In 1980, soon after my family and I arrived in Cairo, where my husband, Dan, had been assigned as a political officer at the American Embassy, we were introduced to an elderly woman. Esther Weinstein was the nominal head of Egypt’s small Jewish community. Slight and slender, she was dressed meticulously, in blue from top to bottom — blue suit, blue blouse, blue shoes, blue hat, blue bag. She was elegant and charming, with a warm smile and twinkling eyes.
We soon learned that the power behind her throne was her daughter, Carmen Weinstein. It was the younger Weinstein who ran the family printing business, managed the finances of the Jewish community and represented the community to the Egyptian government. Carmen Weinstein proved that she was a force to be reckoned with.
Carmen, who passed away on April 13, was a very strong-willed and determined woman, a tenacious defender of the integrity and independence of Cairo’s Jewish community. This appeared increasingly ironic as the years passed, and the community dwindled to about two dozen elderly Jewish women. You could find many of them in the Adly Street Synagogue, Shaar Hashamayim, every Saturday morning. Only occasionally would there be a minyan, but that didn’t matter to the remnants of the community.
Under Carmen’s leadership, a number of major projects were accomplished. She raised the funds for and oversaw the restoration of the Jewish cemetery in al Basateen, a rundown area where squatters had taken over mausoleums and gravesites. Headstones were strewn about, animals roamed freely, refuse blocked the walkways.
Carmen took control, mobilizing visiting students (and diplomatic spouses) to clean the area, map the gravesites and restore the cemetery. She took on and prevailed over the Egyptian government after the authorities decided to build a ring road around the capital that was to be routed through the Jewish area. Carmen won, and the highway was rerouted.
In Carmen’s company, I had the occasion to visit almost all of the more than 15 synagogues that remained in Cairo. Most of them were uninhabitable shells of their former grandeur. Over time, Carmen oversaw the rehabilitation of the downtown synagogue and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, in Old Cairo, and capped these efforts with the renovation of the Rambam (Maimonides) Synagogue. With its collapsed roof, exposed interior and flooded lower level, this historic site where Maimonides studied and attended to the sick was in severe disrepair and neglect. Carmen worked with the Cairo government and got the job done.
For all her determination and feistiness, she also had a blind spot: her adamant refusal to share power or responsibility for the community’s affairs.
When my husband was serving as the United States ambassador, he spent long hours with Carmen, trying, in vain, to persuade her to create an international board of advisers that would help her with the community’s issues and to ensure continuity after her departure.
What will happen to the cemetery, the synagogues, the Torah scrolls, the people, Dan asked, if there is no plan in place? Carmen wouldn’t budge, fearing that outside involvement would soon become outside control.
How does one measure the achievements and blind spots of a dominant but largely isolated individual in a situation like the Cairo Jewish community over the past three decades? On the one hand, I will cherish the time I spent with Carmen visiting Cairo’s synagogues and meeting the surviving women. I can still feel the excitement of our visit to the Karaite Synagogue, where we were privileged to see the Ben Asher Codex, the oldest extant Torah scroll. I remember our visits to Old Cairo, Fustat and the Ben Ezra Synagogue — home to the famous Cairo Geniza, but also the oldest Mosque in Egypt and one of the oldest Coptic churches. I remember the occasions when, with the help of the Israeli Embassy, we were able to make a minyan in one of the synagogues and thus breathe life back into these buildings, if only for a few hours.
And I also remember the frustrations of dealing with a resolute woman who simply didn’t want to think about the day after. She dealt with the government on her own terms — even recently, when she fought back against specious legal charges of financial malfeasance — and just assumed it would always be well.
Carmen, as I learned early on, was a proud Egyptian and an equally proud Jewess. Egypt was her home, and the Jewish community was her flock, her responsibility. No foreigner — whether a friend or an ambassador — could shake her determination to retain total control over Egypt’s Jewish legacy.
Those of us who hold dear our experiences in Egypt and our friendship with Carmen are now concerned about what the future holds for the remaining Jews and the community’s assets. Egypt’s Jewish community dates back millennia; it will be hard to see it disappear. But one fact is certain: It was Carmen Weinstein’s devotion to her Egyptian community that helped it survive until now.
Contact Sheila Kurtzer at email@example.com