Tag Archives: Egyptian Jews

Jew of the Week: Mirra Alfassa

Alfassa and her symbol

Alfassa and her symbol

Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973) was born in Paris to a Turkish-Jewish father and Egyptian-Jewish mother. Growing up in a wealthy Sephardic home, she was exposed to a great deal of spiritual teachings, art, and her father’s vast library – which she had read entirely by age 14. After studying art at the prestigious Académie Julian, she found success as a painter and artist, collaborating with such greats as Matisse, Rodin, and Zola. After ten years of this, Alfassa wished to pursue her spiritual inclinations and found her way to a Polish Jew in Algeria who led a Kabbalah-based mystical circle. In 1908, she established her own mystical circle in Paris, fusing together esoteric Jewish teachings with those of Buddhism and Hinduism. In 1914, she moved to Pondicherry, India – then a French colony – where her second husband was seeking election to the senate. There, Alfassa met a yogi named Sri Aurobindo and became his devoted follower. For the next six years (four of which were spent in Japan), she and her husband published a regular journal of Aurobindo’s teachings. Eventually, the couple divorced, and Alfassa moved to Aurobindo’s house. Aurobindo soon recognized Alfassa as his spiritual equal, and titled her “the Mother” – an incarnation of the cosmic “Divine Mother” of the universe. Alfassa and Aurobindo started teaching together and attracted many followers. The house soon transformed into an ashram. By 1937, their ashram had grown so much that Alfassa commissioned the construction of a new community. This community would draw many, including the daughter of US President Woodrow Wilson, who stayed there for the rest of her life. During World War II, while many in India supported Nazi Germany (in order to overthrow their British rulers), Aurobindo and Alfassa worked hard to support the Allied Forces, and donated much of their funds for the war effort. In 1943, Alfassa founded a new school, which later became the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. After Aurobindo’s death in 1950, Alfassa became the sole leader of the movement, and a prominent holy figure in India. In 1956, she established another ashram and school in Delhi, and did the same in Gujarat in 1967. Meanwhile, a popular 13-volume book of her life and teachings was published (now expanded to 17 volumes).

Matrimandir

Perhaps her greatest legacy is Auroville, a city-state she founded in 1968 near Pondicherry. Auroville was meant to be a model community for the whole world, where all people regardless of background could live in total harmony, spirituality, and peace. Delegates from 124 nations attended the inauguration ceremony. Today, Auroville has over 2500 permanent residents from some 50 countries. A self-sustaining community, it has its own institutions, including farms, schools, and restaurants (one of which is an Israeli cafe – closed on Shabbat, of course). The city’s centrepiece is the beautiful Matrimandir, the solar-powered “Mother Temple”, designed in the form of a famous golden vision once seen by Alfassa, who is still known affectionately as “the Mother”.

Words of the Week

The most important thing for an individual is to unify himself around his divine centre; in that way he becomes a true individual, master of himself and his destiny. Otherwise, he is a plaything of forces that toss him about like a piece of cork on a river…
– Mirra Alfassa, “the Mother”

Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo

Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo

Jew of the Week: Yolande Harmor

Yolande Harmor

Yolande Harmor

Yolande Gabbai Harmor (1913-1959) was born in Alexandria, Egypt. She went to school in France and returned to Egypt at 17 to get married. Working as a journalist, she soon became a noted writer in Egypt, as well as a popular socialite and member of Egypt’s “high society”. Meanwhile, Harmor was also drawn to Cairo’s Zionist circles. In 1945, she was recruited by the Jewish Agency and became a secret agent, gathering intelligence about Egypt’s royalty and politicians. She was able to get close to people like the Grand Mufti of Cairo, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Egypt’s King Farouk himself. Her intelligence reports included detailed accounts of Arab military plans and troop numbers, giving the nascent Israeli state critical information to win the War of Independence. In July of 1948, Harmor’s cover was blown and she was arrested. However, as a favourite of some of Egypt’s most powerful people (many of whom had fallen in love with her), she was dealt with fairly lightly. After a few months, it became apparent that Harmor had developed stomach cancer. She was released from prison and deported out of Egypt. Harmor moved to Paris, and served on Israel’s UN delegation, and then for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Throughout this time, she continued to use her sources in Egypt to secure key intelligence information. In 1951, Harmor finally settled in Israel. Unfortunately, her efforts for the State of Israel were soon forgotten. Saddened, and further weakened by the passing of her beloved second husband, Harmor succumbed to her cancer at the young age of 46. In recent years, her incredible story has come to light once again. The city of Jerusalem established ‘Yolande Harmor Square’ in 1997, and a documentary film about her life was released in 2010.

Words of the Week

The Jews have been objects of hatred in pagan, religious, and secular societies. Fascists have accused them of being Communists, and Communists have branded them capitalists. Jews who live in non-Jewish societies have been accused of having dual loyalties, while Jews who live in the Jewish state have been condemned as ‘racists’. Poor Jews are bullied, and rich Jews are resented. Jews have been branded as both rootless cosmopolitans and ethnic chauvinists. Jews who assimilate have been called a ‘fifth column’, while those who stay together spark hatred for remaining separate…
Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, ‘Why The Jews?’