Sunday, May 5, 2013

Carmen's passing

It's been three weeks since Carmen Weinstein passed away in Cairo, but I wanted to add a few thoughts to the outpouring of articles in the wake of her death.

Carmen led the Jewish community of Cairo for much of the last decade, after taking over from her mother, the first female leader of the Cairene Jews. She fought to keep Egyptian Jewish artifacts in Egypt, arguing they were part of Egypt's heritage and could not be shipped abroad like Egyptian Jewish diaspora groups desired. She had a tough exterior and could be difficult to work with, which I'm sure is a byproduct of years of taking on both the Egyptian government and those diaspora groups, as well as dealing with widespread anti-Semitism in Egypt.

I spoke with Carmen during the many celebrations and services I attended with the Cairo Jewish community, from a Passover seder in 2010 to a Chanukah dinner in December. I believe I was the last reporter to interview her, when she told me just five months before her death that she had no clear successor. She was 82 years old when she passed away, and Cairo's Jewish community consists almost entirely of elderly Jewish women—about 50 in total, Carmen told me in December.

But one woman has stepped up: Magda Haroun, who sometimes attended community celebrations with her sister Nadia, both around 60 years old (I think). Maggie has been quite outspoken so far—even before Carmen's passing, around the beginning of this year, Maggie appeared on a panel on an Egyptian TV talk show (Arabic) to discuss Egyptian Jewry—but has mirrored Carmen's convictions. “My goal is to preserve the cultural heritage of the Egyptian Jews so that when we are gone, it will endure, because it belongs to all Egyptians,” Maggie told the Daily News Egypt, an English-language Egyptian paper. She has said that the community may actually be much smaller, an assessment that I think is probably accurate.

Carmen fought for years to prevent Cairo's Jewish cemetery from falling to ruins and squatters, and photos from her funeral show the difficulty of that battle. She was buried surrounded by squalor; my good friend Robin attended the ceremony, took photos and wrote about it on her blog. The funeral was a media circus, which is ironic since Carmen hated journalists.

When Carmen died on the early morning of Saturday, April 13, a friend of mine in Egypt got a call to help perform burial customs. A Jewish expat in Cairo with no experience caring for dead bodies, he relied on a manual he found online that was published in Brooklyn by a "chevre kadisha," or "holy society" that watches over and cares for the bodies of deceased Jews. With no Cairene Jews left to perform the rites, he spent hours at the Italian Hospital in Cairo washing, purifying and dressing the body. Despite the Jewish custom of burying the body quickly, the burial took place five days later, as foreign guests flew in and Carmen's successor was chosen. As always, the community's resourcefulness carried it through another major event, just as Carmen had presided over celebrations and services through a popular uprising and constant civil unrest.

For more, I highly recommend this piece (link goes to Google results because of Wall Street Journal paywall) by Lucette Lagnado, the author of an excellent memoir about her family's expulsion from Cairo, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.