Converting the Jews of Cairo

A few years ago I cam across 6 full years (1905-1910) of a mysterious magazine called “Jewish Missionary Intelligence” in the Oxfam in Cambridge. It was published by the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews.

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It was the in house journal of the society that worked across the world trying to convert Jews to Christianity. The magazine was primarily intended to show the readers the good work and successes that the Christians were having among the Jews. However, the were also sympathetic to the plights of the Jews in a way not directly connected to proselytising. They spoke out against Pogroms in Eastern Europe and were very supportive of the Jewish refugees to the UK. One of the priests in 1905 contributed this poem in support of the refugees.

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Perhaps the most interesting thing is that these journals are a fascinating document of early 20th century Jewish communities. These diligent Christians traveled the world from Hull to Montreal and Iran to Abyssinia looking for Jews to convert and wrote details reports of it all. Here are some photos from Aleppo:

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There were also pictures from Ethiopia, Istanbul and Damascus and many, many other places:

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The most surprising one for me was the picture of a Rabbi of Tokyo, who the society members met in a Jerusalem hospital. This man was “four years the Rabbi [in Tokyo], and speaks highly of the conduct of the Japanese to the Jews, who have a large and flourishing community in Tokio [sic]”.

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Among their activities throughout the world, in 1906 they set up an office in Cairo and it is their activities there that I want to look at in detail.

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Rev C. E. Thomas along with his assistant, a Jewish convert to Christianity (or a Hebrew Christian as the society calls them) Nessim Eskenazi, spent most of his time distributing literature from their storehouse near the historically Jewish area of the Mouski and discussing the gospels. Sometimes he would make visits to Jews around Cairo and Egypt to tell them the Good News. In one article he sums up his day to day activities:

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The style of the writing and the need to impress the readership of the journal (partly to get new donations) means that C. E. Thomas needs to play up his activities. He often sends notices saying how many people are coming and how their relationships with the Jewish community are good. They seem to mention every successful interaction they have. There is, however, not a huge amount of evidence that they made much progress. In the whole 5 years that Thomas was reporting to them they only managed to baptise one Jew into the Christian faith.

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In fact, there is evidence that some people did not receive them well. In one mission to Old Cairo, the hard working colporteur Nassim Eskenazi was attacked. “Whilst speaking to the Jews in front of the synagogue they attacked him with stones, and hurt him so much that he was very unwell for several days afterward.”

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Punctuating the stories of success are occasional admissions that some people were not that keen to hear their message. Though, in this case the story seems only included to show an illogical opposition to their project.

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One of their major successes seems to have come from a somewhat dubious deathbed conversion (what deathbed conversion isn’t dubious?). Nessim Eskenazi (who does so much of the leg work) goes to visit a sick Jew. The man asks him what the Lord’s Prayer is and he prays with the weak man to show him. Ten minutes later he dies. This is, I suppose a victory.

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Thomas is happy to inform the readers afterwards that the father of the sick man had gone to talk to them. FullSizeRender (12)

In the interstices of their reports on religious mission we can catch some glimpses of some extremely interesting social history of the Jewish community in early 20th century Cairo.

Firstly, the diversity of the Jews in Cairo at the time was astounding. In their quest Thomas and Eskenazi use a huge number of different languages: Arabic, Yiddish, Spanish, French, English, Turkish, (written) Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish and maybe more.

When Thomas talks about the people he is dealing with, we can see that they come from across the world.

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The entries also hint at the existence of some even more interesting sources. They seem to have been extremely diligent record keepers and recorded all the of the people who came to their depot and took their literature. They possibly kept much more. Although filtered through the perspective of their Society, it must be a rich resource.

I will leave the final word to C.E. Thomas who left Cairo at the end of 1910 but gives us a summary of the work he accomplished.

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