Thursday, April 18, 2013

Three obituaries for Carmen Weinstein

 Sheila Kurtzer, wife of Dan Kurtzer, who worked in the US embassy in Cairo, wrote this appreciation of Cairo community leader Carmen Weinstein, who died on Saturday, in the Forward:

In 1980, soon after my family and I arrived in Cairo, where my husband, Dan, had been assigned as a political officer at the American Embassy, we were introduced to an elderly woman. Esther Weinstein was the nominal head of Egypt’s small Jewish community. Slight and slender, she was dressed meticulously, in blue from top to bottom — blue suit, blue blouse, blue shoes, blue hat, blue bag. She was elegant and charming, with a warm smile and twinkling eyes.

We soon learned that the power behind her throne was her daughter, Carmen Weinstein. It was the younger Weinstein who ran the family printing business, managed the finances of the Jewish community and represented the community to the Egyptian government. Carmen Weinstein proved that she was a force to be reckoned with.

Carmen, who passed away on April 13, was a very strong-willed and determined woman, a tenacious defender of the integrity and independence of Cairo’s Jewish community. This appeared increasingly ironic as the years passed, and the community dwindled to about two dozen elderly Jewish women. You could find many of them in the Adly Street Synagogue, Shaar Hashamayim, every Saturday morning. Only occasionally would there be a minyan, but that didn’t matter to the remnants of the community.

Under Carmen’s leadership, a number of major projects were accomplished. She raised the funds for and oversaw the restoration of the Jewish cemetery in al Basateen, a rundown area where squatters had taken over mausoleums and gravesites. Headstones were strewn about, animals roamed freely, refuse blocked the walkways.

Carmen took control, mobilizing visiting students (and diplomatic spouses) to clean the area, map the gravesites and restore the cemetery. She took on and prevailed over the Egyptian government after the authorities decided to build a ring road around the capital that was to be routed through the Jewish area. Carmen won, and the highway was rerouted.

In Carmen’s company, I had the occasion to visit almost all of the more than 15 synagogues that remained in Cairo. Most of them were uninhabitable shells of their former grandeur. Over time, Carmen oversaw the rehabilitation of the downtown synagogue and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, in Old Cairo, and capped these efforts with the renovation of the Rambam (Maimonides) Synagogue. With its collapsed roof, exposed interior and flooded lower level, this historic site where Maimonides studied and attended to the sick was in severe disrepair and neglect. Carmen worked with the Cairo government and got the job done.

For all her determination and feistiness, she also had a blind spot: her adamant refusal to share power or responsibility for the community’s affairs.

Read article in full 

 Levana Zamir, president of the association of Jews from Egypt in Israel, writes in the Jerusalem Post:

After her unexpected passing - Carmen Weinstein, 82, had been President of the tiny Jewish Community of Cairo for more than 15 years - Jews from Egypt all over the world are worried: Who will maintain the remaining synagogues? Who will tend the Bassatine Cemetery - or what is left from it - and preserve the many Jewish buildings still belonging to the community? Who will organize the next High Holiday services at Cairo’s Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue? Who will take care of the 10 or 20 Jewish widows still living in Cairo?

As she was both devoted and indefatigable, during her presidency Carmen saved the last 20 synagogues of Egypt from being sold. They were salvaged from among the 60 abandoned in the mid-20th century, when most of Egypt's 100,000 Jews were deported or compelled to leave. But Carmen Weinstein - "the Iron Lady" - was a domineering figure too. She was the one to solve all problems, the tiny and everyday ones as well as the serious ones. But after she was charged with fraud in an Egyptian court, undergoing much suffering until her final acquittal lately, the Haroun sisters - Magda and Nadia - became closer to Carmen and began partaking in all Carmen's activities.

Nadia Haroun

Nadia and Magda Haroun, aged in their 50s and 60s, are Cairo Jews born and bred. One or the other will be elected to replace Carmen Weinstein (in fact Magda was elected - ed) in the next few days as President of the Jewish Community of Cairo. This is a tiny community, but still a very significant one. The job will involve much responsibility concerning the preservation of Jewish religious and cultural heritage, as well as undertaking the restoration of synagogues in Cairo in desperate need of repair.

Magda Haroun

(...) The sisters' late father, Mr Haroun, was among those Jews arrested in June 1967, following the Six-Day War, and forced to serve a long term in prison. When the time came for him to be released - on condition he left Egypt and directly boarded a ship out of the country - he refused to leave. He said: "I am Egyptian, and I want to stay and carry on living in Egypt until my dying day."

In an interview on Egyptian TV a few weeks ago, Magda even recalled that when her elder sister, then six years-old, was very ill in the early 1960s, doctors said that she could be cured only in Europe. But in order to be able to take her out of Egypt, her father was asked to give up his Egyptian identity - as all Jews were then asked to do. His Egyptian passport would be stamped with the notorious ALLER SANS RETOUR stamp: this would not allow him to return to Egypt after his daughter was cured. So Mr. Haroun decided not to leave Egypt and not to give up his Egyptian identity. He stayed with his daughter in Cairo. She died from her illness some months later.

Since Pharaonic times thousands of years ago, Jews had always lived in Egypt, as waves of successive rulers ebbed and flowed in the land of the Nile. The Jewish presence was sometimes glorious - as in Hellenistic times, 2000 years ago: there were one million Jews in Alexandria. Sometimes, as today, only a few survive in Cairo and Alexandria. But Jews have always been faithful, always there.

Carmen Weinstein used to warmly welcome Jews from Egypt living in Europe or the United States coming to visit their synagogues in Egypt. But she was somewhat frosty towards Egyptian Jews living in Israel. She used to say that these are Zionists who betrayed Egypt by making Aliyah, and that she had nothing to do with Israel. Before becoming President and since, Carmen used to come to Israel to visit friends, and to have special orthopedic surgery done on her knees. But when she did so it was in secret, for fear that the Egyptian authorities would accuse her of 'normalization'.

The funeral for Carmen Weinstein will take place on Thursday April 18th 2013 in Cairo, to allow her sister Glorice from Switzerland and friends from abroad to come and pay their last respects.

May her soul rest in Peace.

Read blogpost in full 

Lucette Lagnado in the Wall St Journal : Carmen Weinstein survived military dictatorships, but was defeated by the Muslim Brotherhood (with thanks: Lily)

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).

Read article in full (subscription required)

The Economist epitaph


Anonymous said...

for us Jews from Egypt there will be no difference!

Levana Zamir said...

Bravo to Point of no Return for those three articles, bringing finally some truths.
Carmen will be remembered not only as the one who saved the last Synagogues in Egypt, but also as the one who gave them as a gift to the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities with all the artifacts. Those Synagogues belong to the Jews from Egypt, who build those Synagogues with the best of their money.
As Sheila Kurtzer said in her article, Carmen stopped any possibility that these Jewish Public Properties could be supervised and restorated by an International Committee of Jews. It would have saved all the 19 Synagogues all over Egypt, which fifteen of them are today crumbling.
Carmen will also be remembered as the one who errazed the word ISRAELITES from the name of the Jewish Community in Cairo: Since its foundation in the nineteen century, it has always been THE ISRAELITES COMMUNITY OF CAIRO - in Arabic: AL TAEFA AL ISRAILIYA - and she changed it some 10 years ago to: the Jewish Community of Cairo - in Arabic AL TAEFA AL-YAHUDEYA - errasing the real name given by the foundators, all of them ISRAELITES, the real name and essence of AM ISRAEL - the People of Israel.
Despite all her faithfulness to Egypt, she was lately persecuted as we were 50 years ago, with this trial against her, charging her of selling the Jewish Community properties, humiliating her during the last three years of her life, counseling her to hide and forcing her to lower profile to zero… BACK TO THE DHIMMI STATUS ...
Levana Zamir