“Eggplant, fresh almond, onion, mulukhiyya, starch, cucumber, eggs, apple, herbs, and meat.” I could have easily confused this for my Egyptian grandmother’s grocery list, or for an inventory of my fridge. Except this particular list is not from the 21st century, or even the 20th century. Rather, it’s from Cairo, dated May 1042 CE — and it’s written not in Egyptian Arabic, as identical lists by my family might have been, but in Judeo-Arabic.
I vividly remember the first time I came across this list on the Princeton Geniza Lab’s Twitter page in late 2021; it shook my world. I kept staring at it and thinking, “could this really be a Jewish artifact?” It was so… Egyptian.
At that point I was well on my way to converting, studying with my rabbi and set on someday becoming a Jew. But until then, my Judaism existed in a separate sphere from my Egyptian identity. It seemed natural to me that these two seemingly antinomical things would forever reside parallel to one another, never intersecting. From the Passover story to the liturgy, the Egyptian and the Jew are set up as polar opposites. And with the current state of Egyptian Jewry —a direct product of antisemitic laws enacted in the ‘40s by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government — I had been left longing for a connection, but also resigned to the fact that I simply would not find one. (Egypt now has merely two known Jews left, a pervasive sense of antisemitism in public spheres and a limited if not restricted access to synagogues.) I couldn’t imagine an Egypt, or a mode of being Egyptian, in which the magnificent Eliyahu HaNavi synagogue on Nabi Daniel street in Alexandria did not stand empty, long void of a minyan.
I was fully aware of the golden days of Egyptian Jewry, of the days of Maimonides and of a vibrant population engaging in quotidian Egyptian life. But, it wasn’t until I stumbled on the Geniza Lab Twitter page that I got my first glimpse of the enduring reality I share with Egyptian Jews.
If you’ve never heard of it, the Cairo Geniza Lab is a project at Princeton University that digitizes and publicizes the findings of the Cairo Geniza, a storehouse filled with thousands of Jewish manuscripts. The Geniza, which was discovered in the 18th century, contains everything ranging from marriage contracts to angry letters to, as you’ve seen, grocery lists.
I could always name some famous Egyptian Jews (I use the term loosely, as ideas of nationhood have changed across time) off the top of my head. Figures like Elias Moadab and Leila Mourad are quick to come up. But I could not imagine the life of an average Egyptian Jew. And what struck me through reading the tweets of documents found in the Geniza is that I didn’t need to imagine as much as I thought I did. I was going through my day very similarly to the ways that an Egyptian Jew living there once would have.
Reading that grocery list, I could imagine what came next: the way some Egyptian Jew would wash, de-stem and re-wash the mulukhiyya leaves, then aggressively chop them into fine pieces with a makhrata and turn them into a soup. I could see this person cutting up and frying the eggplants and serving them at breakfast, or baking and puréeing them to make a baba ghanoush-like dip. Now, the simple action of buying mulukhiyya became a way in which I could casually express my Jewish identity (though I doubt a Jew from the 11th century was buying it frozen). Standing there in the frozen veggies section of my local Middle Eastern food store, I could think of the grocery list and feel connected to this centuries-old Egypt that I longed for.
And it is that continuity, or the feeling of it at least, that I needed in order to cement myself into Jewish life. As a convert, I felt transplanted. I loved Judaism and the community I had entered, but I had nothing to look back to, no shared memory that I could relate to. This ubiquitous conversion experience, in Judaism and other religious traditions, is further exacerbated by the very simple, but heavy, fact that I barely came directly into contact with non-Ashkenazi traditions. As beautiful as all the Ashkenazi traditions that I have learned to love are, I always felt like I had to leave my Egyptian-ness at the door when entering Jewish spaces, and vice versa when entering Egyptian spaces.
Scrolling through the Twitter page, I could see myself written all over it — and, more than myself, I could also see centuries of Egyptian Jews, engaging in and leaving their mark on Egyptian society. This is not to say that the painful recent history of Egyptian Jewry is now erased from my conception of what it means to be an Egyptian convert. But it means that I can now see it as part of the story, not the only story. By making the findings of the Cairo Geniza accessible to the public, the Geniza Lab has given me a home for both my Jewish and Egyptian identities, a place where I can stand with these two beautiful pieces of myself that I hold so dear. The thought of losing such a space to the seemingly imminent collapse of Twitter breaks my heart. For although I can always access the documents through the lab’s website, the daily tweets give me a sense of immediacy — like somehow these tweets are all being written by the Egyptian Jews of the past, present and future.
But for now, I will cherish the time I have left with the Geniza Lab Twitter. As much sorrow as the current chapter of Egyptian Jewry brings to my heart, I have found comfort in the traditions the Twitter page has allowed me to witness, traditions I will now try to embody as a Jewish convert connected to Egyptian life. Maybe it is time I start signing off on things in classic Jewish-Egyptian fashion.
ברחמת אללה וبركاته (with God’s mercy and blessings)