יום ראשון, נובמבר 26, 2006

 

The Jews of Egypt

The diversity of backgrounds one can find within the Jewish community never ceases to amaze me. This past summer, one Shabbat morning we met a man who had just moved from the East Coast and was engaging in some "shul shopping." He is originally from Egypt, having left shortly after the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli war with that country.

I will simply call him 'N' to respect his privacy. N mentioned that he was Sephardic and spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and that his family had lived in Turkey prior to Egypt. That is interesting enough right there. But I never knew before that French had once been the lingua franca (appropriately enough) of the Egpyptian Jews. N spoke beautiful French--at least as best I could tell--with a congregant.

An article by Joel Beinin on Egyptian Jewish Identities in the (now defunct) Stanford Humanities Review (1996) notes:



In 1860 the Paris-based Alliance Israëlite Universelle embarked on a Jewish "mission civilisatrice," to uplift and modernize the Jews of the Middle East by imbuing them with French education and culture. French opposition to British imperial policy in Egypt throughout the nineteenth century allowed many Egyptians, not only Jews, to embrace French culture as an acceptable form of European modernity, and, by the late nineteenth century, French was the lingua franca of the entire Egyptian business community. Knowledge of a European language was virtually a requirement for a white-collar job in the modern private sector of the economy and constituted significant cultural capital, so many Egyptian Jews willingly underwent de-Arabization.


As for the Jewish community of Egypt more generally, an article by Trudy Rubin of the Christian Science Monitor and the Alicia Patterson Foundation from September 17, 1974, notes:



In the 1930's the city [of Cairo] held 30-40,000 Jews. Today there are 200 left. They were a cosmopolitan group, engaged largely in trade, banking, and commerce, owning rich villas and apartments, traveling frequently to Europe, and sending their children to Jewish or European-run schools. Their first language was French, followed by Italian, but many also spoke some Greek and English, and the men at least usually spoke Arabia [sic]. They moved in the extensive foreign communities, which have nearly disappeared since the French-British-Israeli invasion of Suez in 1956, and the nationalization of most large businesses by 1961.


The article notes how increasingly difficult life became for this community after 1948, but especially after the 1973 war, about one year before the article originally appeared. The article also includes two photos of synagogues in Egypt: the 12th century, C.E., Ben Ezra and the more modern Adli St. Synagogue, both in Cairo.

Also interesting on this topic is the page by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, entitled, "A Short History of The Exodus Of Jews From Egypt."

I wonder about the status of these synagogues and any remnant community today, more than thirty years later.

Thanks to N for enlightening me about the French-speaking Jews of Egypt.

I was inspired to post this here by a post at Point of no return, which I just ran across today.

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