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

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.