|BASSATINE NEWS the ONLY Jewish newsletter reporting directly from Egypt|
|A Community Chronicle put out by the Jewish Community Council (JCC) of Cairo since 1995|
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PESSAH will start on April 11 following the Bairam Holidays, ending on April 19 which coincides with Coptic Easter and Sham al-Nessim.
Coming from a traditional American Jewish background, I was not sure what to expect during the six months that I was to spend studying at the American University of Cairo. Many of my close friends were afraid that my Jewishness would be met with hostility. Others simply assumed that I would be unable to find other Jews or viable Egyptian synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
Well, after completing my semester, I am very happy to say that my friends were wrong on both counts. Instead of having problems, I found living as a Jew in Egypt to be a fully rewarding experience. By and large the people of Egypt are an exceptionally warm and gracious lot. Not once was my background questioned in a negative context. Indeed, most of the Egyptian people who I had the opportunity to meet were fascinated by my background and were eager to display their tradition of tolerance.
However, by far the most pleasant surprise that I found living in Egypt was the diveristy of Jewish treasures which remains today. Wandering in Cairo, one can still find all flavors of Ashkenzi, Sephardi, and even Karaite Judaism...not to mention the second oldest remaining Jewish cemetery in the world. And while much of the native Egyptian community has left over the years, there is still an organized local community in addition to a very wide number of Jewish expatriates which together forms a very tight and supportive network of Cairene Jewish life. The effect is very touching. I cannot even describe how meaningful of an experience it was for me to be able to attend High Holiday services in the heart of Cairo, to dance with century old Torahs during Simcha Torah, and even to light Hannuka candles on a felucca while floating down the Nile.
As everyone knows, the ever evolving Egypt Civilization is rich in culture and tradition. But what I never could have known was how integral a part Judaism has, and continues to play in its development. I consider myself lucky to have experienced this diverse heritage first hand, and even luckier to have participated in it.
With standing room only, the historic and recently restored synagogue of Ben Ezra (also known as the Temple of Eliajh the prophet) in Old Cairo (Fostat) was the 1997 venue for Hannuka. Visitors, tourists and expatriates turned up for the two day event (December 23 'Hannuka' ; December 25 'Maimonides).
A tent was especially set up in the temple's courtyard. Among the ecclessial visitors were Father Xavier Eid of Garden City's Saint Marie de la Paix in Garden City, and a dignitary of the German Church in Cairo.
The 1,000 year old Ben Ezra synagogue is where the ancient Cairo Genizah documents were stored before being transferred to the West late last century and early this one.
Ben Ezra is considered the oldest synagogue in Egypt, though nobody quite knows when it was built. Today it stands in lonely splendor in Old Cairo, surrounded by seven churches and three Christian cemeteries. Under its venerable stones, one is still shown waters seeping up from the Nile flowing nearby; here, according to Jewish and Coptic tradition, Moses was found in a basket amd taken ashore by Pharaoh's daughter. Legend has it that it was none other than Ezra the Scribe who founded the synagogue in that area some five hundred years before the Christian era, when invaders established their citadel - called Babylon for obscure reasons. Vestiges of the fortress, taken over and reinforced in 98 c.e by the armies of Rome led by Trajan, can still be seen beyond the courtyard of the temple. However it is more widely believed that the synagogue stands on the site of a fourth century church sold in the 9th century to the growing Jewish community who lived in Old Cairo. The reason? Crippling taxes imposed on the Christians by Ibn Tulun, who needed money to complete the mosque bearing his name, admittedly one of the greatest Islamic buildings of Cairo.
It is difficult to say which story is the less unlikely. Certainly no other instance of a church being sold by its owners to Jews in the Middle Ages comes to mind. However, there might be a way to reconcile both versions. It has also been suggested that in fact the building had indeed started life as a synagogue and was later turned into a church. If that is true, it may explain why the Christian community was ready to sell it back.
From the beginning of the second millennium, the history of Ben Ezra synagogue is better documented. We know that the original temple was lost in the eleventh century due to the religious zeal of Caliph el Hakem who ordered Christian and Jewish monuments destroyed throughout his empire. However, Ben Ezra was soon rebuilt. Benjamin of Tudela, the celebrated Jewish traveller, visited the site in 1168 and reported the presence of a thriving community in Old Cairo, numbering as many as 7000 Jews. The most illustrious member of that community was, undoubtedly, Moses Ben Maimon, the great Jewish philosopher and physician. Born in Spain, Maimonides had left his country to avoid persecution and settled in Egypt around the year 1165. He became the head of the Jewish community in 1169 and kept that position until his death in 1204.
With the development of Cairo north of Fostat, more and more people left Old Cairo to settle in the newer parts of the city. Affluent Jews followed suit. New synagogues were built. By the nineteenth century, Ben Ezra was all but deserted. It came briefly back in the limelight with the discovery of the Geniza.
Jewish law forbids throwing away any paper bearing the name of God. These papers have to be buried in a respectable manner. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews would "bury" such documents in a secret place in the synagogue, the Geniza, where they remained for centuries. Their discovery in the late nineteenth century created a sensation for they shed a remarkable light on the life of the community. The discovery also led to Ben Ezra being given a much needed face lift in 1897. And then it slowly fell back in oblivion.
By the middle of the twentieth century, there were no less than 34 synagogues in Cairo many of which needed restoration. But for the timely intervention of the Canadian architecture center led by Phyllis Lambert, Ben Ezra would have fallen on hard days. Not that its tribulations were over : On October 12, 1992 an earthquake damaged the newly renovated temple and a new ceiling had to be put in.
The year 1997 was a good one for Ben Ezra. First a small library was inaugurated in the compound (see Bassatine News No.6). Then came Hannuka. The first candle was lit on Dec 23, 1997 by Ambassador Zvi Mazel with nearly a hundred worshippers in attendance. For the first time in nearly a century, prayers were held in the ancient building recently restored to its former splendor. Two days later, Rabbi Hecht of Eilat came to lead the annual Rambam commemoration on behalf of the Chabad community. The ancient walls once more resounded with voices lifted in song and prayer...
But much remains to be done. Led by its president, Mrs Esther Weinstein, the dwindling Jewish community of Cairo would like to see a Museum of Jewish Heritage set up in the Ben Ezra compound. Such a museum would keep alive the memory of thousands of years of Jewish presence in Egypt.
Youngest of all Cairo synagogues, the Meir Eynaiim Temple in Maadi also came in for some much needed care in 1997. It had been built in 1934 by Meir Biton to serve the rapidly growing number of Jews who had come to settle in the new and fashionable suburb (see "Maadi 1904-1962, Society and History in a Cairo Suburb", Samir Raafat). Like all other synagogues, it was left bereft by the massive exodus of the Jews of Egypt in the fifties and the sixties. Today, it is used for the High Holidays by the small Israeli community and other foreign Jews living in Maadi. Although it was thoroughly cleaned this year, some serious repairs must be carried out soon while the garden, once Mr. Biton's pride and joy and a landmark in Maadi, is in desperate need of some professional and costly attention.... MM
Ms. Rosette Usilly
in January of this year following a 6-month battle with illness. Ms. Usilly was burried in Bassatine on January 12, 1998.
Many ignore the fact that Turkish-born Haim Nahum Effendi was Grand Rabbi of Egypt and Sudan from 1925 until 1960. That King Fouad appointed him senator in June 1931 and on the 6th of October 1933 made him a member of the Egyptian Academy of Science. In its next edition BN will publish excerpts from an important talk given in Alexandria in August 1947 by Nahum Effendi on the subject of Ben Ezra.
Like each year, a visitors arrived in Egypt to do the annual trek to the Delta city of Damanhour (near Alexandria) to visit the shrine of Abu Hassira. This year's pilgrimage took place between January 17-19 with side visits to the Chaar Hachamayim Synagogue on Adly Street, Cairo. According to the Wafd daily of January 17, 1998, there was a drop in this year's pilgrimage estimated at 300. Yacoub Ben Massoud (1807-1880) is a descendant of a long line of kabbalists and pietists from Morocco. He came to Damanhour where he wrote several works, and was buried there. The anniversary of his death is commemorated in many communities.
On Sunday January 18, 1998, JCC hosted a Ramadan Iftar at Ben Ezra for the members of the Egyptian Antiquities department.
|In December 1997, while on a short visit to Cairo, the Hakham Basha of Israel, Rabbi Israel Lau visited the Temple of Ismailia "Chaar Hachamayim" on Adly Street.
On Sunday, February 22, 1998, Bassatine was visited by Sheila Kurtzer and Michele Mazel wives of the American and Israeli ambassadors. On the same visit was Maadi expatriate resident Sandy Zupan.
On Monday, March 23, British Museum Egyptologist Dr. Morris Bierbrier and his wife Lydia Collins (a genealogy specialist related to the Green and Btesh families of Cairo and Heliopolis) visited the Mosseri enclosure at Bassatine and later in the morning the Adly Synagogue. Also present were Alexandria-born Jacques "Jimmy" Mawas and his wife Nicolette Pinto who discovered the tomb of one of her (Dr. Elia) Rossi relations.
Jimmy Mawas, who's first cousin Claude Vincendon was Laurence Durrell's (Alexandria Quartet) third wife, is himself a descendant of Semha, a daughter of Yacoub Menashe Cattaui (1801-83) of Cairo; and of Baron Behor de Menashe of Alexandria.
Nicolette was accompanied by her distant cousin Gabriel Josipovici of Sussex University who was in town to give a couple of lectures at the American University in Cairo. Through his mother Sacha Alexis Rabinovich, Josipovici is part East European (Odessa) and part Rossi-Cattaui (Ferrara-Cairo). His paternal origins can be traced to a shtetl in Roumania. He spent part of his childhood in Maadi where he studied at Victoria College up until summer 1956.
During the visit it was learned that Hassan Salama (see picture), the faithful guard of the Moseri vaults for 60 years had died the Sunday before (March 15).
We ask you to send us old pictures of weddings, engagements, Bar-Mitzvas and school events which took place at any one of the Synagogues or Jewish schools in Egypt. We are currently compiling a photo gallery and we need pictures for an eventual publication.
The picture you see was taken last December (1997) in Ben Ezra, Old Cairo
Bassatine News extends its thanks to all those who sent in contributions and donations. Remember, it is your commitment that will help us advance in our programs to restore, preserve and renovate. Without your generous support, a rich and significant page of our community's legacy may disappear.
Ben Ezra BEFORE RESTORATION
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C O N T A C TJewish Community Council (JCC) of Cairo
# 13 Sabil El Khazindar Street
Midan al-Geish, Abbassia, Cairo
tel: +20 2 2482-4613 - tel/fax +20 2 2736-9639
open daily 10:00 to 15:00
Friday 10:00 to 17:00
Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fostat (Old Cairo)
For visits to other Cairo synagogues or Bassatine Cemetery contact JCC
please note the Jewish Community Council of Alexandria is an independent entity separate from the Jewish Community Council of Cairo