Maurice de Picciotto is the president of his US synagogue – but he is also the Egyptian-born scion of a distinguished family, New Jersey Jewish News reports:
The family speaks French as their first language. In Jewish day school, de Picciotto also learned Hebrew, Arabic, and English and knew Ladino and Italian. His family can be traced back 11 generations to 17th-century Italy. In his youth, family members still held Italian citizenship, despite a proud record of having lived — and having achieved high diplomatic status — in other countries in the Mediterranean region.
De Picciotto recalls life in Egypt as rich and full — and interwoven with insecurity. The Jews lived with a perpetual fear of the tide turning against them, and there were waves of departure — in 1948 after the establishment of the State of Israel, after the Suez War in 1956, and after the Six-Day War in 1967. Jewish businesses were abruptly taken over by the military authorities — but often the owners were then asked to run them again, because the soldiers didn’t know how to keep them profitable.
On the other hand, de Picciotto said, the community was extremely affluent and lived in harmony with the groups around them. “There was no sense of friction based on religion,” he said. “We got on well.”
He recalled that the melodies in religious services in Egyptian synagogues reflected the influence of the surrounding culture, and the cuisine of the High Holy Days was an amalgam of traditional and Middle Eastern flavors. For their family, it still is, de Picciotto said, with an additional French aspect. “We go often to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to shop for ingredients, or to the Greek store in Kenilworth.”
His father, Isaac, served for a while as president of the coordinating body that led the Jewish community in Alexandria, managing and controlling its synagogues, schools, a hospital, three cemeteries, an old-age home, a summer camp, and a number of prime real estate holdings. He died in 1990, at Overlook Hospital in Summit, having come to the United States for a visit 10 years after his wife’s death.
De Picciotto went to Egypt a couple of years later with a group of other Jewish Egyptians, in an effort to bring out the community’s Torah scrolls. They were not permitted to remove them. “The government tried to take the sifrei Torah and place them under the control of the Ministry of Antiquities — they said they were national treasures,” he said, “but the community managed to keep possession of them.”
All 56 Torah scrolls that were used by the 12 to 14 synagogues in Alexandria are now stored at one synagogue. “I should have tried to bring them out while my father was still in charge,” he said.
These days in Cairo, de Picciotto said, the Jewish cemetery is in shambles. But in Alexandria — though there are only about 10 aging Jews still taking care of things — the community’s three cemeteries and numerous real estate holdings are still in good shape.