The following is an extract from an interview with Shalom and Rachel. I have decided to focus on Rachel’s memories of her father, the late Rabbi Elbaz who served the community from 1956 to 1965 and who, by all accounts, was a wonderful man and Rabbi.
My father always believed that everything is for the best: gam zu le tova (and this is for the good). So when the President of the community in Sudan came to Egypt to find a Rabbi - they were 2 years without a Rabbi - my father was debating, to go or not to go? In Egypt he was a shochet and a chazan, he also spent two years with Rabbi Ovadia Yossef in Israel, and then he came to Egypt to serve on the Bet Din. He decided to take the job, he left in 1956 in the summer, just before the school year ended, and we stayed another extra month to finish school. After that the Suez Canal War started so we were very lucky we left Egypt before that, so you see – for the best.
My father was a very simple, very modern Rabbi. Very likable, always joking and everybody liked him a lot. The prayers were in the Egyptian style. The songs, the tunes, they were mostly after the Egyptian songs, sometimes they just pick the tune - like Farid el Atrash, I’m sure you know him - and they go with it. Everybody was very friendly, you know it was only five hundred people, one synagogue, you see them over and over again so I had friends already as soon as I walked in. My father also started a little choir at the weddings. He says 'Barouch…' and so on, and then everyone says 'Aaahhhhmmen!'. I was part of that choir, they put us up there in the women's section and I remember that in the weddings we were all singing along. I liked it a lot, this was all my teenage years! I came at eleven and I left at twenty, nine years we stayed. I used to go by bike to school and come home, it was fun. And we had the house with plumbing! My youth! I was happy there, it was fun!
They had a custom which was very cute. On Rosh HaShannah, right after the prayers allll of them came right from the synagogue to our house. It was kind of like, to pay respect to the Rabbi. They had a cold drink and then they left. That was every Rosh HaShannah. What else...? Oh Yom Kippur! That was - everybody was in the synagogue, and everybody who lived very far brought their mattresses and slept outside in the garden because that was the only day they didn’t drive, on Yom Kippur.
(Shalom: On Shabbat they drove and they opened their stores)
It was very miserable. It was very, very, hot, you know...throwing up and so on - it was hard. And Dr Bassyouni, he was the one that has to go round, from one to the other, looking at everybody.
(Shalom: He used to go around with a handkerchief and a cup of water, he dips the handkerchief in the water and he squeezes it on your face and then the water comes shlpshlpshlp, and then that's it – you broke your fast!!)
But he wasn't supposed to do that, it’s not right.
Shalom: But it was horrible! 105, 110 degrees…
And there is no air conditioning…
Shalom: …and so dry!
…there were only fans.
Shalom: Ah, it was horrible. At four o’clock they will bring you coca cola bottles with ice, and water bottles and you sit there. Looking at them. Waiting for six o’clock to come. It was a killer!
They are big meat eaters this community and because of the little refrigeration it was a problem. So my father was slaughtering big cows, meat was really cheaply available. He used to go and slaughter three nights a week, it was always at night in Khartoum. He would go at like one in the morning, because they can't refrigerate. So he slaughters, then there was the arab butcher they clean the meat and everything, they stamp it to signify it is kosher, and all the time he sits by them. Then in the morning the women know to send their servants very early to go and get the kosher meat and he is sitting there until all of it is sold, then he can go home. They salted it at home.
I remember every year we waited for the matzah from England. One year it didn’t come and Pesach was going to be the following week and they had no matzah and so on. My father wanted to know what’s happening, what is this? So he went to Port Sudan, and there was another Jew who lived in Sudan there, he worked in the port. Together they wanted to see what was going on - why was that shipment never delivered? So they go and they found out that the whole shipment was put aside and they wouldn’t deliver it because there was a big Magen David on each box of matzah. so they they left it on the side in the port undelivered. My father says,
'Is that the only problem? Ok!'
He and his friend - they tore all the Magen David’s off. It was printed on a plastic cover and they tore all the plastic covers, so that year they were brown boxes of matzah delivered!
(Shalom: another time I remember they painted over the Magen David black.)
I don’t know, but this one I remember they just tore the whole thing.
But they don't know at the port, for them they don't know exactly what it is and it is Jewish and Israel, they leave it. Like they decided that the Book of Exodus was banished. Nobody can bring it, we cannot read it. So somebody brought it in her suitcase and we passed it round the whole community to read it. They banned it, but they weren't strict. One time I went to - we had a guy who sold used books - I remember he was outside the cinema. I said to my mother,
'Before the movie starts let me go see what he has'
and all the ones of Leon Uris there. He didn’t even know what he was selling.
Around 1963 when there was instability of the government and so on, a lot of the community were leaving and they came to my father to ask for all kind of certificates - that they are Jewish, that they are married, single, divorced. I was typing away - I was his secretary! I typed them all at home and in fact one told me that that piece of paper helped her a lot for her wedding in Israel because she married a Cohen. I think it was hard for my father to leave. I think he liked it a lot. It was a nice job for him. In 1963 the Jewish community officially told him,
'Goodbye, we can't keep you, we don’t have money to pay you'
but he stayed a year and a half without pay, without a salary. In the end it was too much and we left in 1965, there was nobody left anymore and we had to go. It wasn’t a problem because we didn’t have anything, no store, the house was rented, so we could just go. There was nothing there anymore.