Prior to Israel’s 1948 independence, the Jewish community of Egypt numbered 88,000 with some 25,000 Jews living in the capital city of Cairo.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries Egypt was considered the grandest country of the Middle East and Cairo was renowned as the Paris of the Middle East. It had grand boulevards, fashionable shops, cafes bustling with customers.
Cairo’s Jews lived in complete freedom and cordiality with the Muslim population. Jews were active in business, in the professions of law and medicine, and they contributed much to the culture and economy of the Kingdom of Egypt, especially during the reign of Farouk, Egypt’s last king.
When I visited in Egypt in 1973, albeit on a foreign passport, I was detained at Cairo’s airport and was questioned by security police because of my family name. “You have an Israeli name. Are you or were you a citizen of Israel? Are you a Zionist? What is the purpose of your visit to Egypt?”
After two hours of interrogation I was permitted to leave the airport en route to my hotel Semiramis on the Nile.
During my stay in Cairo I was introduced to Felix Ischaki, the elderly president of the city’s remaining Jewish community. We talked at length in French and he shared with many many of the lost glories of Cairo’s past.
He remembered the gigantic ice cream and cakes which he ate at Maison Groppi, one of a chain by that name of fancy and luxuriously-furnished cafes in Cairo, in particular the main one on Qasr-el-Nil.
He lamented the closing of one of the most famous department stores in all Egypt, Les Grand Magasins Cicurel. It was the main department store in Cairo, the largest one, which supplied luxurious clothes, jewelry and other items to the royal family in the palace.
Cicurel was founded by a Jew, Moreno Cicurel, who arrived in Egypt in 1889 from Izmir, Turkey. He and his son, Salomon Cicurel, were the founders of the great shopping paradise of Cairo and the business continued to operate in the Jewish family hands until 1948 when it was closed.
Mr. Ischaki recalled the years when he and his family shopped at Les Grands Magasins Cicurel on the center of Qasr-el-Nil, close to the Cairo opera house.
Listening to his reminiscences and longings gave me a better understanding of Jewish life in Cairo and in Alexandria, in particular, where it flourished with beautiful synagogues well-attended.
I visited the main Cairo synagogue, Shaar Shamayim (Gate of Heaven) on Adly Pasha street, a major thoroughfare in the center of downtown Cairo.
It was easily recognized by the large Magen David carved into its front. And inspite of the Arab wars against the Jews, the synagogues in Egypt were not defiled nor damaged. The few remaining Jews were free to worship on Shabbat and holidays.
When I visited, there were only very few elderly men, many fingering worry beads as they talked or recited prayers briefly. The siddurim were old and worn and had been printed in Austria at the turn of the 20th century. I saw only three old women sitting above the sanctuary.
I tried to imagine in my mind what the synagogue would have looked like on a Shabbat or Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur service prior to 1948 when Rabbi Dwek, the last rabbi in Egypt, conducted services for some 500 worshippers.
Today there are only about twenty Jews left in Egypt… 12 in Cairo and 8 in Alexandria.
Groppi’s probably still sells its famous ice creams and cakes. But the doors of the internationally renowned Cicurel department stores are closed forever.
I wonder how many Egyptian Jews who now live in other countries recall happier years in the Paris of the East.