Sunday, September 12, 2010

The only practising Jews in Egypt

Visiting the Maadi synagogue, one of the only two functioning synagogues in Cairo, Jennifer Conlin describes in the New York Times what it was like to be the only practising Jewish family in Egypt over the New Year holiday:

I looked around at the police guards, none of whom were smiling back at us, but decided that it was not their job. They were here to protect us, not greet us.

A strict line of questioning ensued, the young officer flipping through the pages of our passports, looking deep into my husband’s eyes each time he responded.

“Who told you to come here?” “Why are you in Egypt?” “Where are you from in America?” he fired off in quick succession, affecting a more personal demeanor as he noted our recent entry visas, “So your family just moved here?” I thought I saw him give the children a brief look of sympathy before clearing the way for us to enter the closed-off street.

To our left was an iron gate, behind it a building surrounded by overgrown trees and bushes. Soon, another Israeli embassy official approached us, a tall man in his 30s, dressed like Daniel in business attire.

As Daniel spoke with him, introducing our family and the circumstances that had brought us to Cairo (our work here as journalists), the children and I pushed open the gate, eager to explore the grounds surrounding the small synagogue and meet the other members.

Instead, we found only more security guards. They were circling the small jewel box of a building with German shepherds, the guard’s eyes darting upward to inspect the windows and roofs of every bordering apartment complex, the dogs inhaling every scent on the ground.

As Daniel engaged in a deep conversation with the Israeli official, I ushered the children into the side garden and began to tell them the building’s history: It was built in 1934 by a famous area landscaper, Meyr Yehuda Biton, a prominent member of the then-thriving Jewish community in Egypt. Inhaling the scent of bougainvillea, I told them that this synagogue was once the scene of countless weddings, bar mitzvahs and Hanukkah, Purim, Yom Kippur, Passover and Rosh Hashana observations until, of course, the Suez crisis in the late 1950s, when the majority of Jews were forced to leave.

Just then, Daniel joined us, his stern expression portending bad news. The previous night’s Rosh Hashana service at the only other functioning synagogue in Cairo, Shaar Hashamayim, in the city’s downtown, had nearly been canceled because they lacked a minyan — the 10 Jewish men needed for a service. Had it not been for the last-minute arrival of some students from the United States and some Jewish tourists, the service would not have taken place. The community, Daniel was told, is now just a handful of elderly women, the only Egyptian Jews left in the country.

“How many exactly?” I asked. Though we were never so ignorant as to think we would find a huge Jewish community in an Islamic republic (we knew the number of Egyptian Jews had dwindled to fewer than 100 in the entire country), we presumed the remaining population would be quite active and would, of course, be joined by an enthusiastic, though perhaps small, expatriate community.

“Not many,” Daniel said, evasively. “The Israeli officer said they almost didn’t open this synagogue today,” he added, running his fingers through his head of tight, dark curls. “He’s not sure we will have enough people for this service, either.”

Daniel pulled two skullcaps from his trouser pocket, placing one on Charles’s head before slipping the other on his own. “Let’s go inside,” he said, trying to sound upbeat. “I’m sure some other people will arrive soon.” But I was not at all sure now. I had not seen one other unofficial person enter the synagogue or the grounds while we were there.

Upon entering the sanctuary, we looked around in awe, our eyes chronicling the empty room and gallery above us. Carved marble steps led to a domed annex where the ark was located, the ornamental case that holds the Torah scrolls. A knee-high iron railing weaved around the bottom step like a ribbon, the metalwork containing more Stars of David. We marveled at the elaborate bimah, the raised platform from which the Torah and haftara are read.

It was breathtaking, unlike any synagogue we had visited. But until the Israeli official decided to summon some of his male colleagues from the nearby embassy to make a minyan, we were the only ones there to enjoy it.

Then the rabbi entered — a man in a long white Egyptian robe, with thinning white hair visible under a golden skullcap, his tanned, wrinkled face warm and kind as he nodded at our seated family. Daniel then told us the other sobering fact he had learned outside. The rabbi was French and had been flown in from Paris for the Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana services. There was no longer a rabbi living in Egypt.

The children’s faces seemed to grow pale despite months of brilliant summer sun dotting their faces with freckles. This was a day we had all looked forward to since arriving here three weeks earlier. We had hoped to be welcomed in the same way we were in our liberal synagogue a decade before when we moved to London. Not only did Westminster Synagogue embrace the children lovingly — steering them through their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies and hiring Harriet to teach Hebrew — they opened their doors to me.

You see, I am not Jewish. I have never converted. Being raised in a large Irish Catholic family I have always felt conflicted about casting off my roots and my own religious upbringing for my husband’s. Yet I truly feel a part of the Jewish community, having actively contributed to my children’s Jewish upbringing.

When we moved to Cairo we wholly anticipated we would experience Arab prejudices and hostilities concerning Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories (despite a 30-year treaty, a very cold peace exists between Egypt and Israel). But what simply never occurred to Daniel and me — what never ever crossed our minds — was that in this city of 20 million people, we would be the only practising Jewish family. On this Rosh Hashana we learned we were.

Read article in full


shaul@israel said...

i am really amazed with this story and even more with sinagogues in egypt. impressive!

Heather said...

But what simply never occurred to Daniel and me — what never ever crossed our minds — was that in this city of 20 million people, we would be the only practising Jewish family.

Again, it never does. But I repeat myself.

And perhaps one gets tired of worshiping in buildings that have to be protected by armed guards; not much different from a prison really. Even in the US.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to be a pain or anything, but... they should know that they are not "the only practising Jewish family" there, because they are not a Jewish family. It's a Jewish man and his non-Jewish wife and kids.

bataween said...

Let's not be too churlish, at least the wife is openly identifying with her husband's Judaism. She could have stayed back at the hotel and let him go to synagogue on his own!

Jake said...

"at least the wife is openly identifying with her husband's Judaism"

Makes no difference. My Evangelical neighbour feels the same about my Judaism. He's still not Jewish.
How do some Rabbis call this? Oh yeah, the 'silent Holocaust'.

1 Jew and 3 people "identifying" with his Judaism... Well that's better than waht we have in the US, where most of the non-Jewish Jews (or Reform/Progressive) are self-hating "Jews".

Heather said...

It's a bit much to take Mom's "issues" out on the children though.

If the kids are treated with contempt over a decision they have no control over, there's little likelihood that they'll remain in the community, when faced with the choice.

For what it's worth (yes, anecdote is not data), my aunt and uncle are atheist Internationales, but their three kids are probably the most religious of us all, to their everlasting embarrassment.