Exodus of Egypt’s Jews revisited

A Jew who called the Muslims to prayer in the camp where they were all interned in 1948, another whose dream is to assemble a Minyan (quorum) in an Egyptian synagogue – just two of the characters interviewed in Benjamin Bright’s fascinating Jerusalem Post feature, ‘Exodus revisited’. (With thanks: Albert)

(Abraham) Matalon describes his encounter in the Abu Kir internment camp with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria, who had also been imprisoned: “At first I didn’t know he was a member. We embraced, and we started meeting every day. He said me he wanted to learn Hebrew, and I wanted to learn Koran, so this is how we spent our time.”

Matalon continues: “I wanted to have a dialogue with the Muslims, and they loved me for it! I did the call to prayer in the camp and the soldiers admired it, they even answered me. And they knew I was a Zionist, but they did not manifest any attitudes against me. They said we are friends in life. When you come to talk to your enemy, you see that he is a different person, you can see his human side.” (…)

My parents couldn’t take anything from Egypt,” recalls Levana Zamir. “My mother sewed her jewelry into the hem of her coat, and by a miracle she got on the boat, but it was nothing to build a new life with. When new immigrants came to Israel, they put us in tents. It was very difficult for my parents, and I remember my mother crying every night.”

But the Jews in Egypt had always given great importance to education, building their own high schools and providing private schooling for the poor. Within a few years, most families had pulled themselves out of poverty through hard work and established themselves in their new homes in Israel.

Any bitterness Zamir might have harbored vanished when she visited Egypt for the first time in 1982. “I went back because I was curious what kind of place it is and I wanted to remember what I had left. And when I was in Egypt, I found my place. After so many years, I thought I was an Israeli, but I am not. I was exiled from Egypt: we had to leave, though we did not want to.”

Taking a different perspective, Lucy Calamaro claims she “will never again put my foot in Egypt because I remember the bad days. I do not miss it at all. We had a good life, but it was like being a bird in a cage. I prefer to live poorly in Israel.”

Yet despite being an adamant Zionist, Calamaro has never become an Israeli citizen. “I am convinced that one day the Italian embassy will get my money back from Egypt. When we left, the Egyptians made us leave everything behind, but they gave us papers signed by the government and Nasser himself saying we are owed half-a-million dollars. For this we agreed never to return to Egypt.”

When Geoffrey Hanson returned to his native city of Alexandria in 1980 to see the synagogue of his youth, Eliahou Hanabi, he heard rumors of the Egyptian government’s desire to take over the synagogue and to convert it into something else. On Friday, the Muslim holy day, thousands flooded the mosques, filling them past capacity and forcing the pious to pray on small rugs in the middle of the street. Walking around Alexandria, Hanson concluded that it was only a matter of time before the Muslims called for the conversion of Eliahou Hanabi, the biggest synagogue in the Arab world, capable of holding 1,500 people.

“In fact, an Egyptian office was opened in the compound, reporting monthly on the situation at the synagogue,” Hanson says. And without regular attendance or religious services “it is only natural that the government wants to close the synagogue down, it is not a question of being anti-Jewish.”

And so Hanson, who retired in 2000, started traveling all over the world on a “holy mission” to save Eliahou Hanabi and the Jewish buildings in all of Egypt. “[I am] asking for moral support from Jewish communities and advising them of the importance of regular visits,” he says. Hanson believes that when the Egyptian authorities see these temples are active places of worship, they will be “afraid to go against people from all over the world.”

Nevertheless, Shabbat at the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue in Cairo last month was a subdued affair. Hanson had succeeded in luring from abroad only Albert Bahar, and none of the few remaining local Jews attended.

“I think Geoff’s idea is a mission impossible,” Bahar says. “Even after many years of peace, I myself had no desire to go back to Cairo. Our family felt like foreigners. My friends visited and told me their impressions, which synagogues were destroyed. I preferred to keep my childhood as it is,” Bahar says.

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