Tag Archives: Egyptian Jews

Jew of the Week: Ahmed Zayat

Ahmed Zayat holding the trophy at the 2015 Preakness Stakes

Ahmed Zayat holding the trophy at the 2015 Preakness Stakes

Ephraim Ahmed Zayat (b. 1962) was born in Cairo to a wealthy Orthodox Jewish-Egyptian family. His father was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s personal doctor. Zayat studied in the US at Yeshiva University, and then at Boston University, where he got his Master’s in business and health. He then spent some time as a real estate investor in New York (working for past Jew of the Week Zev Wolfson), before returning to Egypt to run Al-Ahram Beverages. Zayat turned the company into a huge success, particularly through its popular alcohol-free halal beer catered to the Muslim world. He sold Al-Ahram to Heineken in 2002 for triple the original price, making it the largest buyout in Egypt’s history. Zayat then turned his attention to horse racing. He first learned to ride horses as a child growing up in Egypt, and had competed in various show jumping tournaments, winning a couple of national titles. Zayat soon started his new company, Zayat Stables, to breed his own race horses. His horses have gone on to win two dozen prestigious competitions. At one point, he was America’s number one race horse owner. Most recently, his horse American Pharoah made history by winning the Triple Crown – one of just 12 horses to do so, and the first since 1978. Before the final race, Zayat had American Pharoah’s jockey Victor Espinoza visit the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to pray for success. Zayat still has big investments all over the world, including being the main shareholder in Egypt’s largest glass container manufacturer. He is also a noted philanthropist, donating large sums to various important causes, including Jewish schools.

Words of the Week

From the time that God said to our forefather Abraham, “Go from your land…” and “Abraham went on, journeying southward,” began the process of birurim – of extracting the sparks of holiness that are scattered throughout the universe and buried within the material existence… By Divine providence, a person wanders about in his travels to those places where the sparks that are to be extracted by him await their redemption…
– Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch

Jew of the Week: Isaac Herzog

Isaac Herzog

Isaac Herzog

Yitzhak Herzog (b. 1960) was born in Tel Aviv to a father from Ireland and mother from Egypt. His grandfather was once the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel between 1936 and 1959. His uncle was the great Israeli politician Abba Eban. Meanwhile, Herzog’s father was an IDF general who also served as Israel’s sixth president between 1983 and 1993, as well as Israel’s Representative to the U.N. During his term in the latter position, the family lived in New York, where Isaac went to the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Ramaz school. Herzog also studied at Cornell, New York University, and Tel Aviv University. During his army service, he was an intelligence officer with Unit 8200, the IDF’s largest unit, often compared to the American NSA. Herzog continues to serve in the military as a reservist. After completing his education, he worked in his father’s law firm. His first foray into politics was as a secretary in Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s cabinet between 1999 and 2001. He then chaired Israel’s Anti-Drug Authority until 2003, when he won a seat in the Knesset and was appointed Minister of Housing and Building. Since then, he has held a number of other ministerial posts, including Minister of Tourism, Social Affairs, Diaspora, and Welfare & Social Services. In 2013, he was elected leader of the Labor Party and thus became Leader of the Opposition. One of his first moves was meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and announcing his support for a two-state solution. For yesterday’s elections, Herzog joined his party with Tzipi Livni’s ‘Hatnua’ to form the ‘Zionist Union’. Though hailed by many as being the clear favourite in the elections and unseating Netanyahu, the Zionist Union ended up winning only 24 seats to Likud’s impressive 30. Herzog has stated that he will not be part of the coalition government, and will continue as Leader of the Opposition.

UPDATE: After serving as the head of the Jewish Agency, Herzog became President of Israel in July 2021.

Words of the Week

I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.
– Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Jew of the Week: Saadia Gaon

Depiction of the Sura Academy

Depiction of the Sura Academy

Sa’adiah ben Yosef (c. 882-942) was born in Fayum, Egypt. His family moved to Israel while he was still very young, and he began his Torah studies at the famous academy of Tiberias. By the time he was 20, he completed his first work, Agron, possibly the first official Hebrew dictionary. Sa’adiah went on to write over two dozen significant texts in both Hebrew and Arabic, including Emunot v’Deot, thought to be the first Jewish work that blended Jewish teachings with science and Greek philosophy. He also translated the entire Torah into Arabic, and wrote a deep commentary on top of it, together with many other books of the Bible. At the time, the vast majority of Jews in the world lived in Arabic lands, so this translation served a monumental role in helping spread Jewish learning. Sa’adiah also authored a number of legal treatises, and translated the mystical Sefer Yetzirah into Arabic, adding his own commentaries that weaved together both esoteric and scientific explanations. Sa’adiah is credited with being a key force in Judeo-Arabic culture, and inspiring a “renaissance” in Jewish-Arabic literature. Meanwhile, he played an instrumental role in defending traditional Judaism in the face of the rising Karaite sect, a cause he fought for until his last days (at times risking his life). For his great wisdom and tireless work on behalf of the Jewish community, Sa’adiah was appointed “Gaon” in 928. The title Gaon (literally “genius”) was given to the head of the Sura Academy, then the leading body of Jewish scholarship in the world. Sa’adiah Gaon died in Baghdad at the age of 60, having inspired a new generation of Torah scholars. Two hundred years later, the great Maimonides wrote: “Were it not for Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, the Torah would have almost disappeared from the Jewish people, for it was he who shed light on that which was obscure, strengthened that which had been weakened, and spread the Torah far and wide, by word of mouth and in writing.”

Words of the Week

The birds and many of the land animals forbidden [to eat] by the Torah are predators, while the permitted animals are not. We are commanded not to eat those animals possessive of a cruel nature, so that we should not absorb these qualities into ourselves.
– Nachmanides (the Ramban)