New book recalls lost world of Jews of Egypt

Liliane Dammond’s recently published The Lost World of the Egyptian Jews: First Person Accounts from Egypt’s Jewish Community in the Twentieth Century (New York: Universe, 2007 $22.95) provides an in-depth, fascinating glimpse of the rich, cosmopolitan, and now largely ‘lost’ world of the Egyptian Jews (With thanks: Sarah K)

A collection of oral histories gathered on two continents and over a period of five years, the book documents the flourishing and dispersal of this vibrant and unique community.

Jews lived in Egypt without interruption since Biblical times.Their community—consisting of southern and northern European, Middle Eastern, and indigenous Jews—knew an apogee in the first half of the twentieth century.The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948,the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the Suez Crisis of 1956, and the 1967 Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel cumulatively led to the eventual exodus of the majority of the 100,000 Jews who had lived peacefully and happily in Egypt.

Dammond’s book, amplifying Andre Aciman’s memoir, Out of Egypt, offers the stories of ‘working women’ as well as women “born to power and wealth”; of men suspected of Zionism and interned in 1947, as well as of men who maintained their businesses in Cairo until after the 1967 War.It paints a portrait of extended families living in a sunlit, fragrant world of cousins, uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents.Educated at French and British schools (Lycee Francais, The English School, La Gouttede Lait,Victoria College) the Jews of Egypt saw themselves as partaking in both European and Middle Eastern culture; true cosmopolitans, they experienced the mélange of identity that characterized Levantine culture at its height.

Among the lives that unfold in Dammond’s book is that of Colette Palacci Rossant—daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur who lived in the Garden City section of Cairo.Rossant, who spoke Arabic, French, Greek, and Italian, reports that her grandfather “considered himself Egyptian,” wearing a tarbouche and carrying worry beads; she herself spent part of her childhood in a convent where she was baptized and took communion.Dammond includes two interviews with members of the little-known Karaite community, a Jewish sect that does not follow the Talmud or rabbinical teachings, adhering instead solely to the Torah.—Dr.Ghi Massouda, who studied at Eins Shams Medical School in Cairo, and Esther Ovadia Abdallah Mourad, the daughter of a cotton farmer who also served as the Karaite community’s rabbi, performing “circumcisions, marriages, and all the important ceremonies.”Albert Guetta, Emile Harari, Josette Cohen Amhi, and the compiler’s father, Selim Shallon –all these and more people the pages of this unusually rich book.

Many of the individuals whom Dammond interviewed between1993 and 1998 have since died; the records she has made of their lives are thus invaluable documents of an era that has vanished.Other interviewees continue to live vibrant lives in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, and Milan.Brought together in this volume, their voices intermingle again as they once did in Cairo and Alexandria.Dammond’s taped interviews are housed in the archives of the Oral History Division of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry in Jerusalem.This book of transcribed and edited narratives (completed with the assistance of Yvette M. Raby, an Iraqi Jew ) makes these stories available to anyone who is interested in this largely forgotten—but still vital—community.

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