The Jewish Festival of Light reminds me of one of the last significant gathering of Jews in Egypt, which took place nearly two decades ago during a Hanukkah celebration at Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo. Jewish guests from different parts of the world, along with foreign residents of Egypt from the Jewish faith, joined the handful of Egyptian Jews for the occasion. For the locals, the festivities were a throwback to happier times when the Egyptian Jewish community was thriving and numbered in the tens of thousands.
Until the creation of Israel in 1948, Egypt’s Jewish community was roughly 75,000. That number had already dropped from a high of 100,000 at the beginning century due to nationalist fervor against British occupation, which created some apprehension among the Jewish and European residents of Egypt. From the 1920s onwards there was a slow but constant stream of Egyptian Jews leaving the country.
The second blow to Egypt’s Jewish community happened right after 1948, when King Farouk was overthrown in a military coup in 1952. After ascending to power, President, Gamal Abdel Nasser made his nationalization plan a priority. His first order of business was to seize control of the Suez Canal in 1956, which led British, French, and Israeli troops to retaliate by invading the canal zone. This war added more fuel to the already growing resentment against Europeans and Jews in Egypt who were soon to lose all their lifesavings with the government’s seizure of their property and businesses.
The final nail in the coffin for the Jews who remained was Egypt’s humiliating defeat to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Between 1967 and 1970 many Jewish men were detained and held without trial and those who had second nationalities were expelled. The majority of those who stayed on in Egypt afterwards were either too old to travel or married to Egyptian Muslims or Christians. However, there was a handful of Jewish families who decided to stay despite all the odds. I once asked a community member from Alexandria about why he and his family had not left and his answer was, “We had nowhere to go and besides when you’ve hit rock bottom it can only get better.”
Today, seventy years after the 1948 exodus, there are six elderly Jewish women living in Cairo and another dozen in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. Magda Haroun is the Cairo Jewish community president and at age 66 she is also the youngest. Magda’s first husband was Moslem and so too is her daughter. Her current husband is Catholic and an Italian national. In a recent interview with Time Magazine she said, “we are the only house in Egypt where the three religions are living under one roof.”
In the late 1990s, Carmen Weinstein, Haroun’s predecessor, was on a mission to preserve what little was left of Egypt’s Jewish heritage. In order to raise funds for renovation, she needed pictures showing the monuments in their decrepit state. Weinstein also wanted pictures of the Jewish religious celebrations to show that there was still a thriving community in Egypt. Weinstein’s main worry was finding a trustworthy photographer who would not turn around and sell the images to magazines or newspapers behind her back. She wanted to control how the photos were to be used.
A mutual friend thought that I would be the perfect candidate for this job, so he introduced us. From our first meeting, we got on well and she started to rely on me to document monuments and events. Many of the pictures I took of synagogues or temples were printed as postcards, which were subsequently sold at gifts shops. They were also sent to Jewish organizations abroad to raise funds for preservation. Besides the monuments, I photographed celebrations such Purim, Passover, Sukkot, and Hanukkah which were often attended by the tiny community as well as Jews who were invited from other countries. One of the last events I photographed was Hanukkah at Ben Ezra Synagogue in old Cairo in1999. A good crowd showed up for the event which was probably the last celebration that was so well attended.
Here is a selection of the images I took of this celebration.