Cairo Geniza: Digitizing project underway

The Cairo Geniza, with some 200,000 documents and fragments, was discovered in the late 19th-century, in Old Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue annex in Fustat.

It is a rich source of genealogical information as well as documents – from the 9th-14th centuries – which include rabbinical court records, leases, deeds, endowment contracts, debt acknowledgments, marriage contracts and private letters.

The collection demonstrates the history of Jews in the region during the Middle Ages as well as information on religious beliefs and practices, economic and cultural life.

Today, technology is making it possible for everyone to access these treasures as the collection is being digitized.

Autograph draft of Mishneh Torah, the legal code compiled by
the rabbinic authority, philosopher and royal physician
Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1137/8-1204)
MS.Heb.d.32, fols.50b-51a

Learn more here.

The project is important because pieces of the Geniza are today in many institutions; even manuscripts were separated by single leaves and located in different places, making it difficult to understand the importance or significance of the whole item.

One major collection of 25,000 items, is at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, which possesses liturgical manuscripts and rare Talmud fragments among its holdings. These are unusual because 16th-century Europe experienced mass burnings of Talmud manuscripts.

Technology contributes to the study of these fragments and major libraries are, or have completed, digitizing their collections. The goal is to generate a worldwide database of digitized images, thereby enhancing the accessibility of the various collections and bringing them together. Other institutions involved are Cambridge University, Jewish Theological Seminary, John Ryland Library and the University of Pennsylvania.

Digital communications pioneer and philanthropist George Blumenthal of New York ( president, Center for Online Jewish Studies) and donated his organization’s professional services to this project.

The ability to compare fragments in Oxford with those in Philadelphia, New York, Cambridge and Manchester will enable global scholars to access these collections and to identify matching fragments in different collections.

Cairo: Rededication, Maimonides synagogue, March 7-9

Yves Fedida of the International Nebi Daniel Association has announced the dedication of the restored Moses Maimonides (Rab Moshe) Cairo Synagogue and Yeshiva on March 7-9, in Cairo, Egypt.

The event is by invitation only. Read below to learn how to request an invitation.

See a video (9:47 minutes) on the Maimonides project and visit the association’s website, available in several languages.

Learn about the synagogues of Egypt here. To see a short video on Alexandria’s synagogues, click here. This is the El Nabi Daniel synagogue in Alexandria:

Cairo’s Rabbi Moshe complex – and another nine synagogues in Egypt – are historical heritage sites under the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Through an extensive restoration program, the Supreme Council of Antiquities – with the help of the Jewish Community of Cairo – has completed the renovation of the Maimonides complex.

The rooms have niches where, until recently, sick people of all faiths and genders would spend the night praying for recovery or fertility.

The synagogue adjacent to these rooms was built in the early 19th-century. The yeshiva suffered recurring flooding from underground water and the synagogue was badly damaged in the 1992 earthquake. The restoration has been a painstaking effort returning the compound as faithfully as possible to its original splendour .

The three-day event program includes visits to synagogues and cemeteries, music presentations, history talks, refreshments, brunches and dinners.

– Dinner in the communal centre of the main Synagogue, Shaar Hashamayim, built in the early 20th-century and faithfully restored in its rich decorations.

– Visit to Fostat (Old Cairo) where the oldest remaining synagogue in Egypt stands, believed to have been first built around 340BC.

The pre-Islamic Ben Ezra Synagogue which has also been perfectly restored was the synagogue where Rab Moshe prayed and held services as the head of the Jewish community of the time. The famous Geniza Papers were found at the Ben Ezra Synagogue and the new Geniza museum in the Ben Ezra complex has a number of reproductions of these papers.

– A visit to the also recently restored Moussa Dar’i Synagogue built by the Karaite community in the 1920s. It features Art Deco lotus flower columns and an imposing dome.

– Finally, a visit to the Jewish cemetery at Bassatine, in the southeast outskirts of Cairo, a vast site that has not been easy to maintain.

The Jewish Community of Cairo has made heroic efforts to defend it against a highway overpass and squatters’ buildings which have encroached on the territory itself. Most of the marble tombstones have been stolen in 1967 so that the majority of the tombs are today unidentifiable. However, the Cairo Community has built a perimeter wall and continues to landscape the cemetery and guard it against vandals. It maintains a list of a number of tombs that have been identified.

Events on Sunday, March 7 start at 2pm at the complex, with a presentation, Ladino music, prayer, refreshments, history of Maimonides, history of Jews in Egypt, Arabic songs and a program by the Supreme Council of Antiquities. At 6pm, attendess will have an oriental Egyptian dinner at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue.

On Monday, March 8, attend a meeting at the Ben Ezra Synagogue, a presentation on Maimonides and his letters discovered in the Genizah, and brunch, followed in the evening by a 9pm dinner reception.

On Tuesday, March 9, attendees will visit the restored Karaite Synagogue, hear the community history. There will be optional tours of other synagogues and the Bassatine Cemetery.

Attendance is by invitation only, which can be applied for from the Cairo Jewish community. Email here or here for more information.

Egypt: More Jewish restoration projects

In an article forecasting announcements of major archaeological discoveries in Egypt, mention is made of additional restoration projects for Jewish sites in that country.

The story appeared on BikyaMasr.com.

Zahi Hawass, Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities secretary general, noted that these announcements will be made over the next three months.

Most importantly for Tracing the Tribe readers, he said that Egypt is currently working on the “restoration of Jewish temples, including three temples and the restoration of five other temples would start soon.”

Other topics addressed were DNA test results on the lineage of Tutankhamun:

“Egypt will announce the secrets of the family and lineage of Tutankhamun on the 17th of February in the Egyptian Museum through the announcement of results of scientific tests conducted on the mummy of the king after the completion of DNA analysis and CT scan.”

Other announcements to be made soon will include important discoveries in the area of Saqqara and the Pyramids. Robots will be sent into the corridors of the Great Pyramid of King Khufu.

Hawass added that the Council’s work on antiquity restoration includes Pharaonic, Coptic, Jewish and Muslim within the cultural heritage of Egypt, such as the Coptic monastery of St. Anthony and restoration of Cairo’s Hanging Church.

Read the complete article for much more.

New York: Defining Sephardic identity, Jan. 14

A kick-off event exploring identity in New York’s Sephardic communities will take place at the Next Generation Culture Café of the American Sephardi Foundation (ASF) in January.

“Defining Sephardic: A Roundtable Discussion on Sephardic Identity” begins at 6.30pm, Thursday, January 14.

Moderated by filmmaker and Be-chol Lashon’s New York director Lacey Schwartz, the participants will be:

Zena Babayov: New York University master’s (communications) student and active member of the Bukharan community in Forest Hills, Queens.

Mijal Bitton: Yeshiva University/Stern College junior from Argentina and an active member of the Sephardic Community of Great Neck, Long Island.

Sion Setton: Manhattan’s Safra Synagogue director of youth programming, with Iraqi, Syrian and Egyptian heritage.

Matieu Furster: Software engineer with both Moroccan Sephardi and Russian Ashkenazi heritage.

Admission is free. Light refreshments served. Email reservations or call 212-294-8301 x8356.

This is the first event of a year-long program funded by the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation. ASF also received assistance from the Consulate General of Spain in New York.

For more information, click on the ASF site and see future events.

Washington DC: Jews of Brazil program, Oct. 20

The Library of Congress will host Daniel R. Pinto of the Embassy of Brazil for an illustrated lecture on the Jews of Brazil at noon Tuesday, October 20.

The free program is open to the public and is sponsored by the LOC’s African and Middle East Division (which incorporates the Hebraic Section) and the Hispanic Division.

Pinto was born in Rio de Janeiro to Egyptian Jewish refugees. He attended Rio’s French School and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Candido Mendes University. Prior to joining the Brazilian Foreign Service in 1999, he worked in the tourist, health care and banking industries. He has been posted at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington since 2006, and follows intellectual property and trade policy issues.

The history of the Jews in Brazil is long and complex. Jewish settlers came to Brazil in 1500, fleeing persecution in Portugal in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition. Under Dutch rule, the Jews of Brazil worked on sugar plantations and were allowed to practice their religion. They established a synagogue in Recife in 1636, the first synagogue in the Americas.

Less than two decades later Brazil fell under Portuguese rule, which caused many Jews to leave the country. Some of these refugees fled to New Amsterdam (New York), founding the first Jewish community in America in 1654.

When a Portuguese royal decree abolished discrimination against Jews in 1773, Jews began to return to Brazil. By 1920, more than 7,000 Jews lived in Brazil. More than 100,000 Jews—less than .01 percent of the population—live in Brazil today.

The program will be held in the African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) Reading Room, Room 220 of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street S.E., Washington, D.C.

Egypt: Politics of Jewish preservation

The New York Times reported on Egypt’s foray into its Jewish past.

In its “Cairo Journal” section, reporter Michael Slackman offered a different view of the ongoing renovation, restoration and preservation projects relating to Egypt’s Jewish history and community.

Slackman writes that Egyptians generally don’t make distinctions between Jewish people and Israelis. They are both seen as the enemy.

Tracing the Tribe feels that despite the politics that might be advancing these projects, the possibility that genealogical and community records may be finally made accessible to those who have been clamoring for them for decades, and the preservation of Jewish heritage, it’s all worth it.

Perhaps the true worth of these projects is not why these things in Egypt are being done – to possibly serve political ends – but the end result itself.

One could even liken it to the Prague Jewish Museum which began life as a supposed collection of artifacts representing a dead people, according to Nazis. When so much else was destroyed, that collection was preserved and commemorates a people who survived despite the tragedy and murder of millions.

However, the question also arises of what happens to these projects if Hosny is passed over as UNESCO head? Tracing the Tribe will continue to watch the situation closely.

According to the story, an Old Cairo kiosk snack-seller, Kahlid Badr, 40, whose views are pretty typical, has recently had his ideas challenged.

But Mr. Badr’s ideas have recently been challenged. He has had to confront the reality that his neighborhood was once filled with Jews — Egyptian Jews — and that his nation’s history is interwoven with Jewish history. Not far from his shop, down another narrow, winding alley once called the Alley of the Jews, the government is busy renovating an abandoned, dilapidated synagogue.

In fact, the government is not just renovating the crumbling, flooded old building. It is publicly embracing its Jewish past — not the kind of thing you ordinarily hear from Egyptian officials.

“If you don’t restore the Jewish synagogues, you lose a part of your history,” said Zahi Hawass, general secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who in the past has written negatively about Jews because of the clash between Israel and the Palestinians. “It is part of our heritage.”

Egypt has slowly, quietly been working to restore its synagogues for several years. It has completed two projects and plans to restore about eight more. But because of the perception on the street — the anger toward Israel and the deep, widespread anti-Semitism — the government initially insisted that its activities remain secret.

American Jewish Committee director of international Jewish affairs Rabbi Andrew Baker said they were told the Egyptian government was doing these things but to keep it secret. This is opposite to Eastern Europe, where the governments shout these projects aloud to try to change the old picture.

The answer is not street politics, but global politics according to Slackman, and chalks it up to the fact that Egyptian minister of culture Farouk Hosny wants to be UNESCO’s next director general. Hosney is 71, considered liberal, and has criticized women wearing head scarves. However, in 2008, he also told his local supporters that he burn any Israeli book found in the Alexandria library, even though he apologized.

After a year, work began in June 2009 inside an old synagogue around the corner from Badr’s kiosk. It is a historic place, named after Moses Maimonides (physician and scholar Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) who was born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135, and then moved to Alexandria and Cairo, working and studying in the temple until his death. Supposedly it was last used in 1960 and some say the work was ordered to quiet Hosny’s detractors.

“The irony is they have done something,” Rabbi Baker said. “It goes back at least several years now. They didn’t want to do it in a formal relationship with us. They said, ‘We accept this as our responsibility to care for our Jewish heritage, so we will do things ourselves.’”

The claim that what they are now undertaking is not for the Jews per se, but for their own heritage.

The story goes on to detail Egyptian Jewish history and the words of those who moved as young children to the neighborhood, touching on Israeli history and more. From the Jewish standpoint, there are very few Jews – Baker says fewer than 80 – left in Egypt and preservation projects are even more important.

Some area residents, says Slackman, have begun to see beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is a good thing.

Read the complete article at the link above for much more.

Egypt: Preserving Jewish heritage, records!

Tracing the Tribe has previously written about the non-profit Nebi Daniel International Association, which has struggled – since 2002 – for the preservation of Jewish cultural and religious heritage in Egypt. It is headed by co-founder Yves Fedida with offices in Malmaison, France.

A major advance in this preservation effort was made recently in Cairo on August 29, 2009, when important remarks concerning the community’s genealogical records were made by Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny.
Nebi Daniel notes the ongoing protection and restoration of 10 of the last 15 synagogues in the country, fulfilling the minister’s promises. View the website (in six languages) for much more detail, as well as the Links page for many sites of interest.

For genealogists and Egyptian Jews looking for vital records information on the community’s records, success may not be far off. According to a Nebi Daniel press release:

In June, Fedida asked Hosny for “permission to copy the civil and religious registers still kept at the Jewish Communities for genealogical research, the issuance of civil identity papers and to study this exemplary cohabitation in an Islamic country.”

The Minister replied that “it is your right and I personally agree to it.” Fedida said “this commitment, proof of your attachment to education and culture, would augur well for your election to UNESCO. 3-400,000 descendants of the 80,000 Jews from Egypt, who have rebuilt their lives in over 80 countries, will applaud this gesture.”

Most important, during a Cairo meeting on August 29, 2009, Hosny reconfirmed his promise to allow all archives and registers currently held by the Jewish communities to be copied and the copy to be deposited for free access at the Egyptian National Library. We are therefore fully confident that our objective of making these archives available to researchers worldwide will be met within the next few weeks.

Egyptian families worldwide seeking records have not been able to access those records, so this announcement is very important.

The Nebi Daniel website indicates that as part of the Ottoman Empire, the non-Moslem communities were solely responsible for maintaining civil registers recording births, deaths, marriages, divorces and conversions. in 1925, Egypt began registering the births of Egyptian citizens only. The Alexandria registers in Alexandria date to 1830 and cover a community that numbered as many as 40,000.

Today’s aging community members are the last custodians of some 255 registers containing about 60,000 pages. In Cairo, some Ashkenazi and Karaite registers have already been, lost or stolen. The registers are not related to personal property, but are extremely important for descendants of Egyptian Jews because:

They are often the only proof of Jewish identity for a Jewish marriage, determine Jewish lineage or be granted a Jewish burial, especially in the Diaspora.
In civil matters, they are used to establish civil identity related to nationality, marriage, divorce, etc.
Concerning authenticity, the current Jewish Community leaders in Alexandria and Cairo do not hold religious authority and are therefore not truly entitled to impart, on the certificates they still issue, the level of confidence required for their
legitimacy. Furthermore, there will soon be no one to offer any certification at all. – For historical and genealogical research, the Registers are a rare collection covering 150 years of the history of a thriving Jewish community.

Also during August, two of Nebi Daniel’s council members visited Cairo to see renovation work at Maimonides’ yeshiva and synagogue, at the Karaite synagogue and in the main synagogue’s interior courtyard on Adly Street.

As far back as 2006, the Ministry of Culture had confirmed renovation plans to Nebi Daniel.

In October 2007, the association’s representatives viewed the first renovations to the main Har Hashamaym synagogue on Adly Street, which also launched a permanent exhibit near the Ben Ezra synagogue demonstrating Middle Ages Jewish life in Egypt. There is a video to watch here.

Since then, renovation and infrastructure has been aimed at protecting the neighborhood from regular flood to allow reconstruction.

Cairo Jewish Community president Carmen Weinstein said, “it is a miracle that the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) have initiated such a gigantic programme to save this synagogue whilst solving the underground water problem.”

To see a video and photos demonstrating the renovation work as of the end of August, click here.

For more information and photos, visit the Nebi Daniel website