History of Egyptian Jews
The history of Jews in Egypt traces back to Biblical times. Israelite tribes first moved to the Land of Goshen (the northeastern edge of the Nile Delta) during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep IV or Akhenaten (1375-1358 BC). During the reign of Ramses II (1298-1232 BC), they were enslaved for the Pharaoh’s building projects. His successor, Merneptah, continued the same anti-Jewish policies, and around the year 1220 BC, the Jews revolted and escaped across the Sinai to Canaan. This is the biblical Exodus commemorated in the holiday of Passover.
From biblical times to the mid 20th century, Jews have had a presence in Egypt (check out a timeline here). Throughout their history, Egyptian Jews were significant participants in the arts. Famous dancers included the Jamal sisters and Leila Maroud was a renowned singer. There were many others who were celebrated for their talent.
However, the effects of British imperialism during the years of the Mandates (post-World War I) and the events of World War II saw a rise of Egyptian nationalism. A cultivation of anti-Western and anti-Jewish sentiment became linked to the Egyptian struggle for self-determination, and in 1945, riots erupted. During the course of the violence, 10 Jews were killed, 350 injured, and a synagogue, a Jewish hospital and an old-age home were burned down.
The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 exacerbated local anti-Jewish sentiments. 2,000 Jews were arrested and the state began confiscating Jewish property. A number of Jews were killed during the course of months of rioting, leading to an exodus of Egyptian Jews.
Today, the Egyptian Jewish community is incredibly small and almost entirely concentrated in Cairo. Nearly all the Jews are elderly, and the community is on the brink of extinction.
Read more about Egyptian Jewry here.
Jewish Egyptian Music
Hayrana Laih is an Egyptian song that was and still is popular in the Arab world, but also has connections to Jewish musical contexts and musicians. The lyrics of Hayrana Laih were written by Ahmed Rami (1892-1981), the popular Egyptian poet who was the main songwriter for Umm Kalthoum. Daoud Hosni (1870-1937), an Egyptian composer of Karaite Jewish origins composed it in 1932 for the Egyptian singer of Jewish extraction, Leila (or Layla) Mourad (1918-1995).
Read more about the Jewish influence on Egyptian music here.
Listen to audio recordings here.
The Jamal Twins
The big stars of Cairo were “The Jamal Twins,” belly dancers who introduced a new style into this ancient style of eastern dancing. The sisters, Leila and Lamia, became the foremost stars of the Egyptian entertainment world at the end of Farouk’s regime. Their audiences were always packed and the Egyptian king was one of their greatest admirers. Learn more about their story here.