Seder marks ‘Second Exodus

Gilbert Bar-On of the Goshen organization carries around a tray of traditional Passover symbols during an early Passover seder in Haifa, for Jews who have left Egypt. (Brenda Gazzar)

Gilbert Bar-On of the Goshen organization carries around a tray of traditional Passover symbols during an early Passover seder in Haifa, for Jews who have left Egypt. (Brenda Gazzar)

HAIFA (JTA) — In this mixed Jewish-Arab city, some 50 voices rise up in chorus to sing the familiar Passover chant, “As if we left Egypt.”But for this group of mostly elderly Israelis, the prayer — at an early holiday seder — is sung with grins of unmistakable irony.”We are the authentic ones,” says professor Ada Aharoni, 73, who was born in Egypt and left for Israel at age 16. “We really got out.”The pre-Passover seder for Israeli Jews from Egypt is an annual tradition here. It’s organized by a group of ex-Egyptian Jews called “Goshen,” after the Biblical name for the region of ancient Egypt where Jews lived. The seder, scheduled before the actual holiday to avoid conflicts with family gatherings, offers an opportunity for old friends to reunite, eat their favorite Egyptian Passover foods and relive fading memories from their native Cairo and Alexandria.While Jews all over the world commemorate their ancestors’ exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery more than 3,000 years ago, Passover has a special significance for Jews that left Egypt in recent decades — mainly due to anti-Jewish agitation after the founding of the State of Israel.”I am very proud to be part of the ‛Second Exodus,’ ” Allegra Mizrahi, 74, a Goshen board member and editor of the group’s annual journal, says at the March 17 seder. “It’s not the same Egypt today. It’s not the same people. At the time, when we lived in Egypt, we were loved and appreciated by the people.”An estimated 35,000-50,000 Jews immigrated to the Jewish state from Egypt after Israel’s creation. Many were expelled or pressured to leave, abandoning their possessions, after Egypt’s wars with Israel in 1948, 1956 and 1967. Fewer than 100 Jews remain in Egypt today. Speaking a mixture of French, Hebrew and Arabic, Aharoni and Mizrahi feast with friends not only on traditional matzah, maror and carpas, but also stuffed grape leaves; charoset made of dates, raisins and nuts; and “mayina,” a baked matzah casserole stuffed with ground beef and onions or spinach.For Aharoni, the annual seder is a chance to hear distinctive Passover tunes her father used to sing, and eat Passover foods her mother baked for her while growing up in Cairo.”It was a lovely mayina,” Aharoni says of her mother’s casserole. “I make it for my children.”The seder also brings back other memories of her childhood. As a young girl, she remembers asking family members why they were thanking God for delivering them from Egypt when they were still, in fact, living in Egypt.Her grandmother would reply, “God is sometimes late but he never forgets and he will take us out of Egypt.” Indeed, Aharoni quips, her grandmother was right.For Aharoni, who says relations between Jews and Arabs in Egypt were quite good until 1948, being a part of the “Second Exodus” is historic since it continues the Jewish narrative from the Bible. Her family left Egypt after her father, who imported and exported grain, had his work permit taken away in 1949 with the enactment of anti-Jewish legislation.Immigrating to Israel felt like “for the first time, we have a home,” she says. “Here they will not tell us to go away.”Other Egyptian Jewish organizations in Israel also allow the community to connect and preserve its rich historical and cultural heritage. While some Jews from Egypt can trace their roots back over 1,000 years, most arrived there from various European and Middle Eastern countries in recent centuries. Many are well educated and speak a number of languages.In a custom maintained from their native country, members of the Tel-Aviv based Union of Jews from Egypt plan to meet March 26 to raise a Passover toastIt’s not easy maintaining some of the old traditions, says Sara Rossano, the union’s director-general.Jews from Egypt have the ability to integrate well into any society, Rossano says, “but in the process we lose traditions.”She partly blames herself, saying she never found it interesting to tell her children of her life and history in Egypt. Today, as her grandchildren begin to take an interest in her past, she gladly tells them.In addition, about 350 delegates from the World Congress of Jews from Egypt gathered in Haifa last July. Delegates called for the establishment of a museum about Egyptian Jewry — possibly in Haifa — and are encouraging the introduction of the community’s history, literature and culture into schools in Israel and abroad, says Aharoni, who also is the congress’ president.Delegates are collecting personal stories to publish a comprehensive oral history called the “Golden Book of the Jews from Egypt” in English, Hebrew and French.”In a couple of years we won’t be here anymore, and we’ll take our history with us,” Aharoni says.

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