Book Review: Crossing Cairo

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Crossing Cairo is a fascinating and useful read for potential travelers to the region, armchair adventurers and also for those who contemplate the lessons of personal experience and history.

The book is a memoir of the 2006 six-month stay in Egypt of a Jewish couple and their children, aged 12 and 17.

As the author, Rabbi Ruth Sohn, pointed out in her prologue, 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt in the early 1940s, and today, there are barely any remaining Jewish Egyptian citizens. She finds them though, and introduces us to their story and takes us to what remains of Jewish sacred spaces.

She also makes interesting connections with local Muslims and other groups, and so is able to give us a window into the daily lives of those with cultural norms quite different to those of the West.

More after the jump.
Both the author and her husband are rabbis. Rabbi Sohn’s husband specializes in “explaining Islam to Jews and Jewish communities,” so the trip comes about through his needs and contacts.

While the children attend the American International School, we primarily hear Rabbi Ruth Sohn’s own adventures in the neighborhood and shops, and benefit from her open ways of getting to know the locals and appreciate the cultural differences between Egypt and America.

Honest, well-written reporting prevails in the book. We learn of her fears, friendships, mishaps and cultural missteps and discoveries.

This approach affords legitimate reader anticipation: Will Sohn’s fears, or her hopes, about Egyptian life and culture prove true? Will her natural openness prove sustainable? Will it be safe to tell people that the family is Jewish — let alone with two rabbis? What major cultural differences will emerge? What will healthcare be like? Transportation? Food? Employer-employee relationships? Will they be welcome? Might they leave prematurely?  

“It’s all about relationships, here in Egypt.” Kathy had commented the first time we got together…

There was even a culture around extending greetings to people. Anyone you passed on the street or saw in a shop, if you saw them on a semi-regular basis, you were expected to acknowledge with a greeting, even if you did not know their name. This was a real greeting, not just a nod, or a smile, or a casual hello…

when I asked someone on the street for directions, the person would start to explain  and then pause and say, “Come, I will show you.” And then walk me to my destination…

As I was soon to discover, the culture of helpfulness also had its downside. That is, the obligation to be helpful is so strong in Arab culture that one is expected to never respond to a request for help by saying no, or even “I don’t know.” It was considered far better to try to help, than not to try at all.”

Open discussion by locals about government corruption in front of Sohn is taken as a sign of acceptance, and a warning of what she might expect.

After 1000 people drown in a ferry incident, she notes that “when it became clear the ship was going to sink, it was the captain who was the first to leave and the crew ‘jumped ship’ in the lifeboats, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves.”

We get to meet many local characters through Sohn’s ability to cultivate close relationships and confidences, including Musheera, a Muslim who grew up in Tunisia and is married to a Jew.

They were bringing up their two children as Jews, they said, although they celebrated the holidays of both religions at home…

Musheera explained how she had really looked forward to moving to Cairo… but she was deeply disappointed. “Egypt is a far cry from a cosmopolitan society,” she said, shaking her head. “It may have been once, but it is the opposite today…

People here are very close-minded and inflexible, even though they are warm and friendly when you first meet them…

You don’t know what they really think… [Musheera] recalled an incident where someone actually stabbed a man and woman who were kissing in public. I am really scared sometimes that as a Muslim woman married to a Jew, I could end up the victim of such an attack…

Rabbi Sohn gives a vibrant accounting of the history of the Jews of Egypt within only a few pages:

The downturn in prospects for Egyptian Jews seems to begin when the Muslim Brotherhood is founded in Egypt in 1928. Anti-Zionist demonstrations are held in Cairo and Alexandria then, in April and May of 1938, with marchers shouting, “Throw the Jews out of Egypt and Palestine.”

By the late 1930s, the leaders of the Brotherhood and the nationalist group, “Young Egypt,” had adopted the antisemitic rhetoric of Hitler and his followers, claiming, for example, that the major political and social problems of the Muslim world were the result of a Jewish conspiracy.

Despite the intent of Egypt’s Jews to remain, it increasingly became impossible due to arrests, freezing of Jewish assets, expulsions with documents marked in Arabic “one way-no return,” blacklisting of Jewish businesses and accusations of espionage, torture, and two Jews condemned to execution, and others to long prison terms.

Then we learn that:

Legislation was passed in 1956 that enabled the government to deny Egyptian citizenship to people classified as Zionists; by 1958, the language of the new laws and speeches of government officials no longer distinguished between “Zionist” and “Jew”… within a few months, 14,000 Jews left Egypt.

Rabbi Sohn honestly reveals how easily she came to off-base assumptions about locals when in early arrival, or tourist, mode. Her shifts in perspective are sometimes in appreciation and sometimes in distress of what the probable truth of local views on matters economic, American, Israeli, Jewish, and governmental might be.

Sohn does some very inspiring acts to help those she meets along the way, without regard to religion, race, creed, gender or color. She also uses humor to good effect.

In Crossing Cairo, Sohn demonstrates how extended exposure to the people and practices of a culture may lead to significantly different interpretations of their comments and behaviors.  

“36 Letters, One Family’s Story” by Joan Sohn

— Book review by Ben Burrows

It was a chilly windy Sunday. My wife and I had just spent four hours on the top two floors of the new National Museum of Jewish American History on Independence Mall, reviewing artifacts like a deerskin frontier Torah, relearning timelines of Jewish settlement in Philadelphia, New Orleans, South Carolina and Florida. It was a lot of material to take in and to keep straight. It was in some ways a relief to drive down towards the Franklin Parkway, to attend the book launch I had committed to review for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, for a very different and much more personal sort of history, at The Jewish Publication Society.

Joan SohnJust finding a place to sit down was something of a relief. Rabbi Barry Schwartz of The Jewish Publication Society, which published Joan Sohn’s 36 Letters, One Family’s Story, gave a brief introduction to JPS’s decision to publish this family history. Rabbi Andrea Merow, currently of Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, spoke of Temple Sholom’s involvement with the Korman family where she had earlier held the pulpit, and the dedication of its chapel to Sohn’s great-grandfather Rabbi Binyamin Korman. She spoke of her friendship with Sohn and her encouragement for elaborating the family story.

Then Joan Sohn herself was introduced, to present a brief outline of her delightful, focused yet whimsical history of her grandparents’ romance — of their immigration estrangement while Chaim came to New York, and of Yente’s arrival to live first with her uncle’s Philadelphia family, and of their joyous reunion and marriage when Chaim came from New York and established
himself in the community.

More after the jump.
But a publication launch, even with personal conversations with the relatives who knew the couple Yetta and Hyman as the matriarch and patriarch of their family, is not enough to communicate the warmth and love, the schmaltz, the krupnik and kugel recipes, the sheer passion of two Jews, each the children of classical Jewish scholars, who chanced to meet, who fell in love, who convinced their families to approve a long-distance match. Unlike my experience at the museum, where we hurried through two floors of American Jewish history in four hours, 36 Letters is a book to linger over, which I read eagerly for almost three weeks, despite its length, just under 120 pages.

At the most fundamental level, this is a story of discovery. As Sohn explains in her introduction, her parents (Sarah and Barney Moss) went to organize family items from Hyman Korman’s apartment, when he passed away in 1970. At the time, a box of portraits, documents and letters were packed away for her Uncle Sam, but remained at the Moss home unopened. Then, in 1996, Sam Korman too passed away. It was then that Sohn was invited to look through the materials for her own family keepsakes. Looking at the portraits, she was able to guess that the photographs were those of her grandparents.

Curious about the letters, she asked her parents, to see if they knew what they were about, but they were unfamiliar. Apparently, Hyman had never explained their significance. A family friend, Elyce Teitleman, located a translator, Mark Alsher, and Sohn’s parents underwrote the translation which began Sohn’s journey.


What she found was so much more than the photographs and letters. What she found was the autobiographical love story of the author’s grandparents, and it reads well – with aching absence, with a parting for the New World, with the delight of recognition and caring, with the anticipation of reunion, with the consummation, and the success of a life’s work together. On quite another level, this is a love story of the author, rediscovering her grandparents as young adults, and falling in love with them as valued friends. On still another level, it is a self-discovery by Joan Sohn, moved now from Melrose Park to Toronto, of how much she shared with her grandparents, and yet how different their experiences, in their very different migrations.

Sohn does not hesitate to give the reader background, from world history, from family history, from family recipes, in prefaces, in footnotes, in illustrations, in marginal notes. The experience of reading this book brought me back to my experience reading Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice – one of the favorite texts of my young adulthood — where an apparently simple children’s story was revealed for its complex secrets and internal references. Sohn has provided the same sort of illustrations, annotations, and background, lovingly compiled for the reader to understand the world of 1905, and the burgeoning universe that opened for Hyman and Yetta in the wonderland of the New World. I can only hope that you will linger as I did, and make friends with Joan Sohn’s grandparents, and share their love and their success.

All photographs, courtesy of Joan Sohn, with permission.