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April 28, 2013

Carmen Weinstein, a Jew of Egypt

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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During the last 20 years in my regular visits to Cairo, my birth place, I was keen to buy my supply of New Year calendars, to give as gifts to family and friends back in Canada, from Carmen Weinstein. But no more, she died last week.

Weinstein owned a small print shop in downtown Cairo. She was the leader of Cairo’s small Jewish community and the driving force behind the restoration of Maimonides’s synagogue and yeshiva and other monuments of the Egyptian Jewish community. She died at her Zamalek’s home. She was 82.

Her father used to own the print shop. She was 22 when her father died, in 1953 and she took over the print shop with her mother, Esther.

After long discussions about politics, I used to ask her for a discount as most Egyptians do. Without fail she granted me the discount smiling, “The Egyptian is still in you.” She was delighted to know that I follow her effort to restore Egyptian Jewish monuments and that I know about the Canadian connection in that regard. She was fluent in French, English and Arabic.

Jews in Egypt were some 100,000 after the Second World War, mostly living in Alexandria. But Weinstein was born in Cairo, in 1931. Jews were integrated into the Egyptian society as merchants, bankers, artists and professionals. During King Fouad reign, his finance minster was from the famous Qattawi Jewish family.

As a young boy growing up in Cairo in the 1950s I remember shopping with my father in Cairo’s largest department stores, all owned by Jews. And I remember a popular comedy of that time was playing in the theater and later on TV titled “Hassan, Morcus and Cohn” which was making fun of three Egyptian men and their families, one Muslim, one Coptic, and one Jewish. All the three men complained equally to each other about their nagging wives.

Today perhaps the number of Jews in Egypt does not exceed 100. Jews had begun leaving Egypt in large numbers during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and especially after Israel invaded Egypt, along with Britain and France in 1956.

In the introduction of the book accompanying the visitors to the Cairo Genizah Exhibition, we read, “In the rest-house of Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, an exhibition is held of the Genizah collection discovered in the Synagogue in 1896. The idea for the exhibition came from Carmen Weinstein. The cost of panels and display was sponsored by Dr. Phyllis Lambert, of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, who arranged the restoration of the synagogue in 1983, and her brother Edgar Bronfman, chairman of the World Jewish Congress.”

A Geniza is a storeroom or depository in a synagogue, a literary cemetery, in which worn out scriptures are stored. Many of the Ben Ezra documents reveal previously unknown facts about Jewish and Egyptian life over a period of more than a thousand years, from about 870 AD to 1880. Their discovery is not as famous as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it is very interesting for example to know that many of these documents were written in Arabic using Hebrew alphabet. They also demonstrate that the Jewish authors of these documents were part of their contemporary Egyptian society; they dressed the same, lived the same and practiced the same trades as their Muslim and Christian neighbors.

In 2010 Weinstein also worked to persuade the Egyptian government to restore the synagogue and yeshiva once led by Moses Maimonides, which I did visit. Maimonides was a 12th-century Spanish Jew who settled in Cairo, led its Jewish community and became the most influential theologian in the history of Judaism.

Weinstein spearheaded a 1996 change to the bylaws of the Egyptian Jewish Community Council, enabling her mother to become its first female president. After her mother died in 2004, Ms. Weinstein took over.

She struggled to save Cairo’s Jewish cemetery at Bassatine, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world, from squatters who plagued, and still do, Egyptian cemeteries of all kinds. She was buried there.

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