| On Site |

Last Exodus

There isn’t much left of Alexandria’s once vibrant Jewish community, but that didn’t prevent us from going into our own time warp

Photos:  Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

Thousands of years after Yosef and his brothers sojourned to Egypt, there isn’t much left of Alexandria’s once vibrant Jewish community, but that didn’t prevent us from going into our own time warp. Standing on the site of what the Gemara describes as the world’s most magnificent synagogue, or visiting the location where, 2,300 years ago last week, 72 scholars translated the Torah into Greek, we again became part of a lost world.

Whenever we travel to ancient cities that once boasted vibrant, historically-relevant Jewish communities, we usually find some remnant of a kehillah, however small, holding down the mesorah and faithfully clinging to the significance of their position. But in Alexandria, Egypt, the city founded by Alexander the Great and considered one of the great centers of civilization whose once-venerated Jewish community goes back to 332 BCE, the living connections have dwindled to a trickle — in fact, the closest we got to an old-timer was a phone call to a woman who lived in the epicenter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Over 2,300 years ago, the Great Library of Alexandria, the largest library in the ancient world — cemented the city’s position as a center of knowledge and learning. And that, of course, attracted a Jewish community as well. From far out in the sea one could see the city’s colossal Pharos Lighthouse, considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. In more recent times, during the period of the British Protectorate from the late 19th century until the 1950s, Alexandria had a cosmopolitan European culture and was a popular tourist attraction for upscale Europeans, including writers, poets, and artists. During this period as well, the city attracted Jews who prospered economically and socially, supplemented by an influx of European and Yemenite Jews, and peaked with a Jewish population of approximately 25,000.

Alexandrian Jewry had its ups and downs throughout its long history, but while very few Jews live there today and the community has essentially disintegrated, there are still structures that reminded us of its ancient past and even its more recent glory days. We’ve twice explored this still-majestic city, one of those times as guest speaker on Miriam Schreiber’s Legacy Kosher Tours.

Alexandria, or Alex, as it’s fondly called by the locals, might have fewer historic monuments and tourist attractions than either Cairo or upper Egypt, as the south of the country is called, but it’s still a favorite vacation destination for Egyptians, as well as an important port. Until the murder of two Israeli tourists by an Egyptian policeman on the second day of the current war in Israel, there has been a small but constant stream of Jewish tourists ever since the Camp David Accords.

As is our habit in preparation for such trips, we contacted the head of the local Jewish community before arrival. Little did we know that he reported this to the government authorities, and we were met at the airport by two police cars, which became our personal escorts. At first, these “chaperones” made us nervous, especially as communication with them was difficult. When we decided to take a stroll along Alexandria’s wide, waterfront Corniche Road with a view of the boats gently bobbing up and down, and even a much later 2 a.m. walk through the souk which was still a buzz of activity at that late hour, they made sure to accompany us.

While driving around the city, they finally relaxed enough that one of the officers let his weapon casually rest on the seat, and at one point we communicated to them that if they would put their lights and sirens on, it would make our trip through the terrible traffic a bit quicker. They were happy to oblige.

It’s in the Translation

In 2002, the Egyptian government constructed the modern, state-of-the-art Bibliotheca Alexandrina, one of Alexandria’s most popular tourist destinations, supposedly in the same location as the world-famous ancient Great Library of Alexandria.

The modern library, being a cultural center, also includes a museum. It was interesting to see how the exhibit of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who ruled Egypt from 1970 until his assassination in 1981, didn’t shy away from any period of his life, and thus featured both the Yom Kippur War and the Camp David Accords, including pictures of him in Israel with Menachem Begin, flanked by Israeli flags. But the exhibit of Sadat’s office gave us the biggest surprise – behind his desk in his modest library were 15 familiar green volumes of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Yet as modern as it is today, the site linked us to one of the most famous events in Jewish history connected to this ancient port city: the translation of the Torah into Greek, the Targum Shivim, or Septuagint, which took place in about the third century BCE, right around last week, on the eighth of Teves.

It was a monumental event both for the Jews and for Greek Egyptians. The famous Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates tells the Greek version of why and how the Torah was translated. It claims that they had over 200,000 books in this library and those in charge had determined that “the laws of the Jews” was worth translating and including as well.

For most of us, though, the event is remembered because, as brought in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 580:1-2), some used to fast on the eighth of Teves. because on that day the Torah was translated for Ptolemy into Greek, which “brought darkness to the world for three days.”

Standing in that ultra-modern library, we couldn’t help but think back to that monumental event over 2,300 years ago which is famously described in the Gemara (Megillah 9 and Maseches Sofrim) of how King Ptolemy put 72 sages into 72 rooms and ordered them to translate the Torah into Greek. Miraculously, the translations were identical, including 13 significant changes that they each made independently.

With the bright Mediterranean sun shining on us through the windows of the contemporary Alexandria library, we pondered the question: Why indeed was it a fast day if the translation was the result of a miracle, if Moshe Rabbeinu had originally been instructed to translate the Torah into 70 languages, and if the halachah even gives special significance to the Greek version of the Torah over all others?

Chazal in Sofrim actually tell us that Ptolmey had twice commissioned translations of the Torah into Greek. The first was by five scholars, and Chazal describe that the day “was as difficult as the day on which the Golden Calf was made, for the Torah could not be fully translated.”

But there was a subsequent translation made for Ptolemy by 72 sages in which they miraculously all produced the same translation. Perhaps it was the first translation that was tragic and the cause for the fast day, and it was the second translation that included miracles and held a special place in Jewish tradition?

But still, why would the first translation be so problematic that’s it’s compared to the creation of the Golden Calf? One mystical answer, brought down in chassidic literature, might be hinted to in the precise language used by the Gemara, that the day the Torah was translated “was as difficult as the day on which the Golden Calf was made” – implying that there was potential for either catastrophe or blessing.

True, Hashem commanded Moshe to translate the Torah into 70 languages, including Greek – and this was a G-dly mission of spreading spiritual light throughout the world.

Yet later, when the sages translated the Torah at Ptolemy’s behest, this was an act initiated by a mortal ruler, and as such, had the possibility of becoming another Golden Calf — a limited, humanly-defined vessel to replace the Divine truth, dressed in foreign garments that would allow for the distortion of its original sacred content and power. That’s why the Jewish translators — each one independently — changed the literal meaning of the Torah’s words in 13 places where it would be open to misinterpretation, bringing Gd’s word to the modern Greek world and serving as an example for subsequent translations that would spread the Torah’s light universally.

The Hellenized Jewish philosopher Philo even reported that the Jews of Alexandria in his time celebrated the date of the completion of the Septuagint as a holiday, and regarded the miraculous translation as almost akin to the Hebrew original.


Last Shul Standing

At its peak, the Alexandria community in the early 20th century was dispersed in different neighborhoods and utilized multiple shuls. The heart of the community, though, has always been the complex that surrounds the massive Eliyahu Hanavi shul, currently the only intact shul in Alexandria, guarded by several policemen on foot patrol and in a police booth. Set back in the courtyard, isolated from the busy commercial and residential neighborhood surrounding it, the shul immediately brought to mind the Talmudic description of the great Alexandria synagogue of its time, which was destroyed long ago.

The Gemara (Succah 51b) describes a huge, elaborate shul in which each of the various guilds sat in their own section (the goldsmiths, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, weavers, etc.), and thus a newcomer could easily find a comfortable crowd to join. The Gemara says that the shul held double 600,000 people (the number 600,000 is significant because it was the mystical number of people who left Egypt at the Exodus), had 71 chairs of gold, and that the sanctuary was so large that the gabbai had to stand on the bimah and wave a flag to signal people in the back when to answer Amen to the chazzan. This Gemara was quoted by Rav Moshe Sternbuch to justify using a microphone at a chuppah and has also been quoted in responsa during the recent corona pandemic as a source that in certain circumstances one can respond to a brachah even if they don’t actually hear it, as long as they know in real time that it’s being said.

The modern Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue is certainly not as large as the synagogue described in the Gemara, but it is indeed a huge and majestic structure, and its grandeur and size gave us a small taste of what the community must have been like both in Talmudic times and 100 years ago.

Standing in the shul, in our mind’s eye we were standing in the massive Alexandria sanctuary described in the Gemara, although the magnificent shul is surely a close second. The Eliyahu Hanavi shul boasts marble pillars, a high arched ceiling and balcony, and multiple menorahs surrounding the elevated platform that leads to the large aron kodesh, housing over 60 sifrei Torah that the government collected from the other shuls in Alexandria. The rows upon rows of wooden pews, which still have oval engraved copper nameplates, reveal some of the formality and respect that must have surrounded the shul.

The government is working to preserve what is for them an important tourist site, and in 2020 completed a restoration and archaeological survey that attracted around 200 Jews from abroad for the rededication. We could see excavated remains in several parts of the shul, showcasing what they think is remnants of the original shul in this location from the 14th century.

In the front left of the main sanctuary is a large marble plaque dated 5660 [1900] that gives some of the history. It records that Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura passed through Alexandria in 1487 and found a relatively small shul at that site, which survived for 300 years until it was destroyed in the late 18th century by Napoleon. The current grand shul was built a few decades after that.

After we davened there, we set out to explore the rest of the complex. Exiting the main shul door and turning right brought us to the communal administrative center where we found the office of the head of the community. On our first visit, the community head was a very pleasant Jew from Cairo, Yosef Gaon, who had been brought to Alexandria to head the community offices. We met him in his office, and couldn’t help noticing two pictures on the wall — one of them president Hosni Mubarak, and the other a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

On our first visit, Yosef Gaon gave us an insider’s tour of what historic Jewish Alexandria was like just decades ago. One of the more meaningful artifacts that he showed us was a roll-on stamper that was used to designate kosher meat — indicating that Alexandria had its own kosher slaughtering. He passed away several months before our second visit, though, and due to the dearth of Egyptian Jews, an Italian Jew with Egyptian roots, Reuven Roberto Marini, was brought in to head the community. The job of the head of the community is today more in the category of property management, as he has to oversee this large Jewish complex in addition to three Jewish cemeteries and the community property that includes apartment buildings.


Always a Jew

We have met some amazing people throughout our travels, including Jews who have secretly kept up their connection to Yiddishkeit despite great personal struggles and danger. And in Alexandria, we walked right into the middle of a drama.

The community has dwindled to almost no one, and Yosef Gaon told us an astounding story about one of the few remaining Jews of Alexandria. This elderly woman, who had recently contacted him, was kidnapped as a young girl and forcibly married to a Muslim. (This is one of the reasons that Jewish girls were often married at the age of 12, because a married woman could not be taken by a Muslim.) She was married to him for 60 years and led the life of a Muslim woman, as any Jewish connection could spell physical punishment or even death for her. She had three daughters, none of whom even knew that their mother was Jewish or that they are, too, for that matter. This woman’s husband recently died, and after 60 years of no outward connection to the community, one day she showed up at the shul out of the blue and asked if she could buy matzah for Pesach. Her Jewish soul remained alive, hoping for the day she could return.

After hearing this story, we begged Yosef to arrange a meeting for us with her. On the phone, she explained to him in French that it was hard for her to travel. We said we would come to her apartment to meet her. But unfortunately, she told us that she lived in a Muslim Brotherhood neighborhood and any foreigners visiting her would invite trouble, so we never did get to meet this most unusual woman.


Relics of a Richer Time

Some of the rooms in the community complex feel like they house ghosts from the past. One of those is the room in which the beis din used to meet. Today it is just a room with benches, but photos show this same room with pesukim on the wall that exhort the dayanim and claimants to carry out justice. All financial and matrimonial issues were in the hands of the Jewish courts and respected by the Egyptian government. One can still see the counter with a sign indicating where community members would come to get their civil ID cards identifying them as official members of the Jewish community.

On the other side of the courtyard is the large building that had housed the Jewish school, although we were not able to access it. There is also a building containing a mikveh, still intact minus the water, and a neatly catalogued library of Jewish books hundreds of years old that are stored behind plastic sheeting and not accessible. A beautiful bris milah kisei shel Eliyahu was there, as was a matzah- making contraption. Nothing, however, was touchable.

We also had a guide from afar — Rabbi Avraham Dayan. He came from Israel in 2000 to become Rabbi of Alexandria  when the community still numbered about 100 members, some of them openly Jewish and others remaining in the shadows. By 2005, the community had shrunk even more, and he left in 2005 to take up a position in Livorno, Italy. Yet, realizing that he would likely be the final rabbi of an Egyptian community after thousands of years of great leaders, in 2021 he published a book about the rabbis of Egypt over the last 150 years. It is a fascinating mix of halachah, history, and sociology of a flourishing modern community that then entered a period of turmoil and eventually disappeared. Although he was not in Egypt when we were there, he graciously guided us from afar to better understand the Egyptian Jewish story.

We had another guide as well — a fellow named Abed al Nabi, an Alexandrian-born Muslim Nubian who was the dedicated shul caretaker for decades, and thus remembered when it was a more active community. At one point he worked for the General Consulate of Austria in Alexandria, which had offices next to a shop owned by the Harari brothers, Joe and Charles, with whom he became friendly. In 1986, when the Consul passed away, Joe asked Abed to work for the Jewish community, headed at the time by Clement Setton and Raphael Bilboul. He started by collecting the rents of the community assets, but as he proved his honesty and loyalty, he was soon “promoted” to the main caretaker of the shul, a job he faithfully carried out for over 35 years.

Abed, who just recently passed away, was a good resource for us, and helped us identify an unusual-looking old tool we’d found in one of the empty rooms. He told us that the rusty implement actually had been used in the grinding of wheat for the shemurah matzah baked by the community. There is something surreal about being taken around this massive Jewish compound by a Muslim Nubian Egyptian who speaks a smattering of Hebrew. On our second visit, Abed was assisted by his daughter Rasha who speaks excellent English, loves and cares for the shul as much as her father did, and is happy to show tourists the splendid remnant of the Alexandrian Jewish community.

There is one other remaining shul in the city, rundown and emptied of all of its contents, but nonetheless still guarded by police. Without too much difficulty, the head of the community arranged for us to visit and see this shell of a building that at one time was a midsized shul. Located on a main thoroughfare and surrounded by residential buildings, it’s not difficult to imagine its more illustrious past, nor predict what the future holds for it. There was nothing left inside — no sifrei Torah, no books, no paroches…. It was a structure with benches but no contents. Anything of significance seems to have been transferred to the Eliyahu Hanavi shul and the rest disposed of.


Dancing the Night Away

We wanted to get a sense of what the community was like at various times in the past. Rav Eliyahu Hazan, who was born in Izmir in 1845 and studied in Jerusalem, became rabbi of Alexandria in 1888. In his book of teshuvos, Ta’alumos Lev, he records being asked about making a wedding in a shul at night, a seemingly innocuous question but one that sheds light on the open, cosmopolitan nature of the community at the time. While he initially did not question nighttime weddings as his esteemed predecessor had permitted them, he started to backtrack when he observed what was happening. He describes that there were instances when women came to weddings inappropriately dressed, with mixed dancing in front of the kallah, with the impression that the ultimate reason some people wanted weddings at night was to go straight from the sheva brachos to dancing and frivolity. He notes that with the agreement of the community heads, they returned to the practice of daytime weddings, and that for shul weddings, everyone came dressed appropriately and behaved properly.

In more recent times, the community heads were also amenable to rabbinic requests. Rav Dayan related to us that in 2000, when he first came to this community of primarily older people, he found the mikveh in a fairly neglected state and he requested both halachic and aesthetic upgrades. After some initial resistance, the community head approached him after community members discussed and appreciated the significance, and told him he had a “blank check” to do what was needed.


Memories in Stone

It is to be expected that such a large community would have had several extensive cemeteries, and indeed, we visited two of Alexandria’s three large Jewish cemeteries, both of which offered us a window into the nature of this cosmopolitan community. All of the cemeteries are today located in the center of urban areas, but because they are surrounded by a wall, there has been no encroachment upon them, nor squatting or vandalism, and they are thus largely intact. On the other hand, the walls don’t prevent neighbors from tossing in trash, and neither do they preclude extreme neglect and huge overgrowth.

We met the caretaker families who live within the two cemeteries we visited, but other than discouraging intruders, they do not seem to do much in caring for the huge sites and the many tombstones that are falling apart. As we slowly walked through these outdoor testaments to a large, established Jewish community, we felt like we were getting a tour of Alexandrian Jewish history. There were substantial mausoleums with names of what were clearly the wealthy families. We saw underground family plots in which the deceased were buried horizontally in a type of “drawer” in the wall — the same technique that’s now being done on overcrowded Har Hamenuchos in Jerusalem. And of course, there were the many graves of average Jews, whose epitaphs were written only in French. Many of the cultured Jews of Alexandria never integrated with the locals and thus did not speak Arabic.

There is no ancient Pharaonic history in Alexandria, nor is there a legacy of great Torah scholarship, but the city has had a strong and proud Jewish community and presence on and off for the last 2,300 years. Yet in this classy port city on the Mediterranean, which served as a transit point for many Jews on their way to the Land of Israel, it doesn’t seem like the Jewish heritage and traditions it once proudly guarded over the centuries will be picking up any time soon, even as the magnificent courtyards still standing are a testament to this history.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 992)

Oops! We could not locate your form.