The Uneasy Life of a Jew in Egypt

After Andrew Pochter's Killing, an American in Cairo Reflects

An American Jew in Cairo: Living as a Jew in Egypt’s capital comes with its challenges but also moments of incredible bonding with others.
Getty Images
An American Jew in Cairo: Living as a Jew in Egypt’s capital comes with its challenges but also moments of incredible bonding with others.

By Anonymous

Published June 30, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The writer prefers to write anonymously because of the political situation in Egypt.

I never knew him personally, but it seems I’ve lived a life quite like Andrew Pochter, the 21-year old Jewish American tragically killed in Alexandria, Egypt on Friday.

“He went to Egypt because he cared profoundly about the Middle East, and he planned to live and work there in the pursuit of peace and understanding,” a family statement read.

Here in Cairo there is a network of us Jews who, like myself, came to Egypt with a similar mindset. Just last week I met another “Member of the Tribe,” as we call them. He’d spent time, too, in ‘Disney Land’, our local code for Egypt’s neighbor across the Sinai.

Last September we held a tashlich service of sorts on the Nile. We went out on one of Cairo’s popular felluca boats and symbolically tossed Egypt’s legendary brown baladi bread — the kind they riot about when subsidy cuts are threatened — into the muddied Nile water. Shabbat potlucks followed with friends of all faiths and makeshift vegetarian cholent. We chanted kiddush over Egypt’s infamously mediocre Omar Khayam red wine. For Passover we gathered and broke matzo with some of the last Jews of Egypt. It was a night I could never have imagined.

Being a Jew in Cairo is not easy, but you make of it what you want. It is not a life of silence, but for me the insecurity comes because there are no clear lines about what is right and wrong. The Cairo congestion combined with a steady dose of rumors has a way of numbing reflexes.

Walking in the streets I’m an obvious foreigner. “What’s your nationality?” men at kiosks are quick to ask. In the Middle East I’ve come to know it is not uncommon to be asked your religion at the start of a conversation. In a way, it is like an American asking “What do you do?” It is a means for people to try to place you as a foreigner within a framework that they now. But sometimes when I’m close to losing it with a cat-caller in the streets, I cynically wonder to myself, ‘Would you still want me now if you knew I was Jewish?’

In over a year in Egypt and five years exploring the Middle East I have received less than a handful of hateful responses when disclosing my religion — though I also do so cautiously. When I tell Egyptian friends or acquaintances that I’m Jewish, they often say, “You know, we have no problem with Jews. We are all brothers and sisters.” Some add one caveat, “The problem, you see, is just with Israel.” Soon after, another, “You know, you really shouldn’t tell most people that.”

I know I’m not alone in having lied and said I’m Christian. Sometimes I truly felt uncomfortable about my interlocutor’s intention. “You’re not an Israeli or Jew are you?” a poor bookseller once asked in Cairo’s Azbakeya book market as I handed him the money. “Because we’re enemies.” I needed the book for class the next day, muttered a panicked no, and simply bolted away. Later I laughed with friends about this encounter, marveling at how pervasive conspiracy theories had come under decades of autocratic rule. As if I was an Israeli spy, and was going to find the secrets to Egypt’s demise in that used copy of the revered Taha Hussein’s autobiography.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.