By Victor D. Sanua Ph.D.
For a number of years, a handful of Jews in the New York City area who had origins in the land of Egypt had privately discussed the possibility of forming a historical society in order to document and preserve the heritage of an illustrious community which once numbered over 80,000 people. Beginning this fall (September 1995) the time proved ripe for the project to pass beyond the realm of mere discussion, into reality
On October 22, 1995, the newly-formed "Historical Society of Jews from Egypt" held its first organizational meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the Ahaba ve Ahva Synagogue at 1801 Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. The name "Jews from Egypt" rather than "Egyptian Jews" was chosen since the Jews of Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities in early twentieth-century Egypt had represented an unusually varied and cosmopolitan community.
Attendance far exceeded all expectations. Organizers had publicized the meeting by word of mouth to family and friends, and through flyers placed in strategic synagogues and stores. Estimates that as many as forty people might come were dismissed as being unrealistic. However, approximately 175 Jews from Egypt, as well as some originating in Syria or Lebanon, actually showed up that first evening.
Mr. Desire Sakkal, a resident of Brooklyn and the first president of the new HSJE, gave the opening address. He welcomed the group and described how a small group of Jews from Egypt felt the need to organize themselves as a Society. He introduced Prof. Victor Sanua (a research professor in psychology at St. John's University in Jamaica, Queens), who had been appointed Vice-President and Chairman of the Program Committee. Prof. Sanua in turn introduced Rabbi Shimon H. Alouf, Honorary Chairman, who spoke of his vision for the society's mission. He emphasized that it was important for members of the community to learn about their past "in order to preserve it."
Prof. Sanua then spoke about possible programs and projects the society might undertake. Items discussed included: forming a collection of old pictures taken in Egypt to be shown at an exhibit and possibly published in book form; the development of lectures and lecturers on Egyptian Jewry; and social activities which would not only prove enjoyable but do much to bring together the scattered members of the community. He also suggested the possibility of arranging for a group trip to Egypt at some future time to visit the sites where the members grew up.
Prof. Sanua then gave a brief report on a trip to Cairo which he had taken, accompanied by his daughter, in the Summer of 1983, in order to highlight the necessity of preserving the memory of Egypt's Jewish community; for by that time its physical existence had all but ended. He spoke of visiting for Shabbat services on Saturday morning the Isma'aleyah synagogue (Shaar Ha-Shamayim), where he had his Bar Missvah, Upon arrival he found only six elderly men, awaiting the coming of tourists in order to make up the necessary minyan. Three visiting Israelis who came later completed it, but the service did not start until approximately 10 a.m. The community since the 60’s had no rabbi, though the synagogue had been beautifully renovated with a grant from Mr. Nissim Gaon of Switzerland. president of the World Sephardic Federation based in Switzerland. A photograph of the synagogue, obtained by the Beit Hatefutsot Museum in Israel and portraying five elderly members of the congregation, was passed around among those present at the meeting
At the conclusion of services, Prof. Sanua continued, he had expressed to one of the congregants the desire to visit Basatin Cemetery where both his parents were buried. The congregant discouraged such a visit since, he claimed, the cemetery was in shambles, and he would not have been able to locate the place of the burial stones.
In a lighter vein, the speaker then switched to French, which overjoyed the group since it was the first language of most of the members. He spoke about the pleasantness of life in Egypt and about the friendly competition between Jews from Cairo and Alexandria. He spoke fondly of his own membership in the Judeo-Espagnol social club (the name was later changed to "Judeo-Egyptian") and the pleasant social activities organized by the Club including dances, lectures, trips, the presenting of plays, and group visits to local night clubs and restaurants
The next speaker was the film maker Mary Halawani, who had been born in Egypt but who left at the age of 5. She received her education in film-making at Columbia University. Ms. Halawani spoke of the problems she had encountered in the U.S. when indicating where her family was from, since very few people even knew that a modern Jewish community in Egypt had even existed. In 1985 she visited Egypt in the hope of obtaining permission to film a documentary. Permission was not forthcoming, but she was able to take a few colored slides. Her purpose in going to Egypt at that time, she informed the audience, was to find out about the remnants of Jews left behind and to see whatever evidence of Jewish life still existed.
What she saw included a large number of synagogues and desecrated cemeteries. The Eliahu Hannabi Synagogue in Alexandria and the Shaar Ha-Shamayin Synagogue in Cairo are still preserved, and stand as a testament of a rich cultural and spiritual life that once existed. There were a large number of Sifré Torahs in those Synagogues, some of them in very poor condition, which were guarded by some elderly men. This activity was central to their lives, in spite of the fact that the synagogues were inactive. The men were fearful that the holy scrolls would be taken away by the Egyptian government's antiquities department if they were abandoned. Her impression was that preventing this was giving the men an incentive to continue to live.
Ms. Halawani showed a number of slides of elderly, poverty-stricken Jews. One picture which the audience found especially poignant was that of the Nelly Kodsi, the custodian of the old Karaite synagogue, sitting alone at her desk. In spite of the existence of relatives abroad who could take her in, this woman told Ms. Halawani that she did not wish to leave, since the synagogue would be taken over by the government if it became unoccupied.
Ms. Halawani then showed the audience a documentary film which she had made ten years earlier, entitled "I Miss the Sun". It is the story of her maternal grandmother, the then 75-year-old Rosette Hakim. Beginning with some footage about the rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in the early 1950s, the film is devoted to Mrs. Hakim's life in Brooklyn where she and her family were able to emigrate. As the grandmother speaks, she is pictured standing in her kitchen, meticulously rolling grape leaves and preparing food for Passover. She reminisces about her good life in Egypt, which is reflected in the title of the documentary, and how she was able to bring her sewing machine to America just in case she needed to make a living in the new country.
In discussion following the film, members of the audience noted the warm family cohesiveness which was evident during the scenes of the Seder in Brooklyn. Prof. Sanua made the comment that the audience should be aware that not all were so lucky to enjoy this "togetherness." An example was Mr. Emile Cohen, an old acquaintance from Egypt, who was attending the meeting that evening accompanied by his brother who was visiting from Brazil. There were actually three brothers in this family. Because of the circumstances of life, one settled in the United States, the second in Brazil and the third in France. The separation was unpleasant for all their families.
With the documentary and comments upon it concluded, the next speaker was Mr. Elie Mosseri, a member of the HSJE board who had left Egypt in his teens. He spoke on the size and importance of the community as recalled from discussions with his late father. According to his memories, the community was well organized and closely knit. There were many charitable institutions in Egypt which, as Mr. Mosseri put it, gave its members the Zekhout (privilege) of not being as harassed as the Jews were in other countries. He ended his talk with a call for unity among members of the new historical society.
The next item on the program was the showing of another brief documentary on the remnants of the Jewish community in Alexandria, which at the time of filming consisted of no more than eight males. The documentary had been made for Canadian television and was narrated in French; Prof. Sanua provided a synopsis of the script for those present unable to understand the language. The main focus of the film was a Mr. Joe Harari, an 81- year old bachelor, the only Jew who is still in business in Alexandria. In the film, he is pictured in his haberdashery measuring cloth and speaking Arabic with his clients. He tells the interviewer that he sells his merchandise at 50 percent discount, (a liquidation level). We see him close the store at the end of the day, with the assistance of a few Arab children, and then walking down the street to go to an Arab restaurant for a vegetarian meal, for Alexandria has not had a kosher butcher since 1956. On the way, many Arabs stop and shake his hand in a friendly manner.
Joe Harari is then shown visiting the empty offices of the Alexandria rabbinate, accompanied by Lina Mattatia, the treasurer of the community. With great fondness, he displays the archives of the community, including a photograph of Rabbi Haim Nahoum, the well-known chief rabbi of Egypt, who was recalled by most of the viewers of the film. Harari reminisces about times when the Jewish community numbered more than 80,000 and many wealthy Jews lived in Alexandria. At present, he notes, there are three Jewish cemeteries which are "rather neglected," but in better shape than those in Cairo, and Harari expresses his hope that he will be able to restore them.
The film also portrays Lina Mattatia visiting, on Friday night, the cemetery where her husband is buried, where she removes some of the brambles covering the grave. The next Saturday morning, the filmmakers invited the entire Jewish community to join the filming. Only four men in their 80's showed up, as the other four were too ill to attend. The audience found it a very sad sight to see the four men, all in kippah and tallit, praying separately, since there was no minyan. Two of them were interviewed, and one of them had tears in his eyes when he spoke about what would happen to the synagogue after they were gone.
Following the film and the end of the formal program, refreshments were served. There was much interaction, exchanges of addresses, and promises to meet again under the auspices of HSJE. Plans were made to hold further reunions and to celebrate the holiday of Hanoukah together on December 24, 1995 in an appropriately festive way. Attendees also agreed to submit their names for membership in organization's newly-forming committees, including: Archives, Education, both religious and secular, Genealogy, Funding, Programming, Newsletter, Publication, and Public Relations.
The Executive Board at present consists of: Desire Sakkal, president; Victor D. Sanua, Ph.D., vice-president and program chairman; Menahem Y. Mizrahi Ph.D., treasurer; Joseph E. Mosseri, secretary; Albert de Vidas, Ph.D. and Marianne Sanua, Ph.D., historians; and members-at-large Joseph Malki, Elie M. Mosseri, Nissim Roumi, MD, and finally Nissim C. Sabban, who was instrumental in bringing the executive committee together.
Word From the Founders
We wish to express our sincere appreciation and thanks for joining us at the inaugural function of the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt. Your participation in the establishment of our organization is important.
The evening was a greater success than anticipated. Many more people attended than we had predicted and this is very encouraging to us. We are planning further events in the near future and of course you will be duly notified.
In order to increase the number of prospective members, we are attaching to this letter a form on which you can write the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of your friends and relatives who might like to join us
To those who have shown an interest in becoming a member of a specific committee, in the HSJE, we will contact you so that you can help plan the activities.
If you have any ideas or suggestions to promote our goals please get in touch with any member of the Board whose name appears on the left hand panel.
We look forward to meeting you again, and to work together for the common goal of preserving our patrimony and to acquaint the new generation of our great past in the land of the Nile.