Searching for The Lost Jews of Alexandria
by Elana Bell
When my Egyptian and Israeli friends first heard that I was going to Egypt, they offered a warning: “Do not mention that you are Jewish. And definitely do not mention that you have just spent the last three months in Israel. There is a lot of negative sentiment towards Jews in Egypt and you never know what might happen.” This is a difficult warning to walk into a country with, and I am not the type of person who likes to hide things, especially fundamental parts of my identity. I might have dismissed the warning as paranoid however since the warning came from my Egyptian friends as well I decided to be cautious. To be sure, while “disguised” I encountered some pretty negative comments about Jews in general, and more specifically what the Koran supposedly (I haven’t read it myself to confirm) says about the Jews. But I kept my mouth shut. Until I got to Alexandria.
Alexandria, along with much of Egypt, used to have a vibrant Jewish community. According to USA Today, until the second half of the 20th century, as many as 40,000 Jews lived in Alexandria in a prosperous cosmopolitan community that, though not integrated with the Muslim population, lived peaceably with it. They set up hospitals, schools, homes for the aged and charity programs, and they ran many of the city’s successful businesses. Now there are less than ten. (1)
Jai and I arrived in Alexandria and found ourselves renting a sea-view apartment from a plump and lovely Muslim housewife named Madame Marvett. Every day, while my husband worked remotely by computer with his office in America, I would go upstairs to have tea and cookies with Madame Marvett. By the second day, she had invited me to sample the fresh eggs and cheese she has delivered weekly by a farmer outside of town. “It is organic,” she says proudly. “A little more expensive, but not too much and you know it is pure.” Of course she has won my heart by the first sip of milk, and I ask if she can order extra for me. We talk everyday about culture, politics, marriage. “ I like Obama,” she says. “But we will have to see if he actually does anything for the Egyptian people.”
By the third day we are onto the topic of religion. Mrs. Marvett is very concerned with my opinion of Alexandria, it’s citizens, and Muslim people in general. “I know in the West they think we are all terrorists,” she sighs. I reassure her that I love Alexandria, the food, the people, the sea, and that I know many wonderful Muslims in the US and have met many nice ones in Egypt. “It’s like any religion,” I say. “There are good people and bad people.” I am ready to drop the topic, but she wants to go deeper. “You know,” she says, dropping her voice to a whisper “in Islam, we are taught to believe and respect all the prophets that came before Mohammed—Moses, Jesus…” We are edging toward unsafe territory, but I suddenly find myself wanting very badly to tell her my secret. “I have to tell you something,” I say in a low voice, clutching the ends of my scarf in my hand.
When she finds out what I have been hiding, her face lights up. “My neighbors, when I was a child, they were Jewish. They were our best friends. In fact, we lived on a street together called The Street of the Jews and it’s still called that today.” Where are they now? “They fled in 1956 or 1957. I don’t know why. I was just five or six.” I have an ideal that it has something to do with the Suez War, but I don’t bring it up. “ I can’t believe you didn’t tell because you were afraid. Who told you to be afraid? They gave you the wrong idea. Look at me. Did I react badly when you told me? Am I acting strangely?”
She tells my I must visit the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue. It is the only one left of the 16 or so that were around in Alexandria until the 1960’s. The rest have been sold, torn down and built over, or locked under government guard.(2) She points out the way on a map, and the next day Jai and I gather our camera, writing books, and take the rickety tram towards Il Nebi Daniel Street.
When we arrive at the beautiful old building we are greeted from behind an iron fence by two security guards. “One moment. You must wait here for the manager.” We wait for about ten minutes when a dark-skinned, elderly Egyptian man with a burgundy skull cap comes to the gate. He asks for us to pass our passports through the bars. Jai happens to have his because he has just cashed a traveler’s check, and hands it to the man. I explain I don’t usually carry mine with me for security reasons. He gives me a scrutinizing look. “So, why do you want to visit the temple? Are you Jewish?” I nod vigorously, trying to look as Jewish as possible. Not sure how to do that. He sighs and opens the gate.
“Are you Jewish?” I return, once inside, sure that he is. “No, I’m Muslim. But I have been the care taker here for 22 years.” He takes off his cap to reveal a tight weave of white curls. “My hair was black when I started working here!” We both laugh. As we head into the synagogue, he hands Jai a white cardboard yarmulke from the bin by the door. It looks just like the ones outside the men’s section of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
The sanctuary is beautiful. Carved wooden pews and stained glass and the smell of dusty books. I ask if it is all right to take a picture. “Feel at home.” I ask what services are like on Shabbat. “Shabbat services? We don’t even have a minyan!” The Hebrew word for the number of Jewish needed for communal worship rolls off his tongue. He says he does not speak Hebrew but because of its similarity to Arabic, and because he’s been at the synagogue for 22 years, he’s picked some up.
For a moment we are quiet. I pray, thanking God for sending this angel to me, and asking God to protect him. Then I teach him two prayers. The Sh’ma, which he has heard, but doesn’t know all the words to. The Lord is God, The Lord is One. And the Shehechianu. Blessed are you, Creator, who has granted us life and sustained us and brought us safely
to this moment.
He takes us outside to see the grounds. The gardens are well kept and a sukkah structure stands intact. He points to a large building next to the synagogue. “This used to be our Yeshiva. Now we rent it to the government as a school.” He tells me that once a year, for the High Holidays, a group of Israeli Jews come and bring pre-packaged Kosher food. “You don’t have Kosher food anywhere in Alexandria?” He shakes his head exasperated. “We don’t even have a minyan,” he repeats. My face scrunches up. “What’s wrong?” He asks, pulling out a tissue, already sensing what’s coming.
“I’m sad,” I say, surveying the empty grounds, the empty synagogue. It feels like a museum. My voice cracks. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Soon this temple will be full again. Soon we’ll all be able to worship Allah together again—Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Like brothers. Because we are all brothers.”
I put my hands to his cheeks and look straight into his clear brown eyes. “Insh’Allah,” I say. “Insh’Allah.”