Tag Archives: Egyptian Jews

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 (as did last week’s Jew of the Week, Ivanka Trump). 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.

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)

Jew of the Week: Shula Cohen

Shula Cohen, "the Pearl"

Shula Cohen, “the Pearl”

Shulamit Cohen (b. 1917) was born in Argentina and raised in Jerusalem with her twelve brothers and sisters. Her father was from a wealthy Egyptian-Jewish merchant family, and her mother was the daughter of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem. In 1936, the family experienced severe financial strain, and Shulamit’s father arranged her to marry Joseph Kishak-Cohen, a wealthy businessman from Beirut. Shula moved to Lebanon, and had five kids by the time she was 24. One day in 1947, she overheard people discussing military activities against Israel. Shula recorded the information in a letter to the Haganah, which was fighting for a Jewish state in Israel, addressing it to her brother in Jerusalem. Five weeks later, an agent of the Haganah’s secret service contacted her. For the next 14 years, Shula worked as an Israeli spy in Lebanon. Her work consisted of two major goals. The first was to gather intelligence about Arab military activities, which she was able to do by getting herself into Lebanon’s high society, including the home of the prime minister, who considered her like one of his own daughters. The second was to help smuggle Jewish families fleeing persecution in the Arab world, particularly from Syria. Over the years, she helped countless families find safe passage to Israel. Shula communicated with the secret service using invisible ink, under the code name “Pearl”. She was first caught for smuggling in 1952. Pregnant at the time, Shula was taken to jail just three weeks after giving birth, and spent 36 days in confinement. She continued her clandestine activities for another 9 years before things got too dangerous and she moved to Rome for three months. Upon her return in 1961, she was immediately arrested for espionage. The trial went on for several months during which she was brutally tortured. She was initially sentenced to death by hanging, but the verdict was softened because she was a mother of seven. Her sentence was reduced to 20 years of hard labour. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel captured Lebanese citizens, and used them in a prisoner exchange for Shula and a captured Israeli pilot. Shula has lived in Israel ever since, and still volunteers at schools and IDF bases, despite her advanced age. Two of her sons have high-ranking roles in the Israeli government. A book about her story has been published, called Shula: Code Name The Pearl.

UPDATE: Sadly, Shula Cohen passed away in May of 2017.

Words of the Week

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.
– Winston Churchill