In response to an Egyptian court's silly decision to ban a festival held annually at the grave of the Moroccan rabbi Yaakov Abu Hatzira near Alexandria, I'd like to respond with a meaningful Jewish experience I had in Egypt long ago. During the summer of 2006, I lived in Cairo and studied Arabic at the American University of Cairo. Though conscious of being a Jew in Egypt, a country where people hold less than favorable views of my people, I wasn't alone. There were a handful of other Jewish students, including one deeply lonely religious girl named Lauren.
Jews praying at the grave of Rabbi Yaakov Abu Hatzira near Alexandria.
“I don’t normally tell people I’m religious while I’m here,” Lauren confided. “But just because I’m in Egypt doesn’t mean I have to stop being Jewish. It’s tough for me on Saturdays. I normally just sit in my room and eat cans of tuna fish.”
Her Saturdays in isolation sounded depressing, but Cairo offered no clear alternatives for Jews intent on practicing their faith. Less than sixty years before, Egypt had been a nation filled with synagogues, kosher butcher shops, and an active community nearly eighty thousand strong. Over the centuries, Jews from all over the world migrated to Egypt fleeing persecution and pursuing economic opportunity. Some traced their lineage in the country back more than two thousand years, to Ptolemaic times, while others were the descendants of Jews who escaped the Inquisition in Spain and pogroms in Eastern Europe. Regardless of their origins, many Jews rose to positions of prominence, serving as advisors to Egypt’s rulers and playing leading roles in commerce and trade.
The good fortunes of Egypt’s Jews reversed drastically in the aftermath of World War II. Militant nationalistic societies sprouted up that supported the cause and ideology of the defeated Axis powers and, in solidarity, launched violent attacks on Jewish targets. The founding of Israel in 1948 and Egypt’s repeated losses to her in war over the next two decades brought catastrophe on the Jewish community and led to the total destruction of Jewish life. The Egyptian government nationalized Jewish property and businesses, expelled tens of thousands of Jews after each Arab-Israeli war, and declared all remaining Jews enemies of the state. Many of the Jews who stayed in Egypt with the hope that the situation would improve were incarcerated by the authorities and tortured until they agreed to sign away their property and leave the country. By the end of the 1960s, the forced exodus of Egyptian Jewry left only a few hundred Jews remaining and one semi-functional synagogue standing in Cairo.
“It’s called the Sha’ar HaShamayim Synagogue,” Sarah, a Jewish student from Ohio State with curly brown hair whispered to me. She pulled me aside one afternoon at the end of June in the dormitory common area and looked around carefully to make sure no one overheard her. She always lowered her voice when she wanted to talk about something Jewish in public. “It’s downtown in the Ismailia neighborhood on 17 Adly Street. We’ll have to take a taxi to get there. Do you want to go this Friday night?”
“Definitely,” I said. “But do you know anything else about the synagogue?”
“Well I know that Sha’ar HaShamayim means Gate of Heaven in Hebrew! The synagogue is over one hundred years old and it’s still standing.”
“Is it definitely safe to go?”
“I think so. But, if it’s not, then I’m glad I’m bringing you along, Mikey! You can protect us from all the bad guys that don’t like Jews!”
“Great,” I said sarcastically. “I think I’ll try to dig up some more info about this place just so I know how many bad guys I’ll have to fight off at once.”
Strangely, my efforts to gather useful intelligence on our Shabbat destination only led to dead end upon dead end. I scoured the Internet in search of contacts from the Egyptian Jewish community with no luck. I did find the name of one woman who claimed to serve as the community head, but I couldn’t retrieve an email address or a telephone number. When I called the American embassy for help, the friendly female voice on the receiving end urged me to ask elsewhere.
“You should try calling the Israeli embassy,” she suggested. “I bet they could help.”
But when I phoned the Israeli embassy, help was refused, even after I tried speaking in Hebrew.
“Do not speak Hebrew on the phone ever in Egypt,” the stern male representative ordered in thick Israeli-accented English. “I cannot give you any information about a synagogue or the Jewish community over the phone. You must come to the embassy sometime in the morning.”
“But I can’t,” I said. “I have class every day in the morning.”
“Then I am sorry. I cannot help you.”
“All I want is some information about the Sha’ar HaShamayim Synagogue.”
“And we will give you information after we meet you in person to verify who you are. I do not know who you are over the phone. This is an issue of security. Shabbat Shalom.”
That Friday evening, long before sunset, Sarah and I, and Arlana, also a brown-haired Jewish girl from Ohio State hopped into a taxi in Zamalek armed only with our American passports and the synagogue’s address. Since we wanted to act cautiously and avoid telling anyone that we were on our way to scope out a synagogue, I told the taxi driver to take us to Adly Street without specifying a street number.
“Adly Street is very long,” the driver said in Arabic. “What number is it? Where do you want to go?”
“Just take us to Adly and we’ll let you know,” I promised.
We asked to be dropped off a few blocks away from the synagogue’s exact location. That way we thought we’d be able to casually stroll past the building and see if Friday night services were drawing any negative attention from angry Egyptian bystanders.
As soon as the engraved Star of David above the synagogue’s entrance came into view, we saw a scene that made us fear for the worst and hope for the best. Guarding the synagogue on all sides were dozens of alert Egyptian police officers in black uniforms carrying semi-automatic weapons and wearing bullet-proof body armor. They stood behind large metal barricades and constantly barked orders at Egyptian passersby to move back.
“Maybe something special is going on tonight,” Arlana said. “Maybe a lot of people are coming to services and that’s why they have so much security.”
“Let’s hope it’s that and not because something bad happened,” I said.
The three of us smiled nervously as we crossed the street. We offered our passports to the serious-looking mustached police officer who blocked the steps leading to the synagogue entrance.
“Good evening, officer,” I greeted in Arabic. “Is everything okay here tonight?”
The officer’s frown disappeared instantly and he let loose a wide smile. Without saying a word, he grabbed my passport from my hand and glanced through the pages. Each time he found traces of an Egyptian visa stamp he stuck his thumb up and said “Egypt good!” in English. After returning my passport to me, he looked around at us and continued smiling, like he didn’t have a clue why we were there, but was happy for the company nonetheless.
“We can enter?” I asked. “We have come for prayer. You know, to pray like in a mosque?”
“Ah, this is not a mosque!” he belted out in Arabic.
“We know it’s not a mosque,” Sarah chimed in. “We want to pray here,” she emphasized, pointing her finger at the sidewalk.
The officer raised one eyebrow and glared at us with a look of bewilderment. He glanced at the ground and frowned, not appearing to understand why anyone would choose to pray in such an uncomfortable spot. Rapidly losing my patience with the conversation, I decided to try to state our intentions more creatively by emulating the flamboyant act of praying. I imagined all the movies scenes of Native American rain dances and, for about ten seconds, I ran in place, raised my arms towards the sky, shook my hands and head, and sang gibberish with a steady rhythm.
“Ah, you want to pray in there!” the officer finally affirmed. “There is no praying in this building today.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“No one is here.
“Well, is there a problem here? Did something bad happen?”
“So if there are no prayers and there is no problem, then why are all the police officers here?”
“We are always here. We always guard this building. It is our duty.”
“Will there be prayers here tomorrow?”
“Maybe. Come back at nine in the morning. I will be here.”
True to his word, when Sarah, Arlana, and I returned to the synagogue less than thirteen hours later, we found the exact same police officer standing in front of the entrance.
“Why are you still here?” I asked in disbelief. “Did you go home and come back?”
“No, no. I work nineteen hours straight,” he testified. “In a few hours, khalas (finished)!”
“I am happy that you will be finished. Today we may enter the building?”
“Yes, follow me.”
As soon as we started to climb up the concrete steps behind him, the front door was pushed wide open by an energetic elderly woman wearing a green night gown and a blue rag over her hair. She enthusiastically introduced herself as Esther and physically grabbed each of us, pulling us one at a time inside the synagogue before slamming the door shut. She then rushed us through the dark foyer and into the empty dome-covered sanctuary before stopping abruptly and standing quietly for a full thirty seconds. During the silence, Sarah, Arlana, and I gazed at the hundreds of vacant pews and the golden Stars of David painted on the light blue walls. Esther, however, stared straight at the three of us with soft, disbelieving eyes as if she was witnessing a scene from a bygone era.
“You are really Jews?” she asked in Arabic. We nodded our heads in affirmation. “I am also a Jew. I come here every Shabbat to open the synagogue for Jewish people. Every Shabbat!”
“That’s very nice,” Arlana said. “Will there be a service today?”
Esther chuckled after hearing the question and shook her head from side to side.
“There are no Jews. So there can be no prayer. A few times a year a rabbi from France comes. But when he does not come, then nothing happens here.”
“Do you have a family here with you in Cairo?” I asked solemnly.
Esther shook her head once more.
“There were never enough Jewish men to find someone,” she said gloomily. “All the men left for Israel or Europe. So I was here all alone without a husband or children.”
“Well, if everyone else left, what made you stay?” I asked, trying to do so gently.
“Egypt is my home!” Esther insisted. “What would I have done in a different place? If I had left, who would have taken care of the synagogue? I had to stay! I had to stay!”
Myself (third from left) and the other shul walk-ins.
Her years of loneliness had obviously taken their toll and her desperate justification of her life decisions made us all uncomfortable. After the conversation lapsed for a few moments, Esther insisted on giving us a tour of the rest of the building. But just as we stepped out of the sanctuary, her pet cat grabbed her attention and she left us to chase after it playfully.
Over the next half hour, three other young North American Jews trickled in, two boys from Canada who were traveling around with backpacks and an American woman living in Cairo, conducting research for her doctorate. We all snatched prayer books, stood in the center of the sanctuary, and performed a forty-five minute highly abridged, very non-traditional version of the Shabbat morning service. Although we were only six people in a space built for hundreds of worshippers, we sang the prayers passionately and the echo of our voices filled the room.
Sometime in the middle of our service, Esther returned to the sanctuary and took a seat near the entrance. Arlana immediately walked over to where she sat and warmly invited her to sit closer to us. But Esther declined, preferring to watch us pray from a distance. Perhaps she didn’t think she knew the prayers well enough to participate or didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of men and women worshipping together. Or, maybe the scene evoked memories of something familiar that she’d lost long ago that brought her pain to think about. Whatever the reason was, Esther gazed at us intently until the conclusion of the service. She looked away only momentarily to hiss at her cat, who scurried around the hardwood floor chasing a toy mouse.
After the service, Sarah, Arlana, and I hastily made plans with the other foreigners to enjoy a communal Shabbat lunch together at a nearby fast food restaurant. While I waited for people to use the restroom and grab their bags, the synagogue’s non-Jewish maintenance man pulled me aside after he finished chatting with Esther.
“You people are good Jews,” he said to me slowly in Arabic. “Because of you, Esther is very happy. I am a Muslim, but I believe that your prayers brought Allah joy.”
“Thank you,” I replied graciously.
“Many people in Egypt do not like Jews. This is why the police officers stand outside. If they stop standing there, let’s just say I will have a lot to clean up afterwards.”
“That would be very bad.”
“But one day, inshallah (God willing), Egypt will be a good place for Jews again and many Jews will come here. Be happy in Egypt!”
It's sad to note that eight and a half years later, God still hasn't willed it.