passover and my mother’s tenth birthday. The family arrived in April of1963 with their hearts full of hope and their hands full of luggage. Esther was grateful as she reunited with her sister Pauline. Joseph was also very grateful when he finally united with his brother Max. The family moved to Bay Parkway, in the heart of the new founded Egyptian community. Joseph earned a job for Photo Screen Corporations designing all types of silk-screening prints. Joseph had a fear of taking chances in business. He trusted no one and therefore had a hard time financially excelling. For extra income, Joseph enjoyed other creative work such as painting, window-dressing, and putting up wall paper. Joseph worked extremely hard for his family to provide food on the table. Now that they were in the ‘Land of Opportunity,’ things adjusted quickly for Joseph, Esther and their family for the first time in a long time.
A normal life finally started to resume for Joseph, Esther, and their four children. In September of 1963, the young girls were sent to a public school called PS205. Mark, who was surely a brilliant little boy, was sent to a yeshiva. Esther felt that it was essential that her son receive a sufficient Jewish education. Just when life was becoming normal again, the real nightmare was about to begin. Around October of 1963, Mark caught a severe case of the German Measles. Because there were no vaccines for this, Mark never recovered. He then started suffering through symptoms such as falling, throwing up, and having nightmares. Esther dragged Mark from doctor to doctor only to find out that the complications of the measles led Mark to be diagnosed with a brain tumor. At the tender age of seven, Mark had been through so much that his body finally gave up. In July of 1965, Mark passed away. Besides losing her dear child, Esther thought that she would lose her mind.
As it always did previously, life resumed regularly. Although they kept their sad experiences deep in their hearts, they knew that life must go on. Esther’s last two sons were born in New York- Norman in 1966 and David in 1970. Funds were particularly tight with five kids to take care of. However, as the girls grew up, they got jobs and happily earned money for their families. Joseph and Esther managed to put their two sons, Norman and David, in Magen DavidYeshiva. They received financial aid from their generous Jewish community, their hard-working daughters, and a righteous man named Jack Abadi. These sources helped them out a great deal in making sure that Norman and David would receive a sufficient religious education. In addition, Joseph and Esther would spend their free time volunteering in school activities to help subsidize their tuition. In a community where kids were encouraged to stick to their own Orthodox Sephardic atmosphere, it was imperative to Esther that her two boys receive a Jewish education. Rachel, Julie, and Marline were also brought up in a strict environment where socializing and dating with non-Jewish men was prohibited. (But as my mom recalls, her and her sisters once in a while snuckout.) Now that their daughters were of marrying age, Joseph and his daughters worked even harder to support three consecutive weddings. (From 1973-75.) All three of his daughters’ husbands were close family friends from Egypt. Marriages such as these kept the Egyptian community living in New York very tight.
On May 31, 1991, my Nonno passed away. My Nonna is currently living alone in Brooklyn, New York. Up until today, Nonna’s love for her hometown in Egypt does not diminish. She remembers of a good life in a secure community. She still holds onto her Egyptian culture by speaking Arabic and listening to Arabic music. In her strong Jewish-Egyptian community, her neighbors are her close friends that she grew up with in Egypt. These neighbors, a group of friends that have been through so much with her, will always be together. Although her children and grandchildren are Americanized, they too still embrace the old way of life.