‘Port Said’, to Israelis, is a trendy restaurant in Tel Aviv. Not many know that once there was a thriving Jewish community in the city of the same name on Egypt’s Suez Canal. Adaring Mossad mission in 1956 rescued many of them. Jacob Rosen-Koenigsbuch pieces together the history of its mostly Adenite Jews in Haaretz. (With thanks: Lily)
Jewish woman from Port Said in the late 19th century
At its peak during the 1920s, the Jewish
community numbered almost 1,000 people. It had two synagogues – one
Sephardi and one Adenite – a rabbi, ritual slaughterer and mohel, a
number of Jewish organizations such as B’nai B’rith, as well as Zionist,
Revisionist (right-wing) Zionist and women’s organizations.
city’s flagship was the large Simon Arzt department store, which was
owned by Jews and is remembered in Israel for its decorated tin
cigarette boxes that competed with the cigarette industry of the Jewish
community in British Mandatory Palestine. Many members of the Port Said
Jewish community were employed by the department store, and others
worked in shipping, commerce and the free professions.
the mid-’30s, an estimated 75 percent of the members of the Jewish
community had an Adenite background. At some point during this decade,
Jews began leaving the city, a trend that picked up after the founding
of Israel in 1948, leaving only about 300 Jews in the city in 1956.
trying to catalog the surnames of the Jewish community beyond the
general classification of “Adenites, Sephardim who speak Ladino and
Ashkenazim” will find this a very difficult task. The matter of the last
names is serious; in many cases they hold the key to allowing an
understanding of where these people came from, another path in the
history of Jewish wanderings.
opposed to the Jewish communities of Cairo and Alexandria, a number of
whose sons and daughters wrote fascinating memoirs about their
communities, only one book was written about Port Said by a Jew born
there, the 2000 English-language work “Port Said Revisited” by Sylvia
Modelski. Her paternal grandfather was from Aden and her maternal
grandmother (a relative of former Haifa Mayor Shabtai Levy) was from
book is no different than most of its genre, written in a personal and
nostalgic tone, but it rarely mentions names outside a small circle of
close friends. As a result, it’s up to the rest of us to put together
the puzzle of Jewish last names of Port Said. The project requires us to
burrow into the internet and libraries, as well as meet with former
residents who still live among us. All this effort has its reward
because at the end of the journey the data and general historical
descriptions turn into faces of real people.
used Yad Vashem’s online Hall of Names, which contains the names of
Holocaust victims and their places of birth. After typing in Port Said, I
received the following names and years of birth: Lucien Lazare
Blaustein, 1889; Carlo Cohen Venezian, 1886, who is listed among the
Holocaust victims in Italy; Josef Botshaim, 1888, a tailor whose name I
later found in the Berlin directory; and Sara Laufer, 1883, who was
murdered in Sobibor.
Hebrew newspapers in Israel and Europe of the 1890s and the early 20th
century occasionally reported on the happenings in Port Said, including
ads. For example, an announcement appeared in 1898 in the newspaper
HaZvi about the engagement of Hannah Leah Benderli from Port Said to
Chaim Kahana from Beirut.
Benderli (from the same family based in Safed) wrote a notice in the
newspaper Hashkafa in 1904 about the opening of the Hotel Jerusalem.
Members of the Benderli family were among the richest in Port Said and
were part owners of the Simon Arzt department store. One family member
was the president of the Italy-Egypt chamber of commerce in the city and
bore the Italian title comandante.
1913, Shmuel Amdurski announced in the newspaper Haherut the opening of
an import-export business and even provided a mailing address: P.O. Box
101 in Port Said.
following year in Haherut, Pinchas Weiss announced the opening of the
Carmel Hotel in Port Said. The problem with these newspapers, which are
scanned on the online archive of Jewish newspapers, is the spelling;
different newspapers transliterated the name Port Said into Hebrew in a
number of different ways.
way to research the question is to check the genealogy website
JewishGen and see who is looking for ancestors from Port Said – and
there are a few such people. One lives in Australia and is a descendant
of the Arzt family. He has documents of a relative who was born in the
city of Jaroslaw in Galicia. She completed midwife studies in Lvov and
began practicing the profession in Port Said in 1882.
turns out that Simon Arzt himself, who seems to have been one of the
very first Jews in the city in 1870, brought a number of relatives to
live there. He opened a store selling cigarettes that was later bought
by Max Mouchly, Arzt’s nephew and the son of the founders of Tel Aviv’s
Neveh Tzedek neighborhood. Mouchly turned the small store into the
famous department store, got rich and headed the Port Said Jewish
community – he even became the honorary consul for Czechoslovakia and
Romania in Port Said.
the 1920s he employed his cousin and her husband Gedalyahu Neiman
(Ne’eman) as managers of the department store. Neiman was the father of
former Israeli minister and nuclear physicist Prof. Yuval Ne’eman. His
sister – law professor and Israel Prize winner Ruth Ben-Israel – was
born in Port Said.
famous Jews born in the city include the Israeli-American political
cartoonist Ranan Lurie, whose grandfather headed the Ashkenazi community
there. Yossi Ben-Aharon, the director of the Prime Minister’s Bureau
under Yitzhak Shamir, grew up in Port Said, though he was born in
Jerusalem, and was a member of the Adenite community.
large synagogue in Port Said, Ohel Moshe, was built with a large
donation from the Adenite philanthropist Menachem Messe (Musa) Banin,
who is remembered as the “Rothschild of the East.” Later, the Sephardi
synagogue Sukkat Shalom was built by Shmuel Mayo, who was born in
Istanbul and opened a glass business in Port Said.