About a year ago, my friend Judy recommended a book to me, which I finally got around to reading. It is the story of an Egyptian Jewish family forced to leave their, multi-generational, extremely comfortable life in Egypt when Nassar came to power. (One family among the thousands of Jewish refugees from Moslem countries who are never mentioned because the world-wide Jewish community took responsibility to resettle them rather than move them to camps where they could be kept in abject poverty and taught terrorism skills.) For most of the book the story gave intriguing, though sometimes disturbing, insights into a culture that was tremendously different from the one in which I was raised, despite that fact that on the surface both were observant Jewish families.
Over the centuries, Jews have been scattered to the four corners of the earth. While some communities shrivel or vanish through assimilation, expulsion or murder, the survivors who move on to new places bring with them myriad cultural nuances. If they stay faithful to the Torah (which unfortunately most do not), core observances remain, but with ‘twists’. While you would get kosher food whether you dined with a family whose roots over the past centuries were in Hungary, Egypt or India, the dishes at the Shabbat table would be completely different. The types of meat or fish featured, whether the dishes are spiced with paprika or cardamom and many rituals would reflect the family’s background. While everyone would know Hebrew prayers, the conversational language of the immigrant generation might be Yiddish or Ladino, Arabic or Farsi. Strikingly, each community’s religious values and social ethics would be a conglomeration of Torah-directed conduct intertwined with, and frequently distorted by, their host country’s general culture. Since the protagonists of my book immigrated to New York, a city where most previous refugees had been from Europe, they were a minority within a minority.
I had quite a shock when the author, a child at the time the family fled Egypt, spoke about the neighborhood to which her family relocated. The street names, train stations and landmarks were all very familiar. It turns out that we grew up a few blocks from each other. Since feet and buses were the main forms of transportation, we likely passed each other more than once. She even went to the same high school as my best friend.
Not only did we not meet, but I was never aware that there was a community of Egyptian Jewish refugees in the neighborhood. I had Italian-Catholic friends and Jewish friends of all levels of observance including those whose parents had come from Syria, but somehow this author’s family and compatriots’ journey never registered. It was quite an uncomfortable discovery to realize that I was completely blind to an entire group living –and struggling- so near to me.
So often, we, as individuals, as a nation, as human beings, step forward to help victims of natural disasters, terrorism or illness. But the prerequisite to helping is awareness. Some people or events get a great deal of publicity, and good people respond. But this book reminded me that there are always those in our immediate vicinity whose travails don’t have the numbers or timing or ‘allure’ that forces their plight to our attention. They may suffer no less than others, but the onus is on us to search for them rather than wait for them to be thrust upon us as they make headline news.