Almost the Last Jew of Egypt

April 17, 2013


Almost the Last Jew of Egypt

Carmen Weinstein died in Cairo, working and waiting for a time when Jews might thrive there once again.


Carmen Weinstein, the leader of Egypt's nearly extinct Jewish community, managed to survive the Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak regimes, only to die on April 13, barely 10 months into the rule of Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Coincidence? Oh, I suppose so—Weinstein was 82 and in frail health when she died Saturday in her Cairo apartment.

Except that to my mind there is a sad logic to the demise of this woman who held on during 60 years of military dictatorships, fighting to preserve what she could of Egypt's once-grand Jewish community—only to give up the ghost now, when democracy has produced a ruler who is, if possible, even more hostile to Jews than his predecessors were.

It has been more than 50 years since almost all of Egypt's 80,000 Jews left the country, most of them under duress. With their departure, magnificent synagogues fell into disrepair, Jewish schools shut down, and the famed Jewish hospital was taken over by the military. The Bassatine Jewish cemetery was left to ruin.

Weinstein, who chose to remain in the country of her birth, took on an impossible mission. She set out to rescue what she could, piece by piece, this old temple, that broken-down headstone.

Her passing comes at a fascinating juncture, as Egypt is starting—starting—to reckon with its Jewish past. Even as the country sees rampant religious intolerance and terrifying attacks on Christian Copts, there is a surge of interest among young Egyptians in the Jews who once lived among them.

Older Egyptians are nostalgic for the Egypt of their youth, they will tell you, when life was better and they enjoyed Jewish friends and co-workers. A documentary on Egypt's Jews by filmmaker Amir Ramses premiered to acclaim in Egypt in March, and my own memoirs of my Egyptian-Jewish family sell more briskly in Cairo than in Jerusalem.

Weinstein was toiling away years before Mr. Ramses and I came along. Aaron Kiviat, an undergraduate in Cairo a decade ago, recalls how she had him clean abandoned synagogues and dust off gravestones. If she had any budget, it was from the tourists she hit up for donations and, occasionally, foreign benefactors or American Jewish organizations.

I came to know Carmen Weinstein in the course of my trips to Cairo. She was far from warm and fuzzy, and I couldn't call her my friend. I found her tough, acerbic, abrasive, combative—and brave. I tried to woo her, citing my background as a fellow Cairene-Jew. But she had no use for journalists and regarded us with suspicion.

The Jewish community she headed was a ragtag group of mostly elderly and widowed women who ventured out every few months to the events she organized at the Adly Street Synagogue, a magnificent edifice in downtown Cairo. "The Gate of Heaven," as its name translates from Hebrew, had once welcomed several hundred Jews to Sabbath services. Now only these couple of dozen women in the twilight of their lives filled its pews.

The women seemed deeply appreciative. Watching them, I realized that Weinstein was performing miracles in this Muslim city.

I once told her of the piece I longed to write about her under the headline, "The Last Jew of Egypt." What a sizzling story she could tell—how she outwitted each of the military regimes, starting with Nasser. What compromises had she made? What deals had she cut—especially in the Mubarak years when she led the community? No matter how I pleaded, she refused to cooperate.

She had her enemies, including back in New York, where some in the expatriate Egyptian-Jewish community saw her as a traitor. Its members attempted to retrieve religious books and Torah scrolls left behind in Egypt, where they withered. Weinstein fiercely opposed their efforts, insisting that the holy items should stay where they were and belonged to Egypt. To these expats, Carmen Weinstein was the enemy, as much as the Egyptian government that forced them into exile.

I knew all this, yet could never really dislike her. She was a heroine to me, and I admired her quixotic efforts to save this or that decrepit synagogue.

Yet in the course of my interviews, I realized Weinstein harbored a fantastical dream: that someday the Jews would return. Yes! That is why she wanted to hold on to the Torah scrolls. The Muslim world had become more hostile to Jews, Islamism posed a greater threat than nationalism, yet that was her conviction. She told Mr. Kiviat, now married in Seattle, to come back with his family.

Under Presidents Mubarak, then Morsi, she made it a point to prove that a Jew could still function in Egypt. Recently, she gleefully reported on the Passover Seder held at the Adly Street synagogue, filled with VIPS such as foreign ambassadors. How she loved her VIPs. The unspoken message: The Muslim Brotherhood wasn't going to stop her.

To my mind, her greatest achievement was restoring the 800-year-old Maimonides synagogue. The shul in the Jewish Ghetto was a shrine for generations of Cairene-Jews. Maimonides himself was said to heal whoever came to pray. When I first saw it in 2005, it was dark, flooded and strewed with garbage. Weinstein raised funds and wangled permissions to rebuild it. I returned for its grand reopening in March 2010. There, in the heart of Cairo, I watched as American and European dignitaries mingled with observant Hasids from Israel who danced with worshipful joy in the gleaming sanctuary.

I suspect that Egypt's revolution wasn't kind to Weinstein. The tourists she depended on vanished. While President Morsi has praised her to the foreign press, I view his tribute with a gimlet eye: This is the man who denounced Jews as "descendants of apes and pigs."

Since the revolution I have often thought of that day when Hasids danced in Cairo, wondering if they ever will again. It was comforting to know that Maimonides' shul and other Jewish sites had a guard keeping watch: Carmen Weinstein.

Her funeral will take place in her homeland on Thursday, and one hopes there will be lots of VIPs. I assume that by now Carmen has reached the true gates of heaven.

Ms. Lagnado, a Journal reporter, is the author of two memoirs of her Egyptian-Jewish family, "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" (Harper Perennial, 2008) and "The Arrogant Years" (Ecco 2012).

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