I don't think I have ever had such a meaningful Yom Kippur as yesterday in Cairo.
It began as a journalistic stunt story. I used to do these stories all the time for mainstream media in my adventurous 30s. Can you do X? (get into X club, ask celebrity X an unseemly question) Well, I was determined to find a congregation on Yom Kippur—for the sake of the finding it. But the Adly street synagogue downtown did not open till 10, the Egyptian guards said; and they sent me on to the Ben Ezra synagogue in Coptic Cairo. I took the Metro to Christian Cairo and walked all around the St George’s monastery till I found the little synagogue in a low alley. It was open, as a tourist attraction. The lady at the desk said I should go to Maadi, the southern suburb where many Jews once lived.
I spent another hour wandering around, and then a cab delivered me to a low domed building in a sprawling residential neighborhood notable for police barricades here and there in the dusty streets. Some were for ambassadorial residences. But at least a dozen cops were posted outside the walls of the tiny Biton synagogue, built in 1934. An iron gate was cracked open. I put on my yarmulke and crept in over recently laid sod and heard the murmuring of prayers.
Inside the synagogue a dozen people, exactly a dozen, sat in a small half circle before the altar. I took a chair in the semicircle, and one of them got up to greet me, a burly bearded guy from the American embassy. How much Hebrew do you know? Not much, I said. Well you will be called on, he said.
The service was led by a doctor at the embassy in what I can only call a downhome manner. The two or three serviceable prayer books were passed along the line so that the rest of us could read aloud. The ark was never opened, I think in an acknowledgement that we did not have a true minyan. One or us was a fidgety 8-year-old boy in glasses, playing with an oversized deck of game cards. Another two or three were not Jewish.
At the break I learned that the service is ordinarily much fuller and more serious; the Israeli embassy staff flies in a rabbi for a couple of weeks. But the Israeli embassy staff fled last month. So everyone in our little group was American. There are a handful of Egyptian Jews in Cairo, but I was told they live downtown, and they are all getting old. There was a thought to bus them to the temple, but it didn’t happen.
For the afternoon service, I brought my wife back, and it was even better. I’m not Jewish, she announced to the leader of the service, who this time was a grad student at the American University of Cairo. That’s fine, he said-- neither was the embassy official’s wife. We made up for the lack of prayerbooks with little fawn-colored chapbooks we found in the lobby. They were printed for His Majesty’s troops, with all the Jewish services in about 100 pages. "God Save the King" was right after the Adon Alom.
At dusk an Egyptian Jew came in on crutches, dignifed and severe in an aubergine crepe blouse, and the 8-year-old boy blew the shofar. I felt tears in my eyes as we sang the Avinu Malcheinu. The melody had never been so haunting.
As the sun set, we had a kind of divine intervention. There was a cry from the courtyard. Out the open door, I saw a sharp blaze rising from the foliage and thought, gasoline. The Egyptian minder of the synagogue was running to and fro, and some congregants scuttled out of the synagogue as if we were under attack. “The burning bush,” said the embassy man’s wife. I tried to walk calmly out to the fire. Later we were told that bad wiring in the Sukkot booth in the yard had ignited the vines. The man from the embassy grabbed a fire extinguisher, but it pissed weakly at the fire. Then the Egyptian minder came round the corner with a hose and trained that on the roof of the booth, now fully consumed.
Of course, when it was well and truly out, a dozen policemen came pouring into the yard dragging a fire hose. And in true comic manner the thing was drenched again and again.
We passed around a mug of wine to break the fast, and Egyptian staff brought in trays of sweets. The old Cairene Jew had seen to that--bananas and ice cream and raw red dates, served by Egyptians.
I sat beside her in a pew and told her how hard it had been to find the service. She explained that they had not advertised it on their website, fearing it might provoke a demonstration. Do you have children? I asked. No. Eight dogs. Do your friends in America tell you to come there? Why should I go there? she responded. A relative in Europe presses her to move there. She's not interested.
I reminded myself that just an hour before I had beaten my breast for being provocative so many times in the year past, then tilted toward her and said, I want to tell you, I am not a Zionist.
That’s good, she said, no intellectual should be an ist.
And what do you think of the revolution? I asked. It is very good, she said. Though we worry about the Muslim brotherhood. So: she is like an American Jew, fighting for liberalism in her land.
It was the most meaningful Yom Kippur of my life because we were affirming the freedom to worship—we were the only congregation for a thousand miles in northeast Africa-- and because the service was so non-Zionist at its heart. Zionism insists that Jews are unsafe as a minority in other lands, they must return to their alleged homeland, and this insistence had created a giant wound across the Arab world, where so many Jews had lived safely—75,000 once in Egypt. Now there are just a handful, and the ethnic cleansing, or self-cleansing, that took place here is held up as an affirmation of Zionism, which is invested in the idea of intolerance, because intolerance rationalizes its creed. And so many Jews in Israel hate the Arab spring, and would like to see the dictatorships last forever.
Yesterday we helped the Jews here to hold their place. We insisted that Jews can be anywhere and safe and following our ancient rituals, with an Egyptian firehose.