CAIRO — There were fewer attendees than usual at Thursday night's Hannukah celebration in the Egyptian capital, perhaps due to the political unrest that has gripped the city -- or maybe just because of the cold weather. The tiny Jewish community of Cairo consists almost entirely of elderly women, and they have weathered the current period of national crisis just as they survived hardships decades ago.
As the wax dripped from the candles on the Menorah at the downtown Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, protesters continued to mass outside the presidential palace across town and blocked off Tahrir Square, only a short walk away. The first round of voting in a contentious constitutional referendum took place Saturday, the penultimate day of Hannukah.
Not that the ladies really needed reminding. Ever since popular protests unseated President Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago, the resulting rise of Islamist lawmakers and continued sectarian tension have worried Egypt's minorities. The country's Coptic Christians -- about 10 percent of the population -- have been the most vocal in their opposition to the new order, following an increased number of blasphemy cases, and sectarian clashes, but a variety of other small groups, from Bahais and Shiite Muslims to the tiny Jewish community have found themselves caught up in Egypt's unstable and uncertain future.
Despite the concerns, not much has changed for Egypt's Jews so far. There is continued anti-Semitism that manifests itself in subtle ways -- conspiracy-minded news reports sometimes allude to Jewish and Freemason plots, and swastikas can occasionally be seen gracing walls throughout Cairo -- but this is often related to the uneasy relations between Egypt and Israel. The few remaining Jews have mostly assimilated into the general population. Most try as best they can to avoid politics.
"We hope to have no more problems," Cairo Jewish community leader Carmen Weinstein told me on Thursday. "Let's hope."
About 50 Jews have registered with Weinstein and a similarly small group lives in Egypt's second largest city, Alexandria. There are likely hundreds more who have Jewish lineage but do not associate with the communities, cut off by generations of intermarriage and drifting away from the faith. Weinstein says they sometimes come out of the woodwork at a very old age, seeking burial in the capital's Jewish cemetery.
The one or two dozen elderly Jews who regularly come to holiday celebrations with some children and grandchildren in tow are a far cry from the vibrant community of 80,000 that lived in Egypt during the first half of the 20th century.
Thousands of Jews had migrated over the centuries from Europe, across the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere to live and work in the country, and they played a prominent role in Egyptian society. Jews owned large stores and lived among their Muslim and Christian neighbors, or sometimes in a bustling area in Cairo called the Alley of the Jews. A popular movie in 1954 featured a Jewish protagonist named Cohen, alongside Christian and Muslim characters. A Cairo Jewish community leader, Yusuf Aslan Qattawi Pasha, was a titan of the Egyptian sugar industry and served as a minister and senator in the 1920s and 1930s, while the owners of the fashionable Cicurel department stores were members of a Jewish family, one of whom captained Egypt's 1928 Olympic fencing team.
All that changed with Israel's founding in 1948 and the Suez crisis of 1956. Egyptian Jews were increasingly ostracized, with many forcibly expelled and their property nationalized under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Many ended up in Israel, Europe, and the Americas, often allowed to leave with just a few suitcases. The 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars brought more trouble for the Jews who remained behind, and by the end of the 20th century, the Jewish population of Egypt was a shell of its former self. A 2008 remake of the 1954 film dropped the Jewish character. Many Egyptians now use the words "Jewish" and "Israeli" interchangeably, and animosity toward the neighboring state is high despite Egypt's 33 year-old peace treaty with Israel.
But there have been sparks of interest in the coexistence that once was. Amir Ramses, an acclaimed Egyptian filmmaker, directed a documentary about the cosmopolitan Jewish community of yesteryear that premiered in Egypt in October. Ramses made the film, which features interviews with Egyptian Jews both here and abroad, with the intention of disentangling Egyptians' impressions of Jews from their intense hatred of Zionism. The film was a hit among the middle- to upper-class Cairenes who came to see it: the only scheduled showing quickly sold out, shocking Ramses and forcing organizers to quickly throw together two more viewings.