Sunday, March 14, 2010
The Rambam Synagogue: the ultimate miracle?
Video courtesy of Yves Fedida of the Nebi Daniel Association
The inauguration of the restored Maimonides Synagogue and Yeshiva in Cairo on 7 March was a poignant moment for the Nebi Daniel Association, which had worked long and hard to persuade Egypt that its Jewish heritage was worthy of preservation. Here's an extract from Yves Fedida's moving account:
Only yesterday the narrow alleyways were dirty and full of potholes, but as we wound our way today they were paved and asphalted and I could see the minaret of the Rahim mosque overlooking the modest Rab Moshe synagogue next door. Truly symbolic of the tolerance of old, the different ahl el kittab congregational buildings were distant by but a few meters, in this old Mouski district dating back to the founding of old Cairo. It was Sunday 7 March 2010 and I was anxiously on my way to the dedication ceremony of the reconstruction of the Rambam’s Synagogue and the 12th century Yeshiva. Neither the urban surroundings nor the dense security guards were the cause of my anxiety.
As this great day was drawing near, the question recurred: what’s all this about? What purpose would such restoration and celebration serve other than fodder for tourists? I had read a poem by Emma Lazarus and the following two stanzas had hit a chord:
The weary ones, the sad, the suffering
All found their comfort in the holy place,
And children's gladness and men's gratitude
'Took voice and mingled in the chant of praise.
The funeral and the marriage, now, alas!
We know not which is sadder to recall;
For youth and happiness have followed age,
And green grass lieth gently over all
El lé fat, mat*. Early in 2006, a promise had been made by the Minister of Culture and confirmed by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in front of Rabbi Baker, representing the A.J.C, Mrs Carmen Weinstein, President of the Cairo Jewish Community, together with Roger Bilboul, Alec Nacamuli and myself all of the International Nebi Daniel Association. This concerned the restoration of ten synagogues under their Trust. Mrs Weinstein had struggled to achieve this for the previous ten years. Rab Moshe was her top priority. It was after all the most symbolic of places for all Jews from Egypt and a bridge between the antique community and the contemporary one.
Following the expulsion or forced exile of Jews from Egypt, the place had fallen into disrepair despite M. Vatouri’s valiant and generous efforts to restore. The rise in the Nile water table and the 1992 earthquake were the last straw that turned it to the open-air ruin I first discovered in 2006.
Would the SCA achieve complete drainage and waterproof the plot? Could they fully reconstruct and solidify the structure? Ensure financing of the whole $2 million cost? The work had started in 2008 and by August 2009 we felt elated; but would Mrs Weinstein have the strength to steer the project to its expected end? Political difficulties in the region certainly would not be of great help. The facelift celebration of 2007 had already been moving. The absence of any specifically Jewish ritual or prayer apart from blowing the shofar had left a nostalgic void.
How would the Rab Moshe celebration pan out? The place had after all been laden with fervour, innumerable intimate and pressing prayers and was a source of hope and healing for many Jews across the whole of Egypt. An unending chain of numerous individual family events linked this abandoned Yeshiva back to the Jews of our ancient community. My beloved Nona had begged for healing of her mysterious illness by sleeping there one night, praying that in a time-warp Maimonides, the great doctor, would somehow operate a miracle. Since the 13th century countless Jews had gone through the same process. Every Jew from Egypt knows someone who called upon Rab Moshe’s virtual remedies. Even the late King Fouad is supposed to have shed his coat there to absorb the medicine of the Wise man of Fustat and then be healed by donning it again. Was it not purported that he had already tended Saladin’s family and Richard the Lionheart? Tikun Olam.
When you consider Maimonides searched for logic in miracles and disapproved of calling on saints or spirits, he must have turned in his grave to look the other way!
Two Moses drank water from the Nile in the land of Egypt and enlightened the world through their teaching. Biblical Moses reached out to Moses Maimonides who sought to reconcile faith and reason while standing afar from all extremes. On his tomb in Tiberias one can read an extraordinary epitaph «Mi Moshe ad Moshe, lo kam ke Moshe».
However, if Moses the Rambam is at the centre of Jewish thinking, his temporary bare resting-place has remained in the heart of Jews from Egypt, because of their personal family experiences and their imagination. « Rien… ne peut faire oublier l’éclat et le mystère de l’académie souterraine de Maimonide » wrote the late Jacques Hassoun.
When it comes to synagogues in the area, various images spring to mind especially those ransacked, pillaged, sold or squatted, a reflection on human stupidity. Here though, after years of ignoring the history of our community, it was Egypt itself, who through the determination of the Minister of Culture, M. Farouk Hosny and the Secretary General of the SCA, agreed to completely restore, this and other synagogues, far from all extremes.
A miracle? No, time-honoured wisdom of my native country.
*What is past is dead
Egyptian officials stay away from Rambam opening