Karaite Jews in Egypt, Israel, and the San Francisco Bay Area

Karaism is a variant of post-biblical Judaism that follows a literal application of principles laid down in the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament. The term “Karaite,” deriving from the Hebrew root kr’ (to read), has been translated as “scripturalist.” It reflects both etymology and theology, since the Hebrew word for scriptures”—mikra—derives from that root. Indeed, Karaites refer to themselves as Bene Mikra (Children of the Scriptures, in Hebrew). They accept the Written Law of the Torah but reject rabbinic teachings—the Oral Law—including the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Consequently, orthodox followers of rabbinic Judaism regard them as a breakaway sect, even as they respect and study the outstanding achievements of Karaites in the realm of biblical scholarship and Hebrew grammar. Karaites, for their part, consider themselves to be followers of Judaism in its truest manifestation. 

Historians trace the origins of the small Karaite sect to eighth- and ninth-century Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Karaism, which accepts the supremacy of the Hebrew Bible over post-biblical interpretations, attracted supporters in the realm of medieval Islam, including Damascus, Jerusalem, and Cairo—where they have been a continuous presence since at least the eleventh century. Later, Karaites established communities in the Byzantine Empire, in and around Constantinople, on the Crimean Peninsula, and in the Tsarist Russian Empire.
Karaites once occupied their own separate quarter in Cairo—adjacent to the rabbinic Jewish quarter—with its population estimated at 5,000 as of 1948. Ira Nowinski traveled to Egypt and Israel in 1985, where he photographed Karaites and sites of Karaite religious and historical significance. While in Cairo he also photographed the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue, in that city’s rabbinic Jewish quarter. He undertook this expedition at the initiative of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, which has long maintained a strong interest in collecting and exhibiting materials relating to “exotic” Jewish communities. Many of his Karaite photos were included in the Magnes Museum’s 1988 exhibition The Karaites: People of the Scriptures.

By the time of Nowinski’s visit, the ranks of Egyptian Karaites had dwindled and their synagogue and cemetery were showing signs of serious neglect. The Israeli communities that he photographed, by contrast, seemed to be thriving and their members had become—outwardly, at least—well integrated into Israeli society. Today, the total number of Karaites is quite small, with estimates ranging up to 35,000 worldwide. The largest concentration is in Israel; most of them are either immigrants who left Egypt starting in the sixties, a small but cohesive community of several hundred Egyptian Karaites settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco assisted some of them in their resettlement.

In what sense are today’s Karaites considered to be Jews? The Israeli government, for its part, has taken a pragmatic approach to this question. Thus, under Israel’s Law of Return, Karaites are permitted to immigrate freely and become citizens—and indeed, thousands of them have done so. In addition, like most other Israeli Jews, Karaites are required to serve in the military.
Meanwhile, that country’s religious establishment—Sephardic and Ashkenazic—has adopted the classic orthodox stance: Since Karaites do not accept the strictures of rabbinic law (halakhah), Israel’s Chief Rabbis do not recognize them as part of the Jewish community. This position has serious ramifications in view of the binding authority that the Israeli rabbinate exercises in the realm of religious laws (especially family law) that apply to that country’s Jews. The result is that Karaites possess a bifurcated legal status in Israel—they are Jews in the eyes of the state, and sectarians in the eyes of the rabbinate.

As in Israel, members of the tiny Karaite community in America have adapted well to their new surroundings. Nowinski’s Karaite photos provide fascinating evidence of the processes through which members of a small and relatively obscure subculture, the Egyptian Karaites, become Israelis and Americans.

Israel in the 1980s
Ira Nowinski’s visits to Israel provided him with opportunities to photograph the diverse faces and scenes that he encountered there. Appreciating the diversity of Jewish society in Israel, he photographed individuals and families hailing from many segments of Israeli society—urban and rural, European and Middle Eastern, Jewish and Arab.

Nowinski visited Israel in the second half of the 1980s, a period of accelerating friction between Jews and Palestinians. In 1987 these tensions erupted into demonstrations and violent unrest in what is now known as the First Intifada, or uprising. That Intifada lasted into the early 1990s; the Second Intifada broke out in the autumn of 2000 and continues to this day. The photographs that Nowinski took in Jerusalem’s Old City serve as an indirect reminder of the conflict between two peoples over the homeland that one of them calls Yisra’el and the other, Filastin.

The back gate of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fostat, Cairo, 1985. The gate’s design integrates the symbols of Judaism and Islam, the Star of David and the crescent. This synagogue served followers of rabbinical Judaism. (The rabbinical and Karaite Jewish districts of Cairo were adjacent to each other.) The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides worshipped there, and it also housed the Cairo genizah, a storehouse containing more than 220,000 Hebrew manuscript fragments dating from the Middle Ages. The Ben Ezra Synagogue was carefully restored in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Youssef El-Kodsi, inside the Moussa al-Dar‘i (Karaite) synagogue in al-‘Abbasiyah, Cairo, 1985. In 1948 there were approximately 5,000 Karaites in Cairo; by 1970 their ranks had dwindled to about 200.

Elie Massuda, a member of the Egyptian Karaite community, holds an empty wooden Torah case at the Moussa al-Dar'i (Karaite) synagogue in al-'Abbasiyah, Cairo, 1985. Massuda, a lawyer, later emigrated to Israel.

Nelly El-Kodsi, in the office of the Moussa al-Dar‘i (Karaite) synagogue in al-‘Abbasiyah, Cairo, 1985. The large plaque on the wall behind the desk represents the Ten Commandments.

Rollers that are used to knead matzo dough, outside the Moussa al-Dar‘i (Karaite) synagogue in al-‘Abbasiyah, Cairo, 1985. Matzo is the flat, crispy, unleavened bread that Jews eat during Passover, the holiday that commemorates the Biblical Exodus from Egypt.

Boys and men at prayer in a Karaite synagogue in Ashdod, Israel, 1985. The service is being led by Hakham Hayim Levi (at the left, wearing a hat). Worshippers remove their shoes and either stand or kneel during prayer.

Three youngsters relax during the annual outing of the Israeli Karaite community, Jerusalem, 1985.

David Pessah, the son of Remy and Joseph Pessah (one of the leaders of the Bay Area Karaites), mid-1980s. He is holding a case housing a miniature Torah scroll, which contains the text of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

A Hasidic Jew walks down a Jerusalem alley, mid-1980s. The scene is intentionally evocative of photographs taken by Roman Vishniac in Poland and Czechoslovakia shortly before World War II.

Two Palestinian children climb a stairway leading to the Dome of the Rock, mid-1980s. This mosque, which is one of Islam's oldest and most revered shrines (constructed between 685 and 691 CE), sits atop the plateau where the ancient Jewish Temple stood until the Romans destroyed it during the Jewish revolt of 67 to 70 CE. All that remains of the Temple is the wall that abuts the western edge of the plateau. Known as the Western (or “Wailing”) Wall, it is Judaism’s holiest site.