Magda Haroun, seen here demonstrating her support for the military's fight against terrorism (photo: JTA)
Magda Haroun, the new leader of Cairo's 14 Jewish ladies - all that's left of a 80, 000-strong Jewish community - is trying to put on a brave face for the media, in this case The Tablet. But in my opinion her insistence on her 'Egyptian-ness' will only complete a process her predecessor Carmen Weinstein started - to deliver the dying community's substantial property assets into the hands of the state.
The Sha’ar Hashamayim synagogue, on a perpetually clogged strip of Cairo’s Adly Street, looks like a fortress. Its high, gray walls are imprinted with colorless Stars of David and palm trees, and its rectangular windows are darkened to keep out the sun. A small courtyard between the offices and the main hall features a dry fountain. At the entrance, manned gates prevent unwanted foot traffic, and a room full of policemen interrogate each visitor.
Magda Haroun, the recently installed leader of Cairo’s tiny Jewish Community Council, acknowledges the building is sober. Today, it serves about 14 people, all women and all, except for Magda and her sister, Nadia, in their eighties. Because the women married non-Jews, their children are not considered Jewish by the Egyptian state, which assigns religion according to the father and makes it very difficult to officially convert from Islam. “We are a dying community,” she told me.
Dying, maybe, but not dead, even in the wake of the seizures that have gripped Egypt this year.
Haroun and I met on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, as she was preparing for the service to be conducted by a young American Jew living in Cairo. Her two grown daughters, both Muslim like their father, had taken the week off of work for the holiday; one had flown in from Cyprus carrying a shofar.
“By the time I was old enough to marry there were no Jewish men,” Haroun told me, in a characteristically matter-of-fact way. “And besides, I fell in love with a Muslim.” Her current husband—her second—is a Catholic.
Haroun speaks rapidly, transitioning easily between French, Arabic, and English, and seems always on the brink of either a giggle or a deep sigh. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of Cairo’s remaining Jews—”My babies, I call them”—their health, their living situations, the health of their children.
“One of them lives with her daughter and grandchildren in one room,” she said, closing her eyes in concentration. “The daughter is also a widow. Another lives with her daughter who has two daughters and a son. The son is sick. She’s also a widow, and she has cancer. One is not married. One is divorced. Another is divorced, no children. So, they’re alone.”
Haroun’s predecessor, Carmen Weinstein—who died earlier this year—was notoriously guarded. She rarely spoke to the press, and her events were known to be exclusive, designed to attract officials she thought could help her community. “She wanted to keep the community in the darkness,” Haroun told me. “She did it so well that Egyptians forgot that there are Jews in Egypt.”
There were reasons for exclusivity that went beyond fundraising and prestige.
Weinstein was protective of Cairo’s Jews, anxious for their safety even at a time of relative stability—some would say oppression—under Mubarak and years before Islamists had any hope of taking over the government. Weinstein became so synonymous with Cairo’s Jews—her fights for property rights and the restoration of Jewish landmarks are legendary among both supporters and opponents—that when she died in April it seemed the community might bury itself along with her. Haroun’s “babies” were anxious. They had lost their leader, the streets were full of protesters, and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood seemed firmly in power.
“It was as if the sky was falling on my head,” Haroun said. Still, as soon as she was elected, Haroun threw open the curtains. In a telephone interview with a local television channel on the subject of Weinstein’s death, Haroun reached out to all of Cairo. “I said, ‘I call upon all Egyptians. If they want to come and share with us our sorrow, they are more than welcome.’”
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