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Jews lived in Egypt for a millennium – peacefully – the forward



Somewhere between the charoset and the matzo ball soup, the Passover Hagaddah makes a somewhat strange request: "In every generation, everyone is obligated to see themselves as if they came personally from Egypt." It is not enough to remember that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt. We have to personally connect with this memory.

This radical empathy is for many people the heart of Passover. But in our current political moment – a moment of bombastic rhetoric and Manichaean ideology – it should be remembered that we were more than just slaves in Egypt.

For most of the past millennium, Egyptian Jews lived in relative harmony with Muslims and Christians. Yes, we may have been slaves in Egypt. But we were also doctors and tailors, midwives, merchants and scholars.

There are only a few dozen Egyptian Jews left in the country today. But these holdouts, especially older women, speak with a line that goes back more than a thousand years. (By comparison, that's almost three times as long as Jews were in the United States). For centuries ̵

1; between the 11th and 14th centuries, to be exact – Cairo competed with Jerusalem and Baghdad as the cultural, economic and scientific capital of the Jewish world.

Over the course of a thousand years, of course, there have been some ups and downs, times marked by harmony and conflict. A number of Egyptian rulers subjected their Jewish and Christian subjects to discriminatory taxes and restrictions. The eleventh Sultan al-Hakim went so far as to forbid Molokhia, the green leafy vegetable known as the "Jewish Mallow." And in 1956, after the founding of the State of Israel, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled all "foreigners" "A category that included Jewish families who had lived there for over a thousand years.

The Egyptian-Jewish History, however, is remarkable for its relative harmony, as the great Jewish philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides put it: "In ancient times, when storms threatened us, we wandered from place to place; But by the grace of God, we have now succeeded in finding a resting place in this city [Cairo]. "

For the most part, we know this thanks to the Cairo Geniza, a treasure trove of over one hundred documents found years ago in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. Histories of daily life are often lost in the mix of war and conflict, Famine and riots, but with the Egyptian Jews we are fortunate enough to have thousands of everyday documents – discarded letters and prayer books, business contracts, wedding contracts and grocery lists – most dating back to the Middle Ages, when Cairo was an economic and intellectual center of the Jewish world [19659002] By searching through these abandoned papers – or rather, reading books written by people who have searched them – you get the impression of a community that deals mainly with everyday concerns: the price of wheat, the content of an excuse the daughter, news from a relative have not been for a long time s more, a dispute over grazing rights, the quality of a certain fabric from Morocco.

That does not mean that the Jews of Egypt were not more existential. They were often – and rightly – concerned about discrimination and prejudice, conflicts abroad and the vagaries of often unfriendly rulers. But in most cases, they have lived their lives as we have, trying their best to navigate through a complex, multiethnic society ruled by people of different faiths.

In a confusing and often unsafe world, it can be comforting to see things in black and white. The Passover story is powerful for this reason. It's a story about good and evil, slaves on one side and masters on the other. Even a child can understand who it is for.

Such narratives can be instructive. By asking us to see ourselves as "born of Egypt in person," the Hagaddah challenges us to feel the suffering of our ancestors by forcing us to combine biblical history with other, more contemporary forms of oppression. But even the most well-meaning moral certainty plays into the hands of those who want to paint the world in black and white, the nativists and hypernationalists who see everything through a lens of ours against them.

In memory of the recent history of Egyptian Jews, we find ourselves reflected in a distant mirror relevant to our experience, negotiating power and differences in a messy and complicated world. Therefore, this Passover, when the Hagaddah asks me to say that I was a slave in Egypt, I will also call these other Egyptian Jews. I was a slave in Egypt; I was a doctor, a tailor, a midwife, a merchant, and a scholar.

Michael David Lukas is the author of "The Last Guardian of Ancient Cairo". He works at the UC Berkeley Center for Middle Eastern Studies and lives in Oakland.


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