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Cairo’s Jews Show God They Are Still There

On Rosh Hashanah, a fresh leader rallies a dying community in Egypt

Jenna Krajeski
September 10, 2013
People arrive at the Adly Street Synagogue for the funeral of the president of the Egyptian Jewish Community Carmen Weinstein on April 18, 2013 in Cairo, EgyptKHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
People arrive at the Adly Street Synagogue for the funeral of the president of the Egyptian Jewish Community Carmen Weinstein on April 18, 2013 in Cairo, EgyptKHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Sha’ar Hashamayim synagogue, on a perpetually clogged strip of Cairo’s Adly Street, looks like a fortress. Its high, gray walls are imprinted with colorless Stars of David and palm trees, and its rectangular windows are darkened to keep out the sun. A small courtyard between the offices and the main hall features a dry fountain. At the entrance, manned gates prevent unwanted foot traffic, and a room full of policemen interrogate each visitor.

Magda Haroun, the recently installed leader of Cairo’s tiny Jewish Community Council, acknowledges the building is sober. Today, it serves about 14 people, all women and all, except for Magda and her sister, Nadia, in their eighties. Because the women married non-Jews, their children are not considered Jewish by the Egyptian state, which assigns religion according to the father and makes it very difficult to officially convert from Islam. “We are a dying community,” she told me.

Dying, maybe, but not dead, even in the wake of the seizures that have gripped Egypt this year. Haroun and I met on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, as she was preparing for the service to be conducted by a young American Jew living in Cairo. Her two grown daughters, both Muslim like their father, had taken the week off of work for the holiday; one had flown in from Cyprus carrying a shofar. “By the time I was old enough to marry there were no Jewish men,” Haroun told me, in a characteristically matter-of-fact way. “And besides, I fell in love with a Muslim.” Her current husband—her second—is a Catholic.

Haroun speaks rapidly, transitioning easily between French, Arabic, and English, and seems always on the brink of either a giggle or a deep sigh. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of Cairo’s remaining Jews—”My babies, I call them”—their health, their living situations, the health of their children. “One of them lives with her daughter and grandchildren in one room,” she said, closing her eyes in concentration. “The daughter is also a widow. Another lives with her daughter who has two daughters and a son. The son is sick. She’s also a widow, and she has cancer. One is not married. One is divorced. Another is divorced, no children. So, they’re alone.”

Haroun’s predecessor, Carmen Weinstein—who died earlier this year—was notoriously guarded. She rarely spoke to the press, and her events were known to be exclusive, designed to attract officials she thought could help her community. “She wanted to keep the community in the darkness,” Haroun told me. “She did it so well that Egyptians forgot that there are Jews in Egypt.”

There were reasons for exclusivity that went beyond fundraising and prestige. Weinstein was protective of Cairo’s Jews, anxious for their safety even at a time of relative stability—some would say oppression—under Mubarak and years before Islamists had any hope of taking over the government. Weinstein became so synonymous with Cairo’s Jews—her fights for property rights and the restoration of Jewish landmarks are legendary among both supporters and opponents—that when she died in April it seemed the community might bury itself along with her. Haroun’s “babies” were anxious. They had lost their leader, the streets were full of protesters, and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood seemed firmly in power. “It was as if the sky was falling on my head,” Haroun said. Still, as soon as she was elected, Haroun threw open the curtains. In a telephone interview with a local television channel on the subject of Weinstein’s death, Haroun reached out to all of Cairo. “I said, ‘I call upon all Egyptians. If they want to come and share with us our sorrow, they are more than welcome.’”

Haroun began giving long, forthright interviews about Judaism and her family. In July, Al-Masry Al-Youm, a liberal daily, quoted the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonoth describing Haroun’s father as “Israel’s enemy” and asked her feelings about such “Zionist attacks.” Haroun replied, “Zionism is a racist movement that discriminates between people on the basis of religion. They do not understand that I am loyal to my country, not Israel.” Haroun told me she is not anti-Israel—she claims has been misinterpreted—but she is a champion of Palestinian rights, and she rejects the idea that a modern state should be defined by religion. She still struggles to refute the notion that there is something contradictory about her. “I am an Egyptian Jew. I am a Jewish Egyptian,” she said. “They are both part of me.”

Haroun was born in 1952 in Alexandria and raised in Cairo. Her father, Shehata, was a prominent communist, often jailed either for his political views or his religion. Her mother, Marcelle, was his “comrade,” Haroun told me. Shehata had an unwavering, sometimes reckless, attachment to Egypt and stayed put even as everyone around him fled in the years following Israel’s establishment. Shehata’s stubbornness had disastrous consequences. In 1954, Haroun’s older sister Mona was diagnosed with leukemia, which soon advanced beyond the scope of Egyptian medical care. Shehata knew of a treatment available in France, but he also knew that if he took Mona out of the country they would not be able to return. She died in Egypt.

In the Haroun household, it seems, being Egyptian came first. It was more important than being a communist, more important than being a lawyer, more important than being a Jew. Their very existence was a protest against homogeneity, which Haroun sees as indicative of Egypt’s decline. After the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Haroun voted in the presidential election last year although friends warned her not to, because her religion was stamped on her identification card. Nothing happened. But the election of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to signal the end of the Egypt Shehata had imagined for his daughters. “I’m not ashamed to say that I went into a deep depression,” Haroun told me. “Then suddenly I realized, no, I have to react.”

In June, when tens of thousands of Egyptians demonstrated against Morsi, Haroun joined the crowds even though the demonstrations had been violent, and was uplifted. “Next to me was a woman wearing a niqab, and to my left was a Coptic woman,” she recalled. She thought about her father, and the attachment to his homeland which she had inherited. “It made me feel that my father was right to stay here,” she said. “That I am part of this country.”

Accordingly, Haroun wants to build a Jewish museum, one that records the history of Jews in Egypt. She is anxious to give the remaining Jews in Cairo proper burials. She would like to hire a rabbi. For all of this, she needs the approval of the Egyptian government and money. Soon after she was elected president, she wrote a letter to the Shura Council demanding that the interim government reinstate a monthly allowance of 7,400 Egyptian pounds (around $1,070) for the Jewish community, which Morsi had abolished. “We explained that it’s a duty in Islam to help the needy, and these people are needy,” Haroun told me. “And it’s an honor for the Egyptian government to take care of these old women who refuse to leave the country. Although they have family all over the world, they want to die here.”

Most importantly, she envisions opening the synagogue to the public. “It’s a house of God. It’s not mysterious, it’s not demonic,” she told me. She gestured to the high walls that enclosed us, the guards nearby, the barricades those guards sat next to with guns resting on their thighs. But when Rosh Hashanah began, there were only eleven of us—ten women and one man, a curious young Muslim—gathered in the sanctuary for the service. The students and foreign staffers who normally flesh out a minyan had been evacuated, and most of the elderly Jews still in Cairo were too frightened to attend. We crowded together in a few pews. “This makes us look like we are many,” Haroun’s mother, Marcelle, joked.

Before blowing the shofar, the American gave a little religion lesson. He explained the prayers, interpreted the characters, and introduced the various sounds the ram’s horn would make. “Why do we blow the shofar?” he asked the room, patiently. Haroun spoke up. “To show God we are still here!” she shouted from behind a pew, knowing, and not caring, that she was technically incorrect.

Jenna Krajeski is a writer based in Istanbul. Follow her on Twitter @jenna_krajeski.