Fewer than 200 remain in Arab nation, where a small group is trying to hold on to artifacts.

By David Lamb
Times Staff Writer

November 19, 2002

CAIRO -- From scores of mosques, the muezzins' calls to prayer rumble through Cairo like claps of thunder. But inside the synagogue on Adly Street, behind a wrought iron fence and heavy wooden doors, an old woman named Iman hardly seems to hear them as she dusts mahogany benches and polishes the granite entryway.

She works hurriedly even though she knows no one will be coming to pray today. People rarely do. The calendar is open: no bar mitzvahs, no Sunday weddings with couples ascending the marble stairs amid garlands of roses and gardenias.

"It's only funerals now," she said, sighing. Still, as the volunteer caretaker, she wants everything spotless because responsibility comes with being one of Egypt's last Jews.

Today fewer than 200 Egyptian Jews remain, and only a dozen or so -- all elderly women -- are actively trying to save the nation's Jewish history. Soon the community, which once numbered 150,000 here in the capital alone and dates to the last years of the pharaohs, will fade away.

In a final twist, that end approaches with the community under siege -- not by Arab nationalists or Islamic radicals, but by Jews abroad who fled Egypt decades ago and want the community's artifacts to follow them.

Shaar Hashamayim synagogue, built in the early 1900s, was once the very heart of the Arab world's largest Jewish community. The Jews of Cairo freely published their own newspapers in French and Arabic. They prayed in 29 synagogues, owned most of the major department stores, cornered the cotton trade and created urban districts, worked as financiers and merchants and helped found the National Bank of Egypt. Several served as elected members of parliament. Many streets and squares were named after prominent Jews.

But each of four wars with Israel -- in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 -- resulted in a tide of emigration. Synagogues closed, rabbis left, kosher butcher shops closed. Over nearly six decades, the number of Jews in the Arab world dwindled to less than 40,000 from 850,000. Those who remained became an Arabic-speaking, easily forgotten minority in a sea of Muslims. Today most are elderly, unskilled, poor and apolitical. Few practice Judaism. "I know little of religion," Iman said.

Given the diminished size of the Jewish community here, the Historical Society of Jews From Egypt in Brooklyn, N.Y., wants historical and religious items sent to the U.S. for safekeeping.

The society's members fear that the artifacts might be sold to private collectors. It makes no sense to keep them in Egypt, they say, because nine of the 12 remaining synagogues are closed and the other three are rarely used. The community is so small, it can't even gather the 10 men required for a minyan, or prayer group.

"These records and artifacts belong to us," the society's president, Desire Sakkal, wrote the U.S. Congress in August in a bid for assistance. "They are our heritage and our history, and we want them available for use, consultation and research at a location closer to where most of us Jews from Egypt live today."

Carmen Weinstein, president of the Jewish Community Council of Egypt, and her ailing mother, Esther, have ignored for the last five years what they refer to as the society's "insensitive letters referring to our inevitable extinction" and refused to meet a delegation, headed by a rabbi, sent to Egypt by the society. At the council's request, the Egyptian government in 1997 classified the artifacts as antiquities, meaning they cannot be sold or exported.

"We are still in Cairo despite what everybody says," said Weinstein, who runs a stationery store near Shaar Hashamayim. "Taking the Jewish seforim [prayer books], books and records out of Egypt is tantamount to saying that Egypt should demolish the pyramids and the Temple of Luxor because there are no pharaohs left."

Although age and limited resources are slowing their efforts, the Weinsteins and others have worked hard to keep the Jewish community in Cairo viable. With the cooperation of the government, they saved a Jewish cemetery in nearby Basatin from being destroyed by a new road and oversaw the renovation of the synagogue on Adly Street in 1980 -- a dividend of then-President Anwar Sadat's peace treaty with Israel.

Another surviving Cairo synagogue -- Ben Ezra, said to be one of the world's oldest Jewish temples -- was renovated with money from the Egyptian Jewish community in Canada.

"Memories of weddings and bar mitzvahs flooded my mind as we walked through this magnificent structure where my grandparents, parents and lots of my many uncles and aunts were married," Leon Wahba of Cleveland wrote Carmen Weinstein last year after seeing Shaar Hashamayim on his first visit to Egypt since he left in the 1950s. "The synagogue is very well protected by the Egyptian police, and we found it to be in particularly good shape."

A dozen police stand guard across the street from Shaar Hashamayim, and surviving members of the Jewish community say they are not subjected to discrimination or hostility. But given the tensions in the region, they find it preferable to live quietly without calling attention to their religion.

"These are disheartening times for everyone in the Middle East," Weinstein said.

Most Egyptian Jews have visited Israel, and many feel contempt for those who left Egypt. To those who stayed, this is still the motherland.

When Jewish Egyptian singer Laila Mourad died in 1995, an Israeli diplomat called her family and offered to allow her to be buried in the Jewish state.

Her son fired off angry letters to Egyptian newspapers, saying his mother had nothing to do with Israel -- she was Egyptian.