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'I'm an Egyptian. Where else should I go?'

Homecoming: Alexandria synagogue hosts Egypt’s largest Jewish prayers in decades

180 members of Egyptian-Jewish Diaspora return to fete renovated Eliyahu Hanavi shul, even as country’s tiny Jewish community prepares for a Jew-free future

  • An event at the community center running out of the old Israelite school in Cairo. (Courtesy)
    An event at the community center running out of the old Israelite school in Cairo. (Courtesy)
  • Marwa digs through documents at the Karaite archive.The community faces the challenge of safely storing, categorizing and protecting the many long-neglected documents that are still in the country. (Courtesy)
    Marwa digs through documents at the Karaite archive.The community faces the challenge of safely storing, categorizing and protecting the many long-neglected documents that are still in the country. (Courtesy)
  • Names of deceased relatives from Alexandria are read out inside the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (David Lisbona)
    Names of deceased relatives from Alexandria are read out inside the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (David Lisbona)
  • A table with candles at the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (David Lisbona)
    A table with candles at the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (David Lisbona)
  • Visitors gather outside the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandra, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (Courtesy)
    Visitors gather outside the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandra, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (Courtesy)
  • Members of the Egyptian Jewish Diaspora visit their grandfather's grave at the Chatby cemetery in Alexandria. (David Lisbona)
    Members of the Egyptian Jewish Diaspora visit their grandfather's grave at the Chatby cemetery in Alexandria. (David Lisbona)
  • Visitors gather inside the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandra, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (Courtesy)
    Visitors gather inside the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandra, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (Courtesy)

CAIRO — This weekend marks the largest Jewish prayer gathering in Egypt for decades. From across the Diaspora, some 180 Jews of Egyptian origin have flown to the land of their fathers for a Shabbat dedicated to marking the newly restored 14th-century Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria.

The weekend was closed to media and organized in part by the Nebi Daniel Association, an organization that works to preserve Jewish sites in Egypt. Only four or five septuagenarian and octogenarian Jews currently reside in Alexandria, Nebi Daniel Association board member Alec Nacamuli told The Times of Israel. The city used to house 12 synagogues, but most of them were sold over the years to support the Jewish community there, and its infrastructure and institutions, he said.

Once the largest in the Arab world, the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue was recently reopened in a festive gathering of government officials and Egyptian Jews on January 10. In cooperation with the military, Egypt’s antiquities ministry oversaw the 64 million Egyptian pound ($4 million) renovation which lasted over three years after the roof and staircase collapsed in 2016.

In January, Yolande Mizrahi, born and raised in Alexandria and now in her 80s, had one man to thank for the refurbishment. “If it wasn’t for [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] el-Sissi, this would have never been done. A lot of things have changed since he’s taken over,” Mizrahi told AFP.

Visitors gather outside the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandra, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (Courtesy)

The Alexandria Jewish community is not alone in getting an unexpected shot in the arm from Sissi. The Cairo Jewish community, once 80,000 strong and with roots going back to antiquity, stands at less than 20 Jews today. It too has benefited from the Egyptian president’s apparent new tolerance and is planning a much-needed cemetery conservation campaign.

A kiddush ceremony with challah from Israel and wine, inside the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandra, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (Courtesy)

The former general seized power from then-president Mohammed Morsi in a 2013 coup d’etat, scuttling hopes for democracy fired by the Arab Spring. In a fiercely opposed constitutional amendment, Sissi went on to cement his power through 2030.

Given Sissi’s track record since taking power — his regime has put the lid on dissent and deals harshly with opposition — it may come as some surprise that during a February 2019 meeting with the Anwar Sadat Congressional Gold Medal Commission, led by the Jewish Ezra Friedlander, Sissi spoke enthusiastically about the Jewish community in Egypt.

The president promised to build new synagogues if Jews return to Egypt, and also pledged to restore the ninth-century Bassatine cemetery — the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world. (Cairo’s famed medieval Maimonides synagogue underwent a renovation in 2010.)

Names of deceased relatives from Alexandria are read out inside the newly renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandra, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (Courtesy)

More recently, on January 23 of this year, the US Embassy in Cairo further fueled that plan by pledging funding to the Bassatine project, which it said would be implemented by the American Research Center in Egypt in collaboration with Drop of Milk, an organization dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage in Egypt.

A table with candles at the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandra, Egypt, February 14, 2020. (Courtesy)

Cultural commandos

One of Egypt’s few remaining Jews is Albert Ari, an aging communist who at age 90 still stubbornly refuses to leave despite being imprisoned multiple times. As he says, “I’m an Egyptian. Where else should I go?”

When one speaks to Albert’s 53-year-old son Sammy, who heads the Drop of Milk organization, it becomes clear that the stubbornness runs in the family.

Sammy Ari and Drop of Milk head Magda Haroun. (Courtesy)

Sitting in the old Israelite school of Cairo, Sammy speaks passionately about his last visit to New York, where he came face-to-face with one of his obsessions, Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, made famous by the film “Woman in Gold.” The painting, stolen by the Nazis, was only returned to the Bloch-Bauer family in 2006 after a protracted legal battle.

“My heart was in my throat when I saw the painting. It shows how stubbornness can set things right,” Sammy says.

Sammy’s Drop of Milk organization is further manned by some of the few remaining Jews, along with Copts and Muslims. Originally established in 1921 as a charitable NGO tasked with supporting the Jewish community’s needy and disadvantaged, the organization was recently revived in 2014 with the aim of preserving the country’s Jewish heritage as the community dwindles. By putting on cultural events and distributing information, it seeks to make the public aware of a now obscure part of Egypt’s legacy.

Sammy’s Palestinian-born wife Marwa, 44, was struck by Sammy’s stubbornness when she first moved to Cairo from Gaza in 2008. As Marwa, who was raised in a family that was both communist and Muslim, learned that not all Jews are Zionists, a friendship blossomed between her and Sammy. They eventually married, and not much later Marwa joined Drop of Milk.

Marwa’s politically minded friends were skeptical about her joining the organization, worrying that her link to Jewish people could prove to be problematic among their peers. Marwa saw this as further evidence that her participation in Drop of Milk was absolutely necessary, viewing her role as a sort of “cultural commando” to pave the way for others.

Marwa digs through documents at the Karaite archive.The community faces the challenge of safely storing, categorizing and protecting the many long-neglected documents that are still in the country. (Courtesy)

“From my experience in the Palestinian territories and the intifada, it is part of my daily reality to be a commando,” Marwa said. “If we only wait and see, nothing will ever happen.”

Through the years, her contributions have proven to be particularly valuable, as her involvement “[lets] people know that we are not secretly working for the Israelis,” she said.

More than a drop in the bucket

To everyone’s surprise, Drop of Milk has turned out to be massively resonant. Five years ago, Sammy couldn’t have imagined that there would now be a successful community center running out of the old Israelite school, or that Cairo’s Adly Street Synagogue would be regularly open for prayer services and tours.

The success appears to stem from a new mutual spirit of acceptance from both the Jewish community and Egyptian society as a whole. Starting in 2013, fresh leadership roles in the Jewish community have led to new community initiatives. Equally important are the changes that have pervaded Egypt’s mainstream following the 2011 launch of the Arab Spring in the country, with taboos and traditional patterns of thought being challenged on a massive scale.

An event at the community center running out of the old Israelite school in Cairo. (Courtesy)

As society has struggled to evolve, citizens have started to rethink what it means to be “Egyptian,” and whether there may be a place at the table for not just the larger Copt and Muslim populations, but minorities, as well. This change in thinking hasn’t been limited to Egypt, says Middle East scholar Najat Abdulhaq, who has written extensively on Jewish communities there.

Abdulhaq cites a new literary zeitgeist in which writers from across the Middle East embrace the history of Arabic Jews in their respective countries. This pan-Arabic literary movement poses a fluid and complex notion of what it means to be Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, or indeed any Arab national.

In her documentary “Salata Baladi,” or “Egyptian Salad,” Egyptian filmmaker and writer Nadia Kamel asks this question as well. The film focuses on Kamel’s own diverse family line with, among others, Italian, Jewish, Palestinian and Egyptian roots.

When the 2007 film was released, Kamel said its production was spurred by fear of diversity such as her own being lost in a society increasingly dominated by an “us” (Muslim) versus “them” (non-Muslim) mentality.

“I remembered that my grandmother would tell me the stories of strangers who met and then loved each other, and then became my grandparents and my parents. If these stories are not retold, they would die away,” Kamel says in the film.

Kamel boldly included footage of a visit to family members in Israel — a move that brought accusations of “normalization” with the Jewish state, including in a critique by a Columbia University professor published on The Electronic Intifada.

Still, the film has had considerable success, and has received accolades from notables such as Egyptian writer and former Europol director Kamal Ruhayyim.

Egyptian writer and former Europol head Kamal Ruhayyim. (Courtesy)

Ruhayyim is known for his trilogy of novels about Jewish life in Egypt and its decline, which have enjoyed success both in and out of the country. Speaking with The Times of Israel, he attributed the books’ popularity to the fact that “understanding is starting to increase now.”

“People now start to understand again what I have been understanding and saying for a long time, that we [Muslims] are just like Christians and Jews,” he said.

And now back to your regularly scheduled program

Thus far, the Arab Spring in Egypt hasn’t blossomed into summer. The tenor of Sissi’s rule hasn’t encouraged once optimistic hopes for revolution, human rights, and true democracy in Egypt. Still, some changes under the strongman leader are undeniable.

In addition to Sissi’s pledges to restore and rebuild Jewish heritage sites, his government has moved to influence popular opinion about his country’s Jewish minority.

The Vitali Madjar synagogue was renovated in 2017, but its inaugural ceremony was canceled after the US moved its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018. (Courtesy Sammy Ari)

This past Ramadan, state television broadcast a series about Egyptian Jews for the third year in a row. In the series, named “Haret el-Yahud,” or “The Jewish Quarter,” Jews are framed as patriots who fought on behalf of Egypt during the country’s initial conflicts with the newly established Israel between 1948 and 1954.

The show initially earned praise from the Israeli embassy in Egypt for portraying Jews as the protagonists, though it later reversed its opinion when it emerged that the show also demonized the State of Israel.

Still, the series can be contrasted with programming aired during the reigns of former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi, where Jews were compared to animals and state television broadcast a miniseries based on the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

There are a couple of constants in the country, including that Egyptians are not particularly fond of Jews, as can be seen by the many copies of “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” on display by the book vendors lining Cairo’s busy streets. The disdain has its roots in the foundation of the State of Israel, in which the Egyptians sided strongly with their Palestinian neighbors, followed by an eruption of nationalism under Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952 that quickly gave rise to a hostile climate and sharp decline of Jewish life in Egypt.

And opinions about Sissi’s sincerity are mixed. Some claim that the shift in attitude simply panders to the West, and the US and Israel in particular. Others believe it may be an attempt to whitewash his other infringements on issues of diversity and human rights.

For the Jewish community itself, the subject is a touchy one they are reluctant to address. In the words of Palestinian Marwa: “The most important thing is that we seize this opportunity before [Sissi] changes his mind.” Sammy and Marwa stressed that their goal is the preservation of Jewish heritage alone and that their organization is not involved with politics

Changing seasons?

While Egypt has not yet transitioned into an Arab “summer,” there are still those who believe the change in seasons is possible, that the cultural revolution will continue, and will influence the way people think and their willingness to break taboos.

“Since the revolution people have started reading and researching for themselves,” said author Ruhayyim. “Many now see how extremist thinking has influenced them; this racist Salafist ideology is slowly losing ground.’’

An event at the Sha’ar Hashamayim synagogue on Adly Street. (Courtesy Sammy Ari)

Sammy and Marwa’s organization Drop of Milk, they say, is proof that change is indeed possible and they remain hopeful.

“The revolution has succeeded in terms of a new generation being accepting of others. Maybe we did not achieve what we wanted, but change did happen,” Marwa said.

The couple’s ultimate goal, they said, is to establish Egypt’s Jewish cultural heritage as an inseparable facet of its national history and identity. Their hopes are bolstered by increased tourism from Jews and non-Jews alike to Egyptian Jewish heritage sites. While some may see it as inevitable that Jewish life in Egypt will end, with the right measures its memory can live on.

Adam Ragson and agencies contributed to this report.

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