Monday, April 23, 2018

Port Said once had a thriving Adenite community

'Port Said', to Israelis, is a trendy restaurant in Tel Aviv. Not many know that once there was a thriving Jewish community in  the city of the same name on Egypt's Suez Canal.  A daring Mossad mission in 1956 rescued many of them. Jacob Rosen-Koenigsbuch pieces together the history of its mostly Adenite Jews in Haaretz. (With thanks: Lily)
Jewish woman from Port Said in the late 19th century

At its peak during the 1920s, the Jewish community numbered almost 1,000 people. It had two synagogues – one Sephardi and one Adenite – a rabbi, ritual slaughterer and mohel, a number of Jewish organizations such as B’nai B’rith, as well as Zionist, Revisionist (right-wing) Zionist and women’s organizations.

The city’s flagship was the large Simon Arzt department store, which was owned by Jews and is remembered in Israel for its decorated tin cigarette boxes that competed with the cigarette industry of the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine. Many members of the Port Said Jewish community were employed by the department store, and others worked in shipping, commerce and the free professions. 

In the mid-’30s, an estimated 75 percent of the members of the Jewish community had an Adenite background. At some point during this decade, Jews began leaving the city, a trend that picked up after the founding of Israel in 1948, leaving only about 300 Jews in the city in 1956. 

Anyone trying to catalog the surnames of the Jewish community beyond the general classification of “Adenites, Sephardim who speak Ladino and Ashkenazim” will find this a very difficult task. The matter of the last names is serious; in many cases they hold the key to allowing an understanding of where these people came from, another path in the history of Jewish wanderings.

As opposed to the Jewish communities of Cairo and Alexandria, a number of whose sons and daughters wrote fascinating memoirs about their communities, only one book was written about Port Said by a Jew born there, the 2000 English-language work “Port Said Revisited” by Sylvia Modelski. Her paternal grandfather was from Aden and her maternal grandmother (a relative of former Haifa Mayor Shabtai Levy) was from Istanbul. 

The book is no different than most of its genre, written in a personal and nostalgic tone, but it rarely mentions names outside a small circle of close friends. As a result, it’s up to the rest of us to put together the puzzle of Jewish last names of Port Said. The project requires us to burrow into the internet and libraries, as well as meet with former residents who still live among us. All this effort has its reward because at the end of the journey the data and general historical descriptions turn into faces of real people.

I used Yad Vashem’s online Hall of Names, which contains the names of Holocaust victims and their places of birth. After typing in Port Said, I received the following names and years of birth: Lucien Lazare Blaustein, 1889; Carlo Cohen Venezian, 1886, who is listed among the Holocaust victims in Italy; Josef Botshaim, 1888, a tailor whose name I later found in the Berlin directory; and Sara Laufer, 1883, who was murdered in Sobibor. 

The Hebrew newspapers in Israel and Europe of the 1890s and the early 20th century occasionally reported on the happenings in Port Said, including ads. For example, an announcement appeared in 1898 in the newspaper HaZvi about the engagement of Hannah Leah Benderli from Port Said to Chaim Kahana from Beirut. 

Shmuel Benderli (from the same family based in Safed) wrote a notice in the newspaper Hashkafa in 1904 about the opening of the Hotel Jerusalem. Members of the Benderli family were among the richest in Port Said and were part owners of the Simon Arzt department store. One family member was the president of the Italy-Egypt chamber of commerce in the city and bore the Italian title comandante

In 1913, Shmuel Amdurski announced in the newspaper Haherut the opening of an import-export business and even provided a mailing address: P.O. Box 101 in Port Said. 

The following year in Haherut, Pinchas Weiss announced the opening of the Carmel Hotel in Port Said. The problem with these newspapers, which are scanned on the online archive of Jewish newspapers, is the spelling; different newspapers transliterated the name Port Said into Hebrew in a number of different ways. 

Another way to research the question is to check the genealogy website JewishGen and see who is looking for ancestors from Port Said – and there are a few such people. One lives in Australia and is a descendant of the Arzt family. He has documents of a relative who was born in the city of Jaroslaw in Galicia. She completed midwife studies in Lvov and began practicing the profession in Port Said in 1882. 

It turns out that Simon Arzt himself, who seems to have been one of the very first Jews in the city in 1870, brought a number of relatives to live there. He opened a store selling cigarettes that was later bought by Max Mouchly, Arzt’s nephew and the son of the founders of Tel Aviv’s Neveh Tzedek neighborhood. Mouchly turned the small store into the famous department store, got rich and headed the Port Said Jewish community – he even became the honorary consul for Czechoslovakia and Romania in Port Said. 

In the 1920s he employed his cousin and her husband Gedalyahu Neiman (Ne’eman) as managers of the department store. Neiman was the father of former Israeli minister and nuclear physicist Prof. Yuval Ne’eman. His sister – law professor and Israel Prize winner Ruth Ben-Israel – was born in Port Said.
Other famous Jews born in the city include the Israeli-American political cartoonist Ranan Lurie, whose grandfather headed the Ashkenazi community there. Yossi Ben-Aharon, the director of the Prime Minister’s Bureau under Yitzhak Shamir, grew up in Port Said, though he was born in Jerusalem, and was a member of the Adenite community. 

The large synagogue in Port Said, Ohel Moshe, was built with a large donation from the Adenite philanthropist Menachem Messe (Musa) Banin, who is remembered as the “Rothschild of the East.” Later, the Sephardi synagogue Sukkat Shalom was built by Shmuel Mayo, who was born in Istanbul and opened a glass business in Port Said. 

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