At sundown tonight, I walked down the five flights of my hotel and into the streets of central Cairo. The muezzin was calling people to prayer, and I was going to pray– walking the one block from my hotel to the Adly street synagogue, the large gray art-deco building that is at all times barricaded and protected by soldiers, protecting a Jewish structure. I was going to observe Kol Nidre, the evening service of Yom Kippur, in Cairo.
The last time I was in Cairo I visited the Adly synagogue and met three Jews there. A caretaker sold me a book about Jewish life in Cairo, and a brass bookmark. And this trip I planned so that I could have Yom Kippur in Cairo. I brought a suit and a yarmulke I’d gotten in the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. Today a Cairo friend said that I would see Carmen Weinstein in shul. Her family still owns a printing business in town. You can see their name carved into a facade of a store near here. Weinstein.
But when I got to the synagogue tonight, the soldiers waved me away. The lamps were on outside the synagogue but the soldiers said it was empty, locked. An officer in white uniform was eating his dinner on a table on the sidewalk. Bukra, he kept saying. Tomorrow. I tried to explain to him that right now is the solemnest hour of the Jewish year– when we renounce all vows. Men in dark khaki with rifles stood by watching.
A man who speaks English came up with his prayer mat folded at his side. He said the synagogue will be open tomorrow, 9-3. So I will try again.
Still it is painful to reflect on the end of Mizrahi Jewish existence. In Palestine and Jordan and Egypt, Muslims always say to me, We lived for a thousand years with the Jews without any problem, until Zionism. I guess they are right, but those chapters of coexistence are now over–for whatever reason.
Yesterday the Egyptians celebrated their October 6 victory over Israel in the Yom Kippur war. You saw children with their faces painted white, black and red. And in Tahrir Square today, I heard Israel condemned over and over in speeches. People carried posters with the Jewish star on them, a symbol of Israel, sometimes with a red circle around it and a line crossing through it. And a man carried a sign covered in Arabic but with a few English words. “I hate Israel, Israel is behind it,” it said.
At one of the grandstands around Tahrir that the various movements use to rally their bases, they had a huge weatherproof sign with a photograph of a boy killed in Gaza during Cast Lead, two years before. I know; these people have their reasons to be angry at Jews.
But I’m not talking about politics. We’re cousins, Muslims like to say to Jews, and Jews like to say back. We’re both sons of Abraham. And now we’re not. There’s utter separation, and mistrust. It’s a great cultural breach. It feels like it will be longlasting. Yes, Jews have returned to Berlin, but how long before the Arab Jews come back to Cairo?
Hope springs eternal; this is the season of revolution, after all. I’ll try the Adly synagogue tomorrow. I’d really like to meet Carmen Weinstein.