19 April 2009

Egypt: Alexandria's Jewish history and records

Over the years, the major problem of Egyptian Jewish family research has been difficult, nearly impossible access to community registers held in a small archives, staffed by increasingly elderly volunteers. It has been nearly impossible to get that access or to copy documents.

Here's a story about the remnants - only 18 survivors of a community that once numbered 80,000 - of Alexandria's community, which was established some 2,300 years ago. It touches on the vital records problem, the El Shatby cemetery, the Eliahou Hanabi synagogue and more, along with photos. The focus of the story is the youngest Jew in the city, Youssef Gaon, 53, and Yves Fedida of the Nebi Daniel Association.

Surprisingly, the story appeared in The National, a new English newspaper launched by the Abu Dhabi Media Company. According to its About Us, its reporters and editors are drawn from The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The author is Cairo-based Jack Shenker, a freelance journalist from London, whose credits include TheTimes and The Guardian in Britain, the Hindustan Times in India, and other publications in print and online.
Sweating in the mid-morning heat, Abdul Salaam gently brushes the dirt off a grave to reveal a faded Star of David. Mr Salaam, a committed Muslim, has lived as a resident guard within the high walls of this Alexandrian Jewish cemetery for 41 years, just as his father did for five decades.

The cracked headstones and marble tombs around him bear witness to people who first made this Egyptian city their home more than 2,300 years ago, and in their heyday numbered almost 80,000. Last summer, the final remnants of that vibrant community gathered here to bury their leader. So few of them were left that the Kaddish, a Jewish funeral blessing, could not be recited. The significance of that was obvious to all who attended; this once-cosmopolitan corner of the Arab world will soon entomb its final Jewish resident, and Mr Salaam will be left alone with the graves.

The death of Max Salama, 92, an Egyptian Jew who once served as King Farouk’s personal dentist, leaves 18 surviving Jews in what was once one of the religion’s greatest cultural capitals. The majority of those remaining are in their 70s or 80s and reside in old people’s homes, no longer interacting with the city they have always called home. At the tender age of 53, the new leader, Youssef Gaon, is now the youngest Jew in Alexandria by a considerable margin, and he is childless.

“What can I say?” he shrugs, as he gives a tour of a beautifully decorated but deserted synagogue in the old city centre.

Jews have been an integral part of Alexandria’s history ever since the port city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332BC. Their numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years but reached a zenith in the early 1900s, when Jews from across Europe and North Africa flocked there to escape persecution.

“It was an immigrant community drawn from all corners of the world, especially the remnants of the old Ottoman Empire,” said Yves Fedida, an Egyptian Jew now living in France, whose grandparents emigrated to Egypt from Palestine at the turn of the century in search of work. These were the rekindled glory days of Alexandria, an urbane melting pot of nationalities where poets, scientists and intellectuals mingled freely on the Corniche.
The story goes through Nasser's arrival in 1952 through the creation of Israel in 1948 which led to the gradual exodus of the city's Jewish community, which eroded still further following the 1967 and 1973 wars. Many who stayed were suspected of being spies for Israel and imprisoned.

Fedida works with the Nebi Daniel Association, a French group that brings together Jews originally from Egypt around the world.

Although Gaon says the community is in "very good hands," and does not want to upset the relationship they have with the Egyptian government, another war is brewing over the heritage of this community.
But as the final echoes of Alexandria’s Jewish ancestry die out, a new battle is raging over their heritage. At stake is the set of religious and civil registers maintained by Egyptian Jewry under the Ottoman Empire, which devolved such record-keeping to its non-Muslim communities. Mr Gaon and his elderly compatriots are the final custodians of these logbooks, which run to 60,000 pages detailing all the births, deaths and weddings of the community stretching back to the 1830s.

These documents are of vital importance to descendants of Alexandrian Jews such as Mr Fedida, as the Jewish faith requires individuals to prove their maternal Jewish bloodline in order to get married. The problem is that issuing such certification from Alexandria is increasingly burdensome for the small number of Jewish pensioners left and the process is often hampered by local bureaucracy. The Nebi Daniel Association is lobbying the Egyptian government to allow copies of the archives to be placed in a European institution where they could be more easily accessed, but so far their efforts have met with failure.
Shenker writes that the Egyptians' reluctance to allow access is their fear that descendants of Alexandria's Jews will use the data to make financial compensation claims against the government for property confiscated under Nasser.

The issue is a sensitive one; last year an unspecified amount was paid by the state to the Jewish family who originally owned The Cecil, a luxury Alexandrian hotel immortalised in Lawrence Durrell’s novels The Alexandria Quartet and seized by the government in 1957. Earlier this summer, a planned Cairo conference of Jews hailing from Egypt was cancelled after local media questioned the intentions behind the event.
Fedida says that fear is misplaced and that they aren't interested in financial claims.

“Our generation are the children of those who really suffered from expulsion and imprisonment. Although our parents tried to reconstruct their lives elsewhere, we saw their grief and we need to do them justice by giving them back the identity that led to them being uprooted in the first place.”
Unfortunately, in a community where the handful of Jews are in their 70s and 80s, this fight over the community's vital records is somewhat moot. What will happen when even Gaon is gone?

Read the complete story at the link above.

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